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St. Louis Cardinals: With Free Agency, Hindsight Is Always 20/20

Every winter the outcry is for the owners to open up the wallet and spend. Believe it or not, they have. It just hasn’t worked out very well. The most recent signings of Brett Cecil, Greg Holland and Dexter Fowler have not had the greatest of returns. You may be saying, well they are spending on the wrong guys. But we must remember that hindsight is 20/20. At the time of the signings, there would have been no reason to say they were bad. The same goes for the big misses on Jason Heyward and David Price. At the time, the Cardinals would have been champions of the winter, but they would have been regrettable signings. Let’s look at their last 3 big expenditures in free agency.

Dexter Fowler – 5yrs/$82M

In the winter of 2016, MLBTradeRumors ranked Fowler as the 6th best available free agent. Among position players, he ranked behind only Yoenis Cespedes, Edwin Encarnacion, and Justin Turner. If you think we should have signed any of those guys, well, the Mets were ready to go all out to retain Cespedes and Turner is an LA native who had no intention of leaving. Encarnacion I could argue, he is a legit middle of the order bat. However, they were shopping for a CF

Fowler was highly regarded at the time. Among free agents, he had the highest previous year OBP (.393) of any hitter. He had shown some power, some speed, and there was reason to believe that good positioning would help any defensive deficiencies. He filled a need and was a very good player. It seemed like a wise signing.

He had a very good 2017, though his numbers were dragged down by a terrible first two weeks and a couple of DL stints. Based on his 2017, I don’t think anyone could have imagined what he has done so far in 2018. I still believe he has plenty of ability left. However, steep decline is the risk you run when signing big free agent deals with players over 30, and the three remaining years on Dex’s contract could get interesting if he doesn’t find his stroke in the 2nd half.

Brett Cecil – 4yrs/$30.5M

Trade Rumors ranked Cecil 26th in their top 50 2016 free agents , 7th among relievers, and the 3rd LRP on the list behind Aroldis Chapman and swing-man Travis Wood. The handedness was a big deal, they were seeking a shutdown lefty. Trade Rumors pegged him at 3yrs/$18M and he signed for 4yrs/$30.5M, so the Cardinals up the ante in years and dollars to make it happen. He was a premiere setup man for Toronto, carrying a 2.90 ERA and 11.5 K/9 as a full-time reliever from 2013-16. Even in a year interrupted by injury in 2016, he sprinted to the finish, striking out 36 in his final 26 1/3 innings. From July 22nd on he had posted a 1.74 ERA.

He seemed to be an incredible get for the Cardinals in November of 2016. To-date, he has been more of the middle-reliever quality. Unfortunately they are paying him to be better.

Greg Holland – 1yr/$14M

Enough with the idea that the Cardinals were able to sign him on Opening Day because no one wanted him. Holland ranked 10th on MLBTradeRumors 2017 Free Agent Rankings, with Wade Davis as the only RP ahead of him. He had an option on the table with Colorado, as well as a Qualifying Offer, that he declined. Bob Nightengale reported that Holland turned down the offer from Colorado that Wade Davis took. Holland signed after spring training because he finally lowered his demands and was willing to accept a 1-year deal.

Also, don’t tell me that the writing was on the wall with Holland. Yes, his 2017 1st and 2nd Half splits look bad, but all of the second half problems can be isolated to an 8 game stretch in August. For 90% of 2017, Holland was very good. Subtracting the 5 bad appearances in that 8 game stretch (which immediately followed a hand laceration), Holland pitched in 56 games, sporting a 1.50 ERA and 11.33 K/9. Pretty solid.

On a 1-year deal, it should have been a low risk / high reward signing. The fact that he has been a complete disaster for the Cardinals is something not even the big naysayers could have predicted. Being average, sure, but not being the worst in the league.

Not-So-Honorable Mention

I will briefly mention Luke Gregerson, whose 2yr/$11M contract has not worked out yet. He really hasn’t been healthy so there isn’t much to say. Still, they haven’t gotten any return on that investment. The difference with him is that he was not a Top 50 free agent and that contract seemed like an overpay at the time and still looks uninspiring, so it’s not quite the same the as the others.

Wrapping It Up

Recently, the birds haven’t had much luck with their big buys, but have simultaneously had very good lower-budget signings such as Bud Norris for 1yr/$3M and Miles Mikolas for 2yrs/$15M. That’s the hit and miss nature of the free agent market. That’s why so many players sat around until late January and early February before settling on 1-year deals. Teams finally got smart. How bad have the final years of contracts looked on guys like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford? Why would teams put themselves in those situations? The Cardinals could have and should have gone big for Max Scherzer, but generally, big money contracts don’t work out all that well. Check out Ian Desmond, who ranked 9th on the free agent list in 2016 and signed for 5yrs/$70, only to post a -2.1 bWAR through his first year and a half with Colorado.

Bottom line, free agency is a crapshoot and it’s so easy to only view it in retrospect and dismiss that at the time, we thought it would be money well spent. I was personally in favor of all three signings at the time of signing. I’ll also admit that right now, they all look pretty ugly.

But the crazy thing is, with all three current Cardinals, they could get rolling and completely change our perspective in a month’s time. That’s baseball.

Thanks for reading!

Rusty Groppel
I'm a diehard Cardinals fan that feels privileged to write about his favorite team in this corner of cyberspace. I'm also the bass player for the best damn band in the 618, Tanglefoot. Check us out some time.
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