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Benjamin Hochman is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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.

Splurge.

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.


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