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How the Cardinals handled Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham plays with a perpetual chip on his shoulder. Are his conclusions fair?

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Anyone with even a passing familiarity with St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Tommy Pham is acutely aware that he plays with a chip on his shoulder.

Some athletes are fueled by the weight of high expectations. For instance, the most hyped amateur baseball player of the 21st century, Bryce Harper, is one of Major League Baseball’s legendary workout warriors, and despite what seems to be a fairly privileged existence (he signed a nearly ten-figure professional contract before his 18th birthday), he is motivated by those who doubt him. Note what Harper did on Sunday after a fan yelled “overrated” at a top ten position player in baseball since his teenage debut.

Like Harper, Tommy Pham is from Las Vegas, but this is about where the resemblance in their baseball upbringings ends. Pham was a 16th round draft pick, and while he did receive an above-average signing bonus for that slot of $325,000, he was never a major prospect. Pham didn’t make his MLB debut until 2014, didn’t exhaust his rookie eligibility until 2015, didn’t crack an Opening Day roster until 2016, and didn’t turn into an (excellent) everyday player until 2017.

Pham, now 30, worked his tail off to reach his current status as fully entrenched regular starting center fielder for a postseason contender in Major League Baseball. This isn’t to say that the Bryce Harpers of the world work less hard, but there is truth to the notion that guys like Tommy Pham, players who could have stepped away from the game years ago with hardly anyone noticing, have to show how much they care.

In a Sports Illustrated profile by Jack Dickey which posted on Monday, that Tommy Pham cares is made abundantly clear. In the article, Pham is extremely candid about ways in which he feels that he has been wronged throughout his life and throughout his professional baseball career.

Pham recalls calling Cardinals farm director Gary LaRocque in 2014 after being passed in the organization’s outfield prospect hierarchy by the likes of Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty, players later traded to make room for Pham in the starting lineup. While his exact quote may have come across as arrogant jock bluster in 2014, given the careers of those in question, it reads as prophetic.

It is no secret that when Tommy Pham failed to make the Cardinals’ Opening Day roster in 2017 and he saw Very Much A First Baseman Matt Adams start games in left field while Pham languished in Memphis, Pham noticed. When former FanGraphs managing editor and now-San Diego Padres senior analyst Dave Cameron wrote a pointed criticism of the Cardinals’ personnel juggling on April 14 of last year titled “What’s the Point of the Matt Adams Outfield Experiment?”, as first observed by former Viva El Birdos writer Alex Crisafulli, Pham liked the tweet.

Pham expounded upon his frustrations over Matt Adams starting ahead of him in the SI piece.

Perhaps most pointedly, and most relevantly given the recent focus on pay for minor league baseball players, Pham expressed his displeasure at his career earnings. Pham is acutely aware of how valuable of a player he was to the Cardinals in 2017 and of how MLB’s system of club control over inexperienced players will keep him from earning what he could make as a free agent.

Tommy Pham believed he was better than the players ahead of him on the Cardinals’ depth chart for all of those years, and it increasingly looks like he was right. But most professional athletes do have a necessarily out-sized ego, the kind of confidence that allows one to stand in a batter’s box against the greatest pitchers in the world without spontaneously melting.

Perhaps the Cardinals should have paid more attention to Tommy Pham, but most outside sources were not exactly bullish on his future, either. By the time Pham solidified himself as a top minor league hitter, he was generally old for his level, and thus the Cardinals saw less potential for growth in him than they did in top prospects such as Oscar Taveras. Before the 2014 season, the year in which Pham made his MLB debut, John Sickels ranked Pham outside his top twenty Cardinals prospects, relegated to the “Others” section, surrounded by fellow outfield prospects Kenny Peoples-Walls, Nick Petree, and David Popkins.

In retrospect, Sickels was wrong, and the Cardinals were wrong, and most people were wrong about Tommy Pham. This doesn’t mean the Cardinals acted in a particularly nefarious way with regards to Pham—they saw an older prospect with limited upside to grow beyond a replacement level, break-in-the-event-of-emergency-type player. It wasn’t as though Pham was being held in the minors to avoid paying him, as the Atlanta Braves are currently doing with Ronald Acuna Jr., or as the Chicago Cubs famously did three years ago with Kris Bryant—Pham was being held in the minors because the team, right or wrong, genuinely didn’t believe he was their best option to play in the big leagues.

Playing Matt Adams in left field over Tommy Pham was always a strange allocation of resources, and in retrospect even more so, but the move didn’t change much for Tommy Pham professionally. Even if Pham had broken through for good in 2015, he would still not hit free agency until his mid-thirties.

The financial model of baseball rewards early bloomers. Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are going to become very wealthy next off-season, yes, because they’re very good baseball players, but also because they will be reaching free agency at the relatively tender age of 26. Last off-season showed teams hesitant to sign free agents in their early thirties, much less their mid-thirties.

Tommy Pham believed in himself, but the industry consensus of him throughout his mid-twenties was that he was not a Major League-quality player. Sure, the Cardinals didn’t believe in him, but there is little evidence to suggest that other teams had a radically higher opinion of him. The fundamental flaw of the “make far less than you’re worth in your early years but then make up for it later” model of player salaries is not that late bloomers like Pham make significant money for fewer years—it’s that they never reach the significant money at all.

Last month, when Pham expressed his frustration at continuing to play for the league’s minimum salary, he was coming at it from a different perspective than an early twenties super-prospect. He was coming at it from the perspective of a 30 year-old man who, if he is following a normal aging curve, is entering the decline phase of his career, and who despite an MVP-like 2017 season has earned less money in professional baseball than Ty Wigginton made from the Cardinals.

The Cardinals deserve some blame for letting what could have been excellent prime Tommy Pham seasons go to waste in the minors, though this is more an issue of oversight than malice. Tommy Pham absolutely has a right to be mad about it, though the issue is far larger than the Cardinals’ ability to scout—it comes down to a backwards system of player compensation which underpays players for their peaks, overpays players for their declines, and ultimately creates exorbitant wealth for a few and leaves late bloomers like Pham earning far less than they deserve.