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Giancarlo Stanton’s contract should not scare the Cardinals away

And if he’s available and amenable, they should pounce.

MLB: Miami Marlins at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals need to add a good-to-great player. Giancarlo Stanton is one, and he plays for a bad team that isn’t going anywhere during his prime. The fit is too obvious too ignore. So are the potential catches: the new Marlins ownership group may not want to trade him, Stanton has a full no-trade clause he may not want to waive for a Cardinals trade, and the Cardinals may shy away from assuming the $295 million due to Stanton from 2018 to 2027.

I’m not in the head of the ownership group standing behind Derek Jeter’s tiny minority stake in the Marlins Derek Jeter’s head, nor am I in Stanton’s. I think there’s plenty of reason for them to like a deal with the Cardinals, but I can’t read their minds. Anybody who thinks they can is just speculating; there’s been next to no solid reporting on either issue. Looking at the third catch is easier, though. Stanton’s contract is a behemoth, and a contract that size always raises fears of (a) simply being an inefficient use of limited resources, and (b) eventually becoming an “albatross” that will weigh a club down and eliminate needed financial flexibility for future moves. But I don’t think either concern should scare the Cardinals off, in this case.

Is Stanton worth his contract?

A month ago, I’d have said no. Writing for FanGraphs, VEB’s Craig Edwards estimated in June that Stanton had a negative projected surplus of around $32M (but a NPV of about +$9M, discounting for the time value of money). Ben Markham’s estimate on July 20 was much harsher: $121M in negative surplus, down to “only” $47.5M in negative value with discounting.

But since the All-Star break, Stanton has been the best hitter in baseball, with a 210 wRC+ and 17 home runs. Projections respond to performance, so Stanton is up to a 5.0 win per 600 PA projection from FanGraphs. In his June analysis, Craig started Stanton’s value at 3.7 WAR in 2018, and applied aging from there; Ben applied a similar value but a steeper aging curve. In Craig’s model, giving Stanton his current rest-of-season projection of 1.4 WAR and starting him at 4.5 WAR next year yields a positive surplus of $43.75M, or $54.2M with discounting. In Ben’s model, it takes Stanton all the way up to a modest $11.7M negative surplus, or +$25.7M after discounting.

A brief aside on these: they’re just estimates, with significant uncertainty. As you just saw, given the scale of Stanton’s contract, small changes in assumptions make big differences. If I change Stanton’s 2018 projection by a SINGLE TENTH of a win and leave the rest alone, it’s a $10-15M swing. Quibbling over a tenth of a WAR – or even half a WAR – isn’t a productive use of time, and I’d suggest the same is true about $10-20-30 million dollars of value with respect to Stanton.

But (says the conservative reader) Stanton’s also a huge man with a history of lower-body injuries! Okay. If we apply a 25% playing-time reduction from 2021 on to account for injury risk, Craig’s model spits out a small $4.4M negative surplus, or +$25M with discounting (Ben’s goes to -$20.4 and +$19.5, respectively). Since so much of Stanton’s value would come from the early years, even if he gets hurt a fair amount as he ages, it pencils out okay. (If he gets hurt a lot, that’s bad, but that’s still a tail risk.)

So: yeah, Stanton’s worth his contract. It’s not a bad estimate at all of what he’d get in free agency. I’m as surprised as you are! (Unless you’re not surprised, in which case good job, you’re very smart.)

Would Stanton be an albatross during his decline years?

Nearly all players on long, high-dollar free agent contracts end up overpaid at the end. It’s built into the structure of the things: teams expect these guys to produce like stars at the beginning and old men at the end, but the players don’t want front-loaded contracts with annual pay cuts (as a rule, humans don’t like pay cuts). So these contracts are – intentionally – built to underpay in the early years and overpay later. As long as a team’s not stacking up too many overpays at once, like the 2018 Tigers, it’s fine.

The Cardinals’ recent history has good examples. Was Matt Holliday an albatross the last couple years? Is Adam Wainwright right now? At the tail end of Holliday’s contract the Cardinals were paying him $17M a year, about 12% of total payroll. This year and next, Wainwright will make $19.5M annually, about 13% of payroll. Holliday posted 0.9 and 0.7 fWAR in 2015 and ’16, and Wainwright… his FIP-based fWAR says he’s still average, but his runs-based bWAR says he’s getting close to replacement level. But while their performances on the field were not up to the level of what they were being paid for, I don’t think anybody can credibly claim Holliday or Wainwright hamstrung the team’s finances as they aged.

In fact, a large amount of nearly-dead money is a common feature for the Cardinals, and they’re not unusual in that regard. Last year, the Cardinals paid $49M (34% of opening day payroll) for bad seasons from Holliday, Wainwright, and Jhonny Peralta – and had room to spend more. This year they’re paying a combined $33.25M (22% of payroll) to Wainwright, Peralta, and Jonathan Broxton – and had room to spend more. In 2020, the Cardinals will owe $51M (28% of a hypothetical $180M payroll) to 34-year-old Dexter Fowler, 37-year-old Yadier Molina, and 32-year-old Mike Leake. At the same time they were signing those deals, the Cardinals were giving extensions to Carlos Martinez, Stephen Piscotty, and Kolten Wong, as well as spending eight figures on international amateur signing bonuses.

The Cardinals having big present dead-ish-money commitments didn’t keep them from offering huge contracts to Jason Heyward or David Price (and it doesn’t appear that running out of budget room was the reason those players weren’t landed). Having big future dead-ish-money commitments has not prevented pre-arbitration extensions for good young players. It’s certainly true that the Cardinals ultimately have limited resources, but as long as those dead-money commitments are reasonably staggered and kept under control, they do not appear to put a drag on the team’s ability to spend. The team’s own behavior is all the evidence we need.

So is Stanton likely to become an albatross? Put simply, no. He’s owed $32M in 2025, and isn’t likely to be very good then. But if the Cardinals’ payroll increases 3% a year until 2025, $32M will only be 15% of it. Taking recent history as a guide, the Cardinals will have room for the bad tail end of Stanton’s deal. They’ll have $180 million other dollars to work with. Even at 2025 prices, that should be enough to absorb Stanton’s dead-weight out years — and another bad contract on top of it.

Giancarlo Stanton’s contract isn’t a big positive. Stanton the player, however, is. He’s one of the few legitimate three-win upgrades that might be actually available to the team right now, and he’s good enough now that his production during the next few years is a decent bet to pay for the bad years at the end of his contract. The expense of those bad years, when they come, should be easily absorbed by the Cardinals. If they can go get him in a waiver trade, they should. He’d look great in red.

UPDATE: relevant...

(h/t TBender)