Gordon: Craig an epic bargain for Cards

2014-02-07T03:10:00Z 2014-02-10T17:05:33Z Gordon: Craig an epic bargain for CardsBy Jeff Gordon jgordon@post-dispatch.com stltoday.com

Allen Craig is one of the biggest steals in major league baseball.

He has four years left in his five-year, $31 million contract. He gained some security with that deal and the Cardinals bought into his free agency, gaining a measure of cost control

Craig will earn $2.75 million this season, $5.5 million in 2015, $9 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017. The Cardinals will also have the option of keeping him in 2018 at a cost of $13 million.

He will be 33 years old that season and probably worth every penny of that.

Compare this breakdown to the eight-year, $135 million deal Freddie Freeman just got from the Atlanta Braves. Freeman wasn’t eligible for free agency until 2017. He filed for arbitration for 2014, asking for $5.75 million.

Freeman wasn’t going anywhere. The Braves could have waited another year or two before throwing giant money at him, just to make sure he is worth it.

On the other hand, Freeman is a bargain compared to Joey Votto — whose 11-year, $263 million contract from the Cincinnati Reds is the gold standard for mid-market overpayment.

To fully comprehend the absurdity of the Craig/Freeman/Votto earnings comparison, let’s do a blind taste test. Compare the last two years of the three hitters, in terms of batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, plus homers and runs batted in:

Player 1

2012:  .259/.340/.456/ .796, 23 HRs, 94 RBIs.

2013:  .319/.396/.501/.897, 23 HRs, 109 RBIs.

Player 2

2012:  .307/.354/.522/.876, 22 HRs, 92 RBIs.

2013:  .315/.373 /.457.830, 13 HRs, 97 RBIs.

Player 3

2012:  .337/.474/.567/1.041, 14 HRs, 56 RBIs    

2013:  .305/.435/.491/.926 , 24 HRs, 73 RBIs.

Fantasy baseball enthusiasts probably figured it out right away. Player 1 is the $135 million Freeman. Player 2 is the $31 million Craig and Player 3 is the $263 million Votto.

See what we mean about Craig’s bargain status?

Votto and Craig make an especially good comparison. Both players have missed time with injuries. Craig is a bit younger and more versatile defensively. Votto draws more walks and runs better. Craig drives in more runs.

You can argue about which player did more for his team the last two years. In this corner of cyberspace, we pick Craig.

Yet in 2018, when the Cardinals will have the option of keeping Craig for one more season at $13 million, Votto will begin the first of his six $25 million contract years. Six more years!

These are the sorts of contracts that severely hamper franchises outside of New York, Boston and Los Angeles. Even the Freeman deal — a bargain compared to the winning Votto ticket — will hamstring the Braves.

Experts weighed in on the pros and cons of that contract:

Buster Olney, ESPN.com: “Among the group of talented Braves youngsters — Jason Heyward, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel, Mike Minor — Atlanta has placed its largest investment, with its very limited resources, on the player it believes will provide the greatest return in production. It's that simple. Freeman had a .795 OPS in his first season, .796 in his second, and .897 last year, when he finished fifth in the NL MVP voting. Heyward has battled injury and inconsistency, with his more complicated swing. Simmons is arguably the best defensive player in the big leagues, but teams don't pay for defense like they do for offense, which is why Gerardo Parra -- one of the game's dominant defensive outfielders -- signed for $4.85 million, rather than $48 million. Kimbrel is the best one-inning pitcher in baseball, unquestionably, but the Braves needed to bet on a nine-inning player among their core of young players, especially given the struggles of the team's highest-paid veterans, Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton.”

Matt Snyder, CBSSports.com: “Yes, he was an MVP candidate -- finishing fifth in NL voting -- and is very young, but he is also a guy who hit .259 in 2012. A truly conservative team would sit back and see how Freeman fared over the next season or two before broaching the subject of such a huge extension. Instead, the Braves went a bit out of character and splurged to lock up their man through 2021. All of this speaks volumes to the confidence Braves' brass has in Freeman as their face of the franchise for the next eight seasons.”

Cliff Corcoran, SI.com: “Consider this: Freeman was asking for $5.75 million in arbitration this year. If you deduct one season at that price from Freeman’s extension, the Braves are really paying him $18.5 million over the final seven years of his new deal. But Freeman wasn’t going to make $18.5 million next year, either. Let’s say he had another great season and got bumped up to $10 million for 2015, a big jump. In that scenario, the Braves just gave Freeman $19.875 million a year for the final six years of this deal, and if you give Freeman another generous assumption of $15 million in his final year of arbitration (by way of comparison, Prince Fielder made $6.5 million, $10.5 million, and $15.5 million in his three arbitration seasons from 2009 to 2011), the Braves just gave Freeman a five-year free-agent contract worth $22.85 million a year. To date, the only first basemen to sign contracts with average annual values as high or higher have been Ryan Howard ($25 million via the Phillies’ disastrous extension) and free agents Albert Pujols ($24 million) and Fielder ($23.78 million).”

David Schoenfeld, ESPN.com: “It's a safe bet for the Braves. You get Freeman's age-24 through age-31 seasons, exactly the years you want for a first baseman who doesn't run well. The question is more a baseball one: How good is Freeman? Was 2013 a true breakout season or one fueled by a high .371 average on balls in play (fifth highest in the majors)? Answer: It could be both. Considering his age, it could be real improvement. According to ESPN data, he had a 25.8 percent line-drive rate in 2013, up from 21.7 percent the year before. (Other sites have different percentages, complicating the analysis a bit.) One thing I like to check is how a batter does against fastballs. The best hitters kill fastballs, and that's what Freeman did in 2013, hitting .367 with 15 of his 23 home runs, up from .291 and 13 the year before.”

There is no such debate over the Craig contract. It is an amazing win for the Cardinals, a deal that will make it possible to buy into the free agency of other players when that time comes.

This is a deal that will keep on giving for a team that will keep on winning.

Follow Jeff Gordon on Twitter @gordoszone and on Facebook at Gordo'sZone.

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This is the new home for STLtoday.com sports columnist Jeff Gordon. Here you'll find his columns on the Cards, Rams, Blues and more, plus his daily "Tipsheet" blog about who's in and who's out in the world of sports.

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