The core of any successful baseball team is homegrown talent, players drafted and developed by the franchise who perform at their athletic peaks at little cost. But no team, especially post-Reserve Clause, has shown the ability to develop an entire World Series-winning roster on its own. This is where free agency comes into play.
Free agency is where Major League Baseball front offices make their most high-profile mistakes. Large sums of money are being given out to players who may have already played their best baseball. But baseball teams inevitably have holes, and they cannot ignore those holes for the sake of their own vanity. Free agency is not where good teams build their core, but it is where good teams round off the edges in their construction.
John Mozeliak became the general manager of the St. Louis Cardinals following the 2007 season, and while Michael Girsch now holds this title, the front office remains very much an extension of the Mozeliak vision, as the former GM is now President of Baseball Operations. And while the overhaul of the team’s farm system, which was among baseball’s worst a decade ago, is the hallmark of what Mozeliak and company have done, the 2011-2015 Cardinals would not have made the postseason for five consecutive seasons without dabbling in free agency.
Below is a list of the ten greatest free agent signings of the John Mozeliak era. To be clear: this does not include extensions which bought out arbitration years, such as the one Kolten Wong signed before the 2016 season, as these contracts do not reflect fair market value for the players, while free agent contracts theoretically do. Also, the list does not include inherited contracts, such as John Lackey’s, which included an option for 2015 to pitch for the league minimum. However, extensions signed before a player reaches free agency, such as the one signed by Adam Wainwright before the 2013 season, are eligible.
Note: This is going to be one of those baseball posts that constantly commodifies baseball players, refers to them as “assets”, etc. All of these references should be taken in the context of the silly fan game of treating baseball players as what their statistics say they are rather than as people. I know these are people. I know they have personalities and families and friends. If any player referenced in this post ever reads it, they probably think I am an annoying nerd, and they are correct.
These contract values are measured by FanGraphs, who uses its Wins Above Replacement measurement to estimate a player’s worth on the open market. It may not be a nuanced approach but it is fairly applied among all players. Contract totals were found mostly from FanGraphs, with some from Baseball Reference, and in all cases, what is measured is the amount actually earned by the player—unexercised team options, for instance, do not count towards the player’s cost (aside from buyout amounts). The rankings are not subjective and are a ranking of surplus value as measured by somebody other than me so please do not yell at me. Unless I forgot a player whose surplus value actually does warrant him being on here. Then you can yell at me.
And in case you were wondering about the worst free agent contracts: four of them were re-signing current Cardinals, three of whom provided surplus value on their previous contracts. That list, from one to five, is 2011 Chris Carpenter, post-2011 Rafael Furcal, 2011 Lance Berkman (look, they avoided signing Albert Pujols, it could’ve been worse), post-2012 Ty Wigginton, and post-2015 Jonathan Broxton. But it’s my post and I didn’t want to spend more than a fleeting moment speaking critically of Saint Christopher John Carpenter.
10. Kyle Lohse, during 2008
Following an impressive stint with the Cardinals in 2008, the team signed starting pitcher Kyle Lohse to a four-year, $41 million contract. Lohse was actually running a deficit on his contract through the first two, mediocre years of it, but a good 2011 and a great 2012 made him worth $10.4 million more than his contract. And while this wasn’t part of the calculus, offering him the qualifying offer after 2012 netted Rob Kaminsky, which netted Brandon Moss, who himself was worth a $3.4 million surplus in 2015.
9. Seung Hwan Oh, after 2015
The former NPB closer signed with the Cardinals on a one-year deal which included a team option for 2017, and while that second year ended up costing Oh much of his excess value, he still amounted to a $21.7 million asset for a $11 million cost.
8. Nick Punto, after 2010
Nick Punto in 2011 might have had the most underrated Cardinals season of the 21st century. He was a bases on balls monster, walking in 15.1% of his 166 plate appearances, and posted a 125 wRC+, his only above-average offensive season in his twelve years as a full-time Major Leaguer. The utility infielder was on a mere $800,000 contract and surpassed that total by $12.3 million in surplus value.
7. Pat Neshek, after 2013
On a minor league contract which escalated to $1 million for making the MLB roster, the formerly nondescript reliever was an All-Star in 2014, posting a 1.87 earned-run average, a 2.37 fielding-independent ERA, and $13.7 million in surplus value.
6. Aledmys Diaz, after 2013
The Cuban shortstop signed a four-year, $8 million contract and didn’t play Major League Baseball for the first half of it. But he was so excellent in 2016 that he made up for lost time. Even his extremely disappointing 2017 was barely below the expectations of his small contract, and Diaz provided a $15.3 million surplus. The contract also came with the caveat of additional club control beyond the four years, so you can add whatever J.B. Woodman contributes in the future to Diaz’s total if you’d like.
5. Kyle Lohse, after 2007
Hey, remember Kyle Lohse? He’s back, in “signed a one-year deal during Spring Training” form! After signing a one-year, $4.25 million contract in March 2008, Lohse was the team’s best pitcher by FanGraphs WAR, amassing 200 innings with a 3.78 ERA. He wasn’t a lights-out ace but he was well above the quality one might expect from the Spring Training bargain bin. Plus, the Cardinals used their exclusive negotiating window to sign Lohse to an extension which itself was good enough to crack this list. It was a nice cherry on the top of a $15.45 million surplus cake.
4. Joel Pineiro, after 2007
After acquiring Pineiro at the 2007 trade deadline, the Cardinals re-upped with the starting pitcher for two years and $13 million after the season. And while Pineiro was shaky and wound up on the Disabled List in 2008, he was excellent in 2009, throwing 214 innings with an ERA of 3.49 and an even more impressive FIP of 3.27. He also had a National League-best 1.14 walks per nine innings. While co-aces Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter led the rotation, thanks to Pineiro’s surprising excellence, the Cardinals were able to make it to their first postseason appearance of the John Mozeliak era. Pineiro came from behind in 2009 to amass a combined surplus value of $21.5 million.
3. Lance Berkman, after 2010
The longtime Houston Astros slugger had been primarily a first baseman for the previous six seasons, so when the Cardinals signed him to a one-year, $8 million contract while still employing Albert Pujols, it was clear that the Cardinals had a different plan in order. Berkman moved to right field for 2011, and while he was not a good fielder, his bat more than atoned for it. In one year, Berkman provided $28.2 million in surplus value. He posted a 163 wRC+, his highest mark since 2001, and was among the team’s best hitters in the postseason, where he did this.
2. Yadier Molina, after 2011
Although Molina was under contract through 2012, the Cardinals decided to sign their catcher to a five-year, $75 million contract following what was, to that point, a career year. I say “to that point” because Molina had an MVP-caliber 2012 which does not factor into this particular calculation, but which would have made the catcher far more costly on the open market. Molina’s similarly excellent 2013, however, does factor into evaluating this contract, and in one year, he was already worth over 54% of its total value. While he never came close to MVP-caliber over the next four years, he was paid essentially to be an average catcher; he was above-average and thus continued to provide surplus value on top of the incredible value which was his 2013. On the whole, Molina’s surplus value was $35.2 million, which pays for more than half of the three-year extension of his which kicks in starting in 2018.
1. Matt Holliday, after 2009
My most irrelevant hobby horse is well-actuallying people who overly praise the trade with the Oakland Athletics which brought left fielder Matt Holliday to St. Louis. Yes, it was a good trade, because Matt Holliday absolutely raked in 2009 and the prospects sent never really materialized, but the seven-year, $120 million extension which came in January 2010 is a separate transaction. But it was a great one. Holliday was metronomic in the first half-decade of the contract, and while the last two seasons were hampered by injuries and some skill erosion, that is to be expected when a team signs a player to a seven-year contract starting in his age-30 season. The contract paid for itself at some point in 2013, and by the end of it, the Cardinals were up $50.6 million. Holliday was often second-fiddle in St. Louis, to Albert Pujols or Yadier Molina or Matt Carpenter, but as 2007 and 2008 showed Cardinals fans, a playoff team cannot live on Albert Pujols alone. And after years of not having that iconic Matt Holliday moment, we finally got one.