St. Louis Cardinals Paying the Price for Foolish Spending in Baseball

Tim Fitzgerald@TimmyFitz76Contributor IFebruary 10, 2011

NEW YORK - JULY 14:  (L-R) Lance Berkman of the Houston Astros, Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees and Alberto Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals talk during batting practice for the 2008 MLB All-Star game at Yankee Stadium on July 14, 2008 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)
Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The St. Louis Cardinals have tried to compete with the big market teams when it comes to free agent spending, and even more so when retaining their own core players. 

But they still have fiscal limitations. The Cardinals are 24th in market size amongst the 30 MLB teams.

However, they are known for their extremely loyal fan base and rank fourth in the majors in total attendance and attendance per game. This brings their total revenue, after considering all revenue sources, to tenth in the majors.

They’ve paid good money to core players when they deserve it and when it’s at a price the Cards think the player is worth.  

Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Yadier Molina, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds and Albert Pujols all received very good deals for themselves, and also a contract the Cardinals felt was fair. Their ability to re-sign players to long-term, lucrative contracts depends entirely on their ability to draw fans.

Though those all-star players were paid handsomely by the Cardinals, they do not always pay players based on what the market dictates or succumb to matching a price another team is willing to pay that they feel is too high. 

Matt Holliday is a rare exception to the current ownership’s history since he actually reached free agency, and they coveted his bat in the lineup.

Even the Kyle Lohse contract was based on what they thought was a decent price for a pitcher coming off of a good 2008 season he had working with Dave Duncan for the first time. Though most of us have our doubts, a healthy Lohse could make the last two seasons of that four-year contract somewhat worth while.

Lohse and Holliday are both represented by Scott Boras, who pushes the salary envelope, encourages his players to chase the highest dollar and has pilfered pretty much every baseball team.

We’ll get to more on him shortly.

But players like Jeff Weaver, Jeff Suppan, David Eckstein, Mark Grudzielanek, Edgar Renteria, Fernando Vina and others had higher offers from other teams, and the Cardinals have been fine with bowing out when they feel a team is offering a player more than he’s worth.

They didn’t feel comfortable guaranteeing free agent A.J. Burnett a fifth year before he signed with the Toronto Blue Jays. They exited the bidding for Brian Fuentes when it became apparent they would have to pay more than the Anaheim Angels were offering in order to lure Fuentes away from playing near his home.

Both of those decisions worked out well for the Cardinals.

The Price of Greatness

This brings us to the conundrum they face when trying to make the best player in baseball, the highest paid player in baseball.  

In order to make Albert Pujols the highest paid player, the Cardinals will have to top the current salary of New York Yankees third basemen Alex Rodriguez, which averages out to roughly $27.5 million a year.  

Boras engineered a 10-year $252 million dollar contract for Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers in 2001 when he hit free agency. He encouraged Rodriguez to take that deal over a lesser one offered by the New York Mets, a decision A-Rod would eventually regret.

That dwarfed the eight-year $121 million dollar contract Mike Hampton received from the Colorado Rockies just earlier that offseason, which did not work out too well for the Rockies either.

The Rangers were handcuffed by the Rodriguez contract. They couldn’t acquire starting pitching, and finished last in the AL West every year with A-Rod. He put up big, MVP numbers, but it never translated into wins and he was traded to the Yankees in 2004.

Former Rangers owner Tom Hicks would eventually sell the team after filing for bankruptcy and borrowing money from Major League Baseball to make payroll.  

After Boras clumsily opted Rodriguez out of the final year of his Rangers contract in 2007, A-Rod went around Boras to initiate the 10-year $275 million deal. It also includes incentives for achieving home run milestones that could bring the deal up to $305 million total.

Rodriguez was considered the best player in baseball and was still in his late prime when the Yankees re-signed him. However, we would later learn he did steroids during various points in his career, when in 2009 Rodriguez admitted using them during a more “loosey-goosey” era in baseball after accusations of his use by others.  

The use of steroids most likely pumped up what would have still been very good to great seasons for A-Rod, to historically gaudy numbers for a shortstop and even a third baseman. Nonetheless it creates doubt as to whether or not he really was the best player in baseball, and if he should have been paid as such.

But the Yankees are the Yankees. They play in New York, have a shiny, new, massive stadium, their own cable network and are immune to dead money crippling their payroll.  

The Cardinals are not the Yankees. They play in a much smaller market and do not pull in the same non-attendance-oriented revenue.  

Since A-Rod signed that contract, the Philadelphia Phillies have signed one-dimensional, but powerful first baseman Ryan Howard to a five-year $125 million dollar extension that won’t even begin until after this season when Howard will be 32 years old.

First baseman Mark Teixeira signed an eight-year $180 million contract with the Yankees, short stop Troy Tulowitzki signed a 10-year $158 million contract to remain in Colorado, Carl Crawford jumped to the Red Sox for seven years and $142 million and the biggest overpay of them all was for 31-year-old Jayson Werth by the Nationals for seven years and $126 million.

None of those contracts were the doing of the St. Louis Cardinals, and it makes their $120 million over seven years—with and option for an eighth—for Matt Holliday look like a bargain.  

One mega contract that at least seems fair in the current era of baseball salaries is catcher Joe Mauer’s eight-year, $184 million deal, since he is a rare combination of exceptional offense and defense at his position. He probably could have commanded even more in free agency, but opted to remain with his home-town Twins.

All of these contracts have an affect on Pujols’ negotiations due to either their length or annual value, since they are a starting point for a contract of a position player in high demand.  

Real Talk

Though all good players in their own right, none of the aforementioned position players comes close to matching the production of Pujols. Only nine players in baseball history have had Pujols’ average season even once in their careers according to Joe Posnanski.

Pujols is the best player in baseball, but it’s unfortunate that the Cardinals are expected to pay him as such based on a horrible, franchise-crippling contract of a player whose performance was enhanced beyond what Major League Baseball currently allows and should have all along.

But the situation is what it is, and the Cardinals have to know what the expectations are from Pujols’ camp. The real world isn’t an ideal world and the Cardinals can’t operate in a vacuum.  

They have to find the right compromise with Pujols, either in years or in average annual value because he is a special case, and the heart of their franchise. He’s already a historic player and a seat filler for a team dependent on its attendance clearing three million fans per season.

Pujols, however, has to be aware of the Cardinals' limitations and their view of other contracts around the majors if he really wants to remain a Cardinal as he says.  

Sure, he’s been underpaid since he’s become a machine-like, metronome of production and other players salaries have since exceeded his. But he didn’t have to sign that contract at age 24, buying out his arbitration and free-agent years after three stellar seasons in the majors.  

He signed that deal and can’t blame the Cardinals for being smart, nor should he feel he’s owed more since other contracts passed up his in the meantime.  

Albert will be 32 years old when his extension starts, and to demand 10 years at $300 million a year is unrealistic, IF that’s what his agent is really demanding, regardless of how well he trains. And it doesn’t match the public M.O. of Pujols who says his top priority isn’t money.

Edmonds, Rolen, Jason Isringhausen, Renteria, Mark McGwire and others, could have commanded more money in free agency than they did in staying with the Cardinals. But they had all been on other teams before, and knew the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

Pujols hasn’t had that opportunity to look around at other back yards and I’m sure he’s curious. But the St. Louis Cardinals have more to offer than money, and Pujols has to realize that.

Pujols has more to offer the Cardinals than just run production, and they have to realize that. He generates attendance revenue, sells merchandise and draws attention to the Cardinals. They both need each other and need to get this deal done.

The Cardinals have done a great job of being fiscally responsible in an era where a lot of franchises foolishly throw money around. But for the sake of this season and success in future seasons, signing Albert is not only still fiscally responsible, but absolutely necessary.


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