Cardinals: Be fine with being the team that “blew it” with Bryce Harper because you overpaid and have him for a decaying decade … as opposed to the team that “blew it” with Harper because you didn’t.
If there was ever a time for the Cards to take a risk, it’s during this third winter of discontent — which, if bungled, could come across to fans as a winter of disconnect.
Get a name. And I’ll harp on what others have said — the best choice is Harper.
There are only two reasons for Dexter Fowler to start in right field in 2019.
1. Paul Goldschmidt or Manny Machado or Nolan Arenado is playing in the Cardinals’ infield.
2. Harper turned down the Cardinals’ offer to sign for less money elsewhere.
Gamble on the kid from Vegas, a perennial All-Star.
The Cards are currently stuck. For the fourth year in a row, a division rival has reached the National League Championship Series. Most playoff teams have multiple offensive players with four WAR or more (wins above replacement); the Cards had only one with Matt Carpenter.
And look, the Cards have prepared themselves financially — ticket sales, TV contracts and missing out on Giancarlo Stanton — to pay for the right fielder.
Or, more important, to overpay for him.
Or, if anything, to outbid others.
And he checks seemingly every box — and even creates boxes you hadn’t anticipated. He’s a transcendent talent, a prodigy who lived up to his potential. A lefty slugger. A right fielder who’s athletic enough to transition to first base. He’s entering his age-26 season. A hungry hero. A star who is without a championship. The most important pitch of the Cardinals’ 2018 will come from an executive. It’s explaining to Harper that this 88-win franchise with young pitching and a contract-year Marcell Ozuna is missing one piece X — a slugging lefty hitter — to restore glory to a baseball town that Harper reveres. And how do we know he reveres St. Louis? A pair of posts. A Twitter post from Sept. 22, 2013: “St. Louis! Love playing at Busch Stadium! Nothing really like it!”
And an Instagram photo of Busch Stadium from Aug. 30, 2015: “One of the best around! #stlouis”
The Cardinals have attempted to make big investments before. Jason Heyward. David Price. Both those fell through. And even those came with question marks. Hard to find any question marks with Harper’s quest toward immortality. His career OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) is a neat .900. Weighted on-base average is a fancy stat that captures how well a ball is batted, regardless of outcome. From 2015-18, of players who played in all four years, the only guys with better wOBAs than Harper’s .398? Mike Trout, Joey Votto and J.D. Martinez.
I remember when I covered the Nuggets for The Denver Post. An executive was trying to put in perspective the acquisition of Allen Iverson.
“Think about how cool it would be for someone to even get him on their fantasy team?” he said. “I just got the real Allen Iverson for my real team!”
Heck, if we’re using other sports to capture the bigness of this, the potential Cards’ face-of-the-franchise is, in many ways, like the fate of a Major League Soccer franchise: It’s an investment in the present and the future, a dynamic game-changer for St. Louis, one that can have an exponentially positive impact and maybe lead to another championship for the town.
The Cards need certainty. As I mentioned in a piece for STLtoday.com, a theme of Tuesday’s news conference was frustration with uncertainties. Consider that Carlos Martinez was supposed to be the Cards’ best pitcher in 2018, but his lack of physical focus in the offseason led to a trio of trips to the disabled list. And Ozuna was supposed to be the Cards’ best hitter in 2018, and he came to camp with a bum shoulder and had an uneven year while occupying the important cleanup spot.
So the question for the Cards going forward is: What’s the price you’ll pay for certainty?
And yes, Harper should be pretty good, if anything through his 20s.
The contract would probably carry into his 30s. But even if he decays or gets injured a bunch, the Cards do seem pretty confident in Nolan Gorman, the 2018 draft pick born in 2000 who leaped levels already this summer in the system. Here’s what I’m getting at: Guys such as Gorman or Elehuris Montero are low-cost, team-controlled players. If they’re as good as the Cards think they can be, these infielders could provide offense to the Cards for a low cost, balancing out, or at least absorbing, the “wasted” money Harper would be making in, say, 2025.
So in a way, betting on Harper is also a bet on yourself and your system, too.
The first time I met Harper, he was 19. It was 2012, in the visiting clubhouse at Colorado’s Coors Field. We chatted about maximizing talent. And maxims.
“Everybody wants to be the best at what they do,” he said that day. “A writer wants to be the best writer he can be, a cop wants to be the best cop he can be and I want to be the best baseball player I can be. I just want to control what I can control, and that’s hustling on the field.”
He proceeded to win the rookie of the year award. He won the MVP at age 22. And last year, he hit 34 homers and led the league in walks (130).
And he likes to hustle?
This guy would be bigger than the Arch in this town.
The righty starter's 14-year career included two reliable stints in St. Louis.
Before the 1996 season, the tall 28-year-old signed a two-year deal worth $8.1 million that reunited him with his brother, Alan. He then went 18-10 with a 3.83 ERA and placed third in Cy Young Award balloting. He followed it up by going 10-7 with a 3.10 ERA in 1997, striking out 175.
Benes and the Cards agreed to a big extension, but it was void because it came after the deadline, and he ended up in Arizona. He and the club reunited for the 2000 season thanks to a three-year deal worth $18 million.
Benes went 24-20 with a 5.05 ERA through his final three seasons before retirement, and notched his 2,000th career strikeout in his final start.
The Cards signed the 29-year-old catcher to a one-year deal worth $750,000 before the 2000 season. Matheny's wife, Kristin, was just thrilled to stay near her Chesterfield home.
"She must have some powerful prayers, because we really didn't think about the Cardinals being interested in us, " Matheny said back then.
He went on to catch 469 complete games during his five seasons with the club, a run that included three Gold Gloves, a World Series appearance and a planted seed of a managerial career.
The 29-year-old closer's four-year, $27 million deal before the 2002 season remained the most lucrative free-agent pitching contract in Cards' history until Brett Cecil came along. The dominant righty proved to be worth it though, and the Cards kept bringing him back.
He saved 217 games and posted a 2.98 ERA during his seven years with the club. His postseason ERA was 2.36 in 26.2 innings pitched. He went to the 2004 World Series the same year he saved a league-leading 47 games. He was an All-Star in 2005. He missed the 2006 World Series win due to an injury, but came as strong as ever in 2007 before his rough 2008.
It didn't seem like much to get excited about. The Cards gave the 29-year-old righty fresh off shoulder surgery a one year deal worth $1 million before the 2003 season. Then came another shoulder setback. Another one-year deal, this time worth much less. You know the rest of the story. Comeback player of the year in 2004. All-Star (the first of three) and Cy Young Award Winner in 2005. World Series champion in 2006. And 2011. Carpenter went 95-44 with a 3.07 ERA in 197 starts for the Cards. He was 10-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 18 postseason starts.
The Cards had chased the righty starter before, but they secured him to a two-year deal worth $6 million headed into the 2004 season.
Suppan forced the Cards to keep him round for an additional season after he won 16 games in 2004 and 2005.
The 2006 NLCS MVP was also 5-4 with a 3.00 ERA in nine postseason starts with the Cards, the last of which was a Game 4 win that moved the club within one victory of its 2006 title.
He became a Brewer after that, but was sent back to St. Louis during the 2010 season. He went 3-6 with a 3.84 ERA.
Altogether he started 108 games and went 47-32 with a 3.94 ERA during his four seasons with the Cards.
The 36-year-old outfielder had already played for seven teams before the Cardinals signed him to a two-year, $6 million deal before the 2004 season.
He hit .265/.325/.507 during his two seasons. He totaled 43 homers, 121 RBI and 35 stolen bases in 741 at-bats. And after going 8 for 44 in the 2004 postseason, including no hits in nine plate appearances during a painful World Series defeat, he redeemed himself in 2005 by driving in 10 runs against the Dodgers in a three-game NLDS.
A three-year, $10.25 million deal brought the 30-year-old infielder to St. Louis before the 2005 season. His only two All-Star campaigns came as a Cardinal. He didn't just help win the 2006 World Series, he overcame injuries then shook off a frigid start to blaze his way to series MVP, and the Corvette that came with it. Plus, he quickly became a fan favorite.
The seemingly down-and-out outfielder signed on with the Cards as a minor league free agent hoping to revive his career, and he did just that after the club called up the 28-year-old during the 2007 season.
The Cards got him for $411,000 before he forced them to pay up. Heck of a deal.
"He's fun to watch, " Cards manager Tony La Russa once said. "He gives himself a chance because he swings."
Ludwick hit .267 and knocked 14 homers after his call up, then earned All-Star and Silver Slugger honors in 2008 thanks to career highs in batting average (.299), homers (37), and RBI (113). During his four years as a Cardinal he hit .280/.349/.507.
The Cards became the 29-year-old righty starter's fourth team in less than two years when they signed him to a one-year deal worth $4.25 million headed into the 2008 season. It turned out to be a steal.
He went 15-6 with a 3.78 ERA, and forced the Cards to keep him around. The two parties agreed on a four-year extension worth $41 million.
Lohse compiled a record of 55-35 with a 3.90 ERA in 136 starts during his five years in St. Louis.
He was 3-4 with a 5.45 ERA in seven postseason starts.
Houston's former All-Star, fresh off a stint with the Yankees, arrived in St. Louis on a one-year deal worth $8 million, then spent the 2011 season showing why he was worth it. The 35-year-old outfielder and first baseman put together his sixth All-Star season, hitting .301/.412/.547 with 31 homers and 94 RBI. The NL comeback player of the year hit .313/.413/.438 with two homers and 11 RBI during the Cards' postseason run that didn't stop until they lifted the trophy. He received a one-year, $12 million extension, but played just 32 games in 2012 due to multiple injuries.
The 35-year-old, six-time All-Star outfielder lived up to the expectations that came with his two-year, $26 million deal entering the 2012 season.
The switch-hitter was an eight-time All-Star by the time he moved back to New York. He averaged .282/.343/.493 as a Cardinal, hit 56 homers and totaled 181 RBI. In 29 postseason games, he averaged .306/.410/.571, hit five homers and totaled 21 RBI. On top of his performance, Beltran was a clubhouse leader who won the 2013 Roberto Clemente Award.
The hard-hitting left fielder was already a Cardinal, but the challenge in January 2010 was keeping it that way. It took the richest contract in club history — seven years, $120 million — to lock the 30-year-old free agent in. He was an All-Star four out of the seven seasons that followed, and the Cardinals made it to the World Series twice, winning it all in 2011.
SEUNG HWAN OH
It wasn't the 2017 season Oh wanted, and that's an understatement. His ERA bloated to 4.10. He got tagged for six losses. But consider this: Between 2016-17 the righthander ranked 23rd in the majors in saves (39) and 23rd in save percentage (83). He stepped into the closer role when Trevor Rosenthal struggled. He opened the door for the Cardinals' future recruiting in Korea. And he only cost the club a little more than $5 million. Factor in that relatively cheap contract with the full body of work, and this was a good deal.
TO BE DETERMINED: DEXTER FOWLER
The former Cubs center fielder and leadoff hitter signed a five-year, $82.5 million deal to fill those same roles in St. Louis starting in 2017. There is a chance he occupies neither in 2018. If you add up Fowler's at-bats in the second (50), third (85) and fourth (63) spots in the order, you will notice that he totaled more combined at-bats in those spots than he did at the top of the lineup (195). Some of that is because Matt Carpenter, once again, just hit better in the leadoff spot than he did anywhere else. It's also because Fowler showed surprising pop, knocking a career-high 18 homers and posting a career-high .488 slugging percentage.
Fowler's power was a pleasant surprise. His defense and the hard time he had staying healthy were different stories. Both the eye test and advanced statistics showed Fowler was out of place in Busch Stadium's center field; a shift to a corner outfield position seems like a common-sense solution. A series of injuries, including a heel spur and a strained wrist, limited Fowler to 118 games. If the power sticks around, the health holds up and a less-tasking defensive position is assigned, Fowler can bounce back from a less-than-stellar start to his time as a Cardinal.
(Fowler analysis by columnist Ben Frederickson)
BEST OF THE REST
More Cardinals free-agent signings who made a positive impact:
DELINO DESHIELDS: Second baseman was a triples machine and base-stealer extraordinaire during two seasons in the late 1990s. ...
JUAN ENCARNACION: Promise shown during 2006 season was snuffed out by sad, bizarre eye injury that ended his career. ...
KENT BOTTENFIELD: Righty starter made lone All-Star appearance of his career with the Cards, thanks to an 18-7 record and 3.97 ERA in 1999. ...
STEVE KLINE: Lefthanded specialist was reliable for four years (2001-04) and earned bonus points with fans after he left by telling Baltimore fans they couldn't match the BFIB. ...
GARY GAETTI: The Pride of Centralia, Ill., spent just less than three seasons (1996-98) with the Cards before Fernando Tatis came along.