Friday, January 30, 2009

[UCB Blog Swap] Cardinals and free agency: a patchwork history

[Editor's note: The UCB's latest project is a blog swap. A few of us have written posts to be published on someone else's blog, and no one knows who is writing where (except the writer and host blog, of course). The following post was written by one of my fellow bloggers. Can you guess which one? And can you find my post out there in the blogosphere? If you want to guess whose work this is, please do so in the comments section. To read the other participants' entries, please visit C70 at the bat, Cardinals Diaspora, Fungoes, Pitchers Hit Eighth, and Play a Hard Nine. Enjoy!]

With Cardinal fans clamoring more and more every off-season for the Cardinals to be big spenders in the free agent market, I thought I’d take a brief look back at this ownership’s forays into free agency and how they turned out:

Keep in mind, I said brief, so I’m going to limit my scope here to relatively significant contracts, for multiple years and significant dollars – none of the one-year “low-hanging fruit” variety – since that’s what everyone’s after anyway, the big contract and big names.


Gary Gaetti, 3B, 2 years
Andy Benes, SP, 2 years
Ron Gant, OF, 5 years

Gosh, it’s been that long ago that Ron Gant was roaming the outfield at Busch II? Seems like just yesterday. So Gaetti wasn’t bad in his time, but then pulled an Edmonds and signed with the Cubs after being released (or maybe Jimmy pulled a Gaetti?). Benes had a great 1996, going 18-10 as the Cards went to the playoffs.


Delino DeShields, 2B, 2 years

DeShields played two solid, if fairly unspectacular years for the Cardinals. What’s worse is that those two unspectacular years might rank as a couple of the best since new ownership took over.


Kent Bottenfield, RP/SP

Bottenfield was (kind of) the first conversion project for the Cardinals. He broke into the bigs as a starter, then went to the pen for several years before the Cards put him in the rotation. He won 18 games in 1999, which the Cardinals parlayed into Jim Edmonds.


Eric Davis, OF, 2 years
Scott Radinsky, RP, 2 years

Meh. Neither had much of an impact.


Mike Matheny, C, 3 years
Andy Benes, SP (again)

Matheny worked out great for the Cards both as their star defensive catcher (something Tony craves) as well as a mentor for Yadier Molina. Benes was now on the downside of his career, but provided veteran leadership and toughness. Probably not enough to be worth what they paid him.


Nothing of note

Perhaps sitting on their laurels after the 2000 playoff run?


Jason Isringhausen, RP, 4 years
Tino Martinez, 1B, 3 years
So Taguchi, OF, 3 years

Here’s the big spending. Isringhausen, for all of the hatred he’s received the past couple of seasons, turned out to be an excellent signing. He is the Cardinals’ all-time leader in saves, and prior to breaking down was just as maddening, but at least reliable to go out there every day. Taguchi was a big rush of excitement as the team’s first Japanese signing, but was promptly sent to the minors. He turned into a crowd favorite in St Louis as a pinch hitter and defensive specialist. Plus, he really didn’t cost them much of anything.

Then there’s Tino. Ah, Tino Martinez. You never could’ve filled the previous first baseman’s andro bottles. It was a no-win situation for you, and you took advantage. This is probably the worst contract (injury issues aside) of this Cardinal ownership regime. I would also classify it as perhaps the beginning of the Cardinals’ proclivity to shy away from the free agent market. They had to pay Tino a bunch of money to play poorly and then pay a bunch of money on top of it just to get rid of him.


Nothing of note

Well, at least they didn’t sign Tino again.


Nothing of note

By this point, Walt Jocketty had settled into his master plan. Trade for the veterans and make sure they fit with the team before handing out huge contracts. See Mark McGwire, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, et al.


David Eckstein, SS, 3 years

Eckstein was the hero of the 2006 World Series Champion team, and arguably at a bargain compared to the contract outgoing shortstop Edgar Renteria received from Boston .


Braden Looper, RP, 3 years
Juan Encarnacion, OF, 3 years

I’m not sure how Looper’s contract would’ve looked had he remained in the bullpen. As it were, his two seasons starting made him look cheap in comparison as he was eating up innings in the rotation. Would Cardinal fans be singing a different tune if he were lumped into a group with those scallywags in the bullpen? Poor Juan Encarnacion. I just hope Juan can eventually find a return to some sort of normal life after baseball.


Adam Kennedy, 2B, 3 years

The modern-day Tino Martinez? Kennedy is reviled in St Louis, not only for perceived poor performance (I say perceived because he is hanging right around his career numbers – you get what you pay for), but also for feuding with the manager, demanding a trade but then being basically so worthless that the Cardinals can’t give him away, and then ultimately being settled into the 2009 starting 2B slot (albeit likely prohibiting the Cardinals from making another bad move by overpaying one of the available free agent 2B).


Nothing of note

The team at this point is clearly heading in the direction of self-sufficiency. Having some great drafts under their belt since Jeff Luhnow took over, the Cardinals’ farm system is experiencing a renaissance. Jocketty would’ve long traded these guys away for veteran stars, but Cardinal fans have seen where that puts the team down the road when the prospects run out.

Finally, this list only takes into account “new” free agent signings. This list doesn’t include contracts like Joel Pineiro, Mark Mulder, Chris Carpenter, Scott Spiezio – other deals that have certainly wasted a few dollars and tested patience. Heck, you might even put Kyle Lohse on there – he readily admits now that he was pressuring management to extend his contract – he saw the writing on the wall, and wanted to get in before the market fell out from under him again. Think the Cardinals regret that just a bit now? Or how about Mark McGwire? The Cardinals are darn lucky that he left his guaranteed contract extension on the table in 2001 rather than signing it and walking away. I wonder how different the team would’ve been in 2004 if they had to pay McGwire that $30mm over 2002 and 2003?

While I hope it’s not the case, because eventually the time will come when it will be necessary to dive in and make a big free agent splash to supplement the homegrown kids, I can’t help but wonder if the Cardinals have gotten burned one too many times with big open-market free agent deals? Are they gun-shy?