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St. Louis Cardinals Avoid Pitfalls of Big Contracts

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St. Louis Cardinals Avoid Pitfalls of Big Contracts
Gene J. Puskar

While perusing this list of the top MLB salaries in 2014, you have to travel down 22 spots before seeing the first St. Louis Cardinals player. Adam Wainwright checks in there with his $19.5 million payday this season.

Actually, Wainwright would be 24th since this list doesn’t reflect recent deals signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw and the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout.

But that’s not really the point. Many Cards players get paid handsomely for their services. And while it’s true they don’t have the financial resources of the New York Yankees, Dodgers or Angels, they’re not the Little Sisters of the Poor, either.

The Cardinals are rarely in the top 10 in payroll, and they’ve never been a top-five spender. In 2005, they reached their payroll pinnacle at sixth. 

What’s impressive—and telling—about St. Louis’ run of eight National League Championship Series appearances since 2000 is the team hasn’t had to throw around mega bucks to manufacture on-field success.

Most of that has to do with circumstances created by the organization. The front office deserves tons of credit for scouting and player development. Ownership also has made shrewd moves to lock up budding stars into team-friendly deals. The Cardinals have won while maintaining a balance of cheap, younger players to offset pricier veterans.

And then there’s the impact of the city itself. Few places in the sports landscape do a better job at selling players on a culture than St. Louis. It’s impossible to account for the millions saved when a player falls in love with the winning tradition and a deep, loyal fan base.

In the wake of Kershaw's huge deal with the Dodgers, Wainwright's deal looked like a steal for the Cardinals. Still, Wainwright insisted he's content with the five-year, $97 million extension he signed in March of last year. Wainwright told Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

Once I signed that deal, that was the deal I wanted to sign. I didn’t have to sign it. We worked to get to a number where I felt made it fair for both sides. This is where I wanted to be. Do I think I could have made more money on the free agent market? Absolutely.

But you can’t buy happiness. I’m not going to be happier anywhere else than where I am right now.

The club had its chance to dip its toes into the $20-million-a-year player pool a few seasons ago. Cards fans remember Albert Pujols’ free-agent soap opera in the 2011 offseason.

The Redbirds were world champs, and their best player, a franchise icon, was set to test the open market. Many fans were willing to pay any amount of ownership’s money to keep El Hombre. Even to the point of sacrificing the team’s ability to assemble a winning club around Pujols, keeping the three-time National League MVP had to happen. Nothing else would be tolerated or accepted.

It doesn’t matter which side you believe on how negotiations broke down. Even with the Cardinals' reported eight-year, $200 million deal, No. 5 was going to make north of $25 million per season to wear the Birds on the Bat.

Ultimately, of course, Pujols signed with the Angels. And who can blame him? His 10-year, $240 million mammoth deal will pay him a ridiculous $30 million in 2021 when he’s 41. The Cardinals wanted him to stay, but they weren’t insane.

The Cardinals have done fine without the player they couldn’t afford to lose. In two subsequent seasons, they’ve reached the NLCS and World Series. Many of the Cardinals faithful who clamored to go all-in to keep him are openly relieved they didn’t. They wince at the thought of the likely repercussions that deal would’ve had on the franchise.

Either Wainwright or Yadier Molina likely wouldn’t have re-signed—and maybe neither. The money simply wouldn’t have been there. Such a financial commitment to Pujols would impact deals for Allen Craig and Matt Carpenter. Forget about Carlos Beltran’s two years in the Lou. Same goes for Jhonny Peralta’s four-year deal last offseason.

Even if Pujols stayed and produced the same impressive numbers as the first 11 seasons in St. Louis, the deal still would look sketchy at best.

Pujols’ production with the Angels continues to drop while his time in the trainer’s room increases. He missed the majority of last season due to injury. The effects of Father Time give little hope of him returning to superstar levels attained with the Cardinals.

St. Louis entered last offseason desperately searching for a shortstop. Rumors linked the team to Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki. The Cardinals had the financial flexibility to absorb his hefty price tag, and they had the prospects to pull it off. But such a deal, whether rooted in reality or not, didn’t make sense.

The Cardinals aren’t immune to bad decisions. But the club’s few misses aren’t the type of payroll-crippling mistakes that would send the franchise into a recession. Clubs with a $110 million payroll can’t afford to invest a quarter of that on one player, no matter who he is.

Look at what’s happened to the Minnesota Twins after the eight-year, $184 million deal given to Joe Mauer following his MVP season in 2009. He hit 28 home runs that year. The next four seasons combined, he’s hit 33 homers. Meanwhile, his $23 million annual salary accounts for at least a quarter of the team’s payroll.

Not coincidentally, the Twins have gone 195-291 in the last three seasons.

Few teams get the kind of return on their investment as the Cardinals.

Craig batted .316 while hitting 13 homers and driving in 97 runs last season. And that’s despite missing nearly all of September with an ankle injury. He got paid $1.75 million.

The top three earners among National League first basemen in 2013 were Adrian Gonzalez ($21.8M), Ryan Howard ($20M) and Joey Votto ($18.9M).

Gonzalez had a great season for the Dodgers with a .293-22-100 line. Votto went .305-24-73. Not too shabby. But Howard was limited to 11 homers and 286 at-bats due to injury.

Starters Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly and Lance Lynn went a combined 40-24 with a 3.33 ERA last season. Together they made $1.5 million.

Carpenter, who finished fourth in the NL MVP race, had 199 hits, scored 126 runs and made $504,000.

The team also got great returns on its larger investments.

Matt Holliday had the third-highest salary among NL left fielders ($17M) last season. Among qualifiers at that position, he was fourth in homers (22) and first in RBI (94), average (.300) and OPS (.879).

Signed to a five-year, $75 million extension during spring training last season, Molina lived up to his new $14.2 million salary by finishing second in NL MVP voting.

Clearly, Wainwright's extension made him complacent. Now earning $12 million, he finished second in the Cy Young voting after a 19-win campaign.

The Cardinals are happy to let others hand out enormous deals that look bad before the ink’s dry on the contract. Four World Series appearances and two titles in 10 seasons show they’re investing the right way.

All salary information courtesy of Spotrac.com unless otherwise noted.

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