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Why missing on Luis Robert hurts

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Luis Robert is not a sure thing but it was still a good time for the Cardinals to take the risk and outspend the competition.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Unless you went off the grid this weekend - an understandable response to Friday night’s game - you now know that the Cardinals did not land 19-year-old Cuban outfielder Luis Robert. As of late Sunday evening, the full details of the signing remain unknown but it was reported by MLB.com’s Jesse Sanchez that Robert will receive a bonus of near $26 to $27 million to sign with the White Sox. In spite of early rumblings that the Cardinals were actually the highest bidder, Jenifer Langosch indicated yesterday that might not be the case, which would mean that the Cardinals were outspent by a team in the middle of a rebuild with a payroll resting comfortably in the lower half.

If you have followed these developments, you likely also know that the Cardinals were subjected to a dollar-for-dollar match on any bonus money spent on Robert as a result of being over their spending limit for signing international free agents (so $26 million actually means $52 million). International signings can be tricky (you can read the new rules put in place by the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement here), but as I understand it the White Sox were bound by the same penalty. And again, details on this signing are still rolling in, but stipulating that the Cardinals were indeed outbid - a fair play based on the history of almost every free agent contract that has ever been signed - this could be a big miss for the Cardinals.

Take this paragraph on Robert from Sanchez’s column when he first reported the signing:

Robert, who was declared a free agent by Major League Baseball last month, hit .393 with 12 home runs and 11 stolen bases in Cuba's Serie Nacional, the island's top league, last season. The right-handed hitter, who profiles as a center fielder with plus power and speed, was described by one American League international scouting director as "the best player on the planet."

The best player on the planet. I can’t imagine that’s anything other than hyperbole - Mike Trout is still on the planet, for one - but the reports seem nearly unanimous that Robert is a top-prospect, and would be taken near the top of the draft if eligible. So Robert at least represented a chance for the Cardinals to land an elite player, something they’ve missed since Albert Pujols left town. And signing Robert would have been a logical pivot in a year in which the Cardinals’ draft has been decimated by the hacking scandal. To that point, the Cardinals don’t have a pick in this year’s draft until #94 when players of Robert’s apparent caliber are long off the board. Do a quick scan of players drafted at #94 and you’ll find that Logan Schafer (drafted in 2008) has been one of the better ones and he has a career -0.1 fWAR.

On their failure to sign Robert, this from Cardinals General Manager John Mozeliak:

"When you're looking at the overall investment, it's real and historically there are not too many players that sign for that many dollars," Mozeliak said. "It's really hard to justify those types of dollars for any player with a lack of a proven track record. No matter how you try to equate the Cuban league or his international experience, it's very hard to calibrate what that means to here.

"I think our baseball development group did a really good job of trying to position this as why we went through the chase. I felt like the effort from behind the scenes was there and that our scouts did a very good job. At this point, there's not a whole lot I can add. We didn't get it done."

Regarding the first paragraph, Mozeliak is correct. A surplus of $50 million is a lot to offer a 19-year-old who hasn’t taken a single swing in MLB, no matter how profitable the organization. I doubt anyone would find issue with that statement. And even though plenty of players from Cuba like Yunel Escobar, Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes, Yasiel Puig, and Robert’s future teammate Jose Abreu have carved out successful careers in MLB, there’s also cases like Rusney Castillo. Castillo signed a seven-year $72.5 million contract with the Red Sox in 2014 after several very good years in Cuba, and was put on waivers by the Red Sox last June after an 82 OPS+ in 337 plate appearances. He’s currently still in the minors and the investment doesn’t look that great for a player turning 30 this July.

I don’t know quite what to make of the second paragraph other than Mozeliak affirming that there was an honest effort to sign Robert to which I’m willing to take his word for it. But where I find fault with most of Mozeliak’s comments - and believe me, I think he’s an excellent GM who’s earned his rather sterling reputation - is that there’s no acknowledgement of the circumstances.

Circumstance One being that the Cardinals are no longer positioned to be the best team in the NL Central. Circumstance Two being that the Cardinals aren’t in a good position to improve the franchise at this year’s draft. In other words, some acknowledgement from the organization that they at least considered deviating from their normal course of business and winning one of these bidding wars because their current predicament necessitated as much, and that they’re as concerned about their standing as the fickle fans and blogs.

There is good news. For starters, the Cardinals have around $50 million to spend elsewhere, and Mozeliak implied that’s what will happen. Also, Robert went to an American League team and minus an interleague series here or there, he should not be much of a thorn in the Cardinals’ side going forward if that unnamed scout’s prognosis of Robert’s talent ever comes to fruition. The main takeaway here though is that the Cardinals perhaps could have secured one of the top prospects in baseball but instead chose not to spend the necessary money. How much that will sting will be answered in time.