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BenFred: Cardinals don't deal homegrown stars, but keeping one (Flaherty) will be costly

BenFred: Cardinals don't deal homegrown stars, but keeping one (Flaherty) will be costly

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Chicago Cubs vs St. Louis Cardinals

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher Jack Flaherty pitches in the fifth inning during a game between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019. Photo by David Carson, dcarson@post-dispatch.com

Are you following this Mookie Betts mess? You better believe Jack Flaherty is.

The blockbuster trade of baseball’s offseason has done as much harm for the game as it will do good for the Dodgers.

Fans in Boston are wondering why they pay sky-high ticket prices to watch a team that just dumped the salary of a homegrown superstar. Every other team looking for public-relations protection for cost-cutting can now cite the Red Sox as an example.

And these would have been bad developments even before the multi-player, multi-team trade was stalled by medical concern about a pitcher — news that immediately became public knowledge, further upsetting a players’ union that already is at odds with owners.

Swell.

Players tracking the headlines have been forced to acknowledge once again that the game they love is one cold-blooded business. Flaherty is one of those players.

A quote from the young Cardinals' ace during his recent Winter Warm-up media appearance comes to mind.

The notion of Betts being traded was just hot-stove chatter then. But here’s how Flaherty explained why he’s making a point to follow baseball's business end.

“I’ve taken an interest into that side of it, because I know no matter what, it’s going to affect me or the guys coming after me,” Flaherty said. “Every situation, every decision that is made. And you want to be a part of all the decisions that are made that affect your career.”

The trade of Betts has been a lesson in what can happen when win-or-bust big-spenders decide the bill suddenly is too high.

Boston was win-now until it wasn’t, and the contracts handed out during the good days complicated the team's chances of keeping Betts from leaving via free agency after the upcoming season.

So, the Red Sox just punted.

They want their fans to believe they had to trade a 27-year-old MVP in order to get the most out of him. Except they didn't get the most out of Betts. They hitched him to the big contract of David Price and dumped salary.

So much for Titletown.

And that leaves perhaps a little more appreciation for the Cardinals’ sustained-success model, one that prioritizes keeping homegrown stars.

Paul DeJong, Kolten Wong, Carlos Martinez, Yadier Molina and even Adam Wainwright, though he began with the Braves, are among current Cardinals who broke through in St. Louis and came to agreements to stay.

The obvious exception is Albert Pujols, and he agreed to one big extension before the big dollars of wide-open free agency eventually swept him away.

Albert to Anaheim offers a lesson about Flaherty. If the Cardinals are determined to keep him, they should keep him as far from free agency as possible.

Flaherty, 24, is entering his third full season as a major-league starter after placing fifth in the National League Rookie of the Year voting in 2018, and fourth in NL Cy Young Award voting in 2019. His historic 2019 second-half ERA of 0.91 was the second-best of any pitcher who made more than six starts after an All-Star break. It's early, but he's special. And man, is he cheap. For now.

Flaherty isn't arbitration-eligible until after this season. He isn’t eligible for free agency until after the 2023 season. What the baseball landscape looks like by then could be altered by the next collective bargaining agreement, one that could (and should) revolve around increasing dollars directed to young, underpaid stars.

Flaherty has shown signs of understanding his enormous value.

Last spring he rejected the Cardinals’ salary offer for the 2019 season, a move the team countered with a renewal and the penalty that accompanies it. In short, Flaherty left $10,000 on the table because he did not want to officially agree with the valuation process that set his worth at $572,100, which was at the time $17,100 above the major-league minimum. Flaherty wanted it on the record that he disagreed with that valuation, specifically for arbitration and contract discussions that could come later.

Some saw the back-and-forth as signs of friction between player and team. Wrong. Flaherty made sure to point out his disagreement was with the system, not with the Cardinals. What it showed is that the pitcher plans to demand what he's worth as he gains more leverage.

Flaherty is playing the long game.

The Cardinals do the same.

Spring training is when extensions hatch.

It’s the team’s favorite time to convince ascending talent to swap future free agency for certainty now.

“Definitely,” Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. answered at Winter Warm-up when asked if he has considered Flaherty as a candidate for a long-term extension.

The question is, when?

Actually, the question is what would Flaherty accept to delay a free-agent route that, while troubled for some, still pays big for the best.

“I don’t play GM,” Flaherty said during Warm-up. “My job is to go out and play the game. Whatever else happens, whatever else gets taken care off, that’s kind of, right now, out of my hands.”

The Cardinals’ quest for annual contention means fans don’t have to worry about their team trading away a Flaherty. What should worry them is the notion of Flaherty one day reaching the open market with a full head of steam.

The sooner the Cardinals convince their ace to take an early detour toward certainty, the better.

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