For all the talk about how the St. Louis Cardinals have found success without a centerpiece superstar, it is worth noting that the basic principle of roster construction that team president John Mozeliak has held since taking control of the team in 2007 revolves around having a superstar.The 2006 season
For all the talk about how the St. Louis Cardinals have found success without a centerpiece superstar, it is worth noting that the basic principle of roster construction that team president John Mozeliak has held since taking control of the team in 2007 revolves around having a superstar.
The 2006 season ended with a surprise World Series win from an aging roster that had Jose Pujols signed for five more years and one of the worst farm systems in baseball. The Cardinals knew they had five years to reconstruct their roster in order to have enough money to ensure that Pujols re-signed with them, so Mozeliak, who took over as GM in '07, and owner Bill DeWitt made some changes. They brought in new head of amateur scouting Jeff Luhnow and reconstructed the entire Minor League system with a clear mandate: Produce enough cheap talent that we don't have to pay free-agent money that we've earmarked for Pujols to other players. And it worked, extravagantly, in every imaginable way but one.
The Cardinals' farm system went from the worst in baseball to the best over the next five years, producing players like Matt Carpenter, Oscar Taveras, Shelby Miller, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, Kolten Wong, Trevor Rosenthal, Joe Kelly and many others, and St. Louis ended up with another World Series title in 2011. The only thing that didn't work: Pujols still left, signing with the Angels after the '11 season.
Not signing Pujols ultimately turned out well for the Cardinals, but it did expose a flaw in the plan: It's smart to construct a roster that can support a superstar with a bunch of 2-3 WAR players, above-average guys at cheap salaries -- but it requires having an actual superstar. The Cards replaced Pujols with Carlos Beltran giving Pujols Lite-type production for a couple of years, but since then, there has been no signature star. Carpenter, Tommy Pham, even Jason Heyward had a stray terrific year here or there, but there has been no signature, reliable, year-by-year superstar for the Cardinals to build around. They have tried: They were willing to take on Giancarlo Stanton's contract last year before he decided to accept a trade to the Yankees, and they traded for Marcell Ozuna hoping he could be that guy. (He wasn't, at least not in 2018.) The Cards have been a good team for the last three seasons. But they've had a hole at their center and haven't made the postseason in that stretch.
It's time to correct that. In recent days, national baseball scribes (led by MLB.com's own Anthony Castrovince, who actually put the prediction in writing last week) have finally caught on to what local Cardinals reporters and fans have been hollering for weeks: St. Louis is expected to be serious free-agent bidders this offseason, for superstar-level talent. Even though the Cards reportedly tried to trade for Manny Machado the past couple of seasons, he's not likely to be their primary, or even secondary target. This is a Bryce Harper hunt.
And the Cardinals should be all in. St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Benjamin Hochman argues that the only way the Cards shouldn't sign Harper is if he takes less money from another team.
He's right. Here are 10 reasons the Cardinals and Harper are a perfect fit.
1. The superstar factor
We just discussed this, but it bears repeating. The Cardinals have a ton of young talent, particularly young pitching, but none of it rises to the superstar level. Carpenter was close in 2018, but he fell off at the end of the year and besides, he'll be 33 in a couple of weeks, seven years older than Harper. The Cards are stacked with above-average, cost-efficient talent, from Paul DeJong to Wong to Harrison Bader, but they're all supporting-cast guys. Harper gives them the monster power threat they've been looking for since Pujols.
2. They would love him in St. Louis
It is not news to note that St. Louis is pretty obsessive about its baseball. But this is a place that welcomed back Matt Adams as if he had stormed Omaha Beach when he returned to the team this August. This is a town that worships its baseball stars. Ask Mark McGwire how Cardinals fans adore their sluggers, or, sheesh, ask Jack Clark, George Hendrick or Ryan Ludwick. They might not name the Arch after Harper, but multiple parks in the Central West End are on the table.
3. He seems to be interested
Obviously, Harper's going to be interested in whoever shows him cash, but multiple reports have stated that Harper won't turn away from St. Louis the way Stanton did. Harper is famously a player with an eye on baseball history, and there aren't many teams with more of it than the Cardinals. And he's already said he loves playing at Busch Stadium.
4. The defense would be fine
One of the arguments against Harper signing with a National League team is that he might need some time to be spelled at designated hitter, or even be a liability in the outfield. That's not giving Harper enough credit for his defensive aptitude -- he's a perfectly average fielder who even played some center field this year -- and besides, he would have a center fielder in Bader who, according to Statcast™'s Outs Above Average metric, was the best defensive outfielder in baseball in 2018.
5. The media is kinder, or at least not so actively mean
Much of St. Louis' press corps' reputation as too friendly toward the home nine is overblown: Ask Mike Matheny how much he enjoyed dealing with the media the final two years of his tenure. But still, St. Louis is not going to be New York, Los Angeles or (especially) Philadelphia. Harper was not disliked by D.C. reporters, but any time a superstar signs a massive contract like Harper's about to, there's a target on his back. In St. Louis, there are at least fewer people shooting arrows at it.
6. The Cardinals have postseason history
You may have heard that the Nationals have never made it out of the NL Division Series at any point in Harper's career. The Cardinals have missed the playoffs the last three seasons, but let's not forget: This is a team that made the NL Championship Series four consecutive years from 2011-14, and then won 100 games the season after that. The Cards are a franchise that never rebuilds, never tears it all down, never tanks. They are trying to win the World Series every season, which is all a player the caliber of Harper can ask.
7. It's taking advantage of a Cubs weakness
Harper has long been connected to the Cubs. He's longtime friends with Kristopher Bryant and he even has a dog named Wrigley. But the Cubs are unlikely to play in that end of the free-agent pool, especially after their spending spree from last offseason (Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrrow) backfired.
8. They should have the money to spend
They only have one player under contract beyond 2021 (DeJong), and while they'll have to deal with several players hitting arbitration around that time, none of it should be so crippling that they couldn't fit Harper around it with a little foresight. The Cardinals have shown they are willing to spend already: They had a top 10 payroll last year and haven't been lower than 14th since 1999. This is a team that has always been careful in free agency, has always, in the words of Mozeliak, "kept [its] powder dry." DeWitt has said the Cards have "payroll muscle." This is what you keep payroll muscle ready for. And we know this, because ...
9. They were just willing to do this with Stanton
The Cardinals, by all accounts, were willing to take on Stanton's entire contract last offseason. Stanton is signed through 2027 for a total of $270 million, nearly $33 million a year (when you account for a $10 million buyout in '28). Stanton is (obviously) a great player. But is he better than Harper? Probably not, right? And then remember that Harper is two years younger. Harper might get more than $33 million, and it might be for longer than '27. But that's still a better bet than Stanton, right? If they were willing to take Stanton, why in the world would they not go all the way for Harper?
10. Fans are getting restless
Look, St. Louis fans will get no sympathy from other fan bases. Three years out of the playoffs seems like an awfully short amount of time to Mariners fans. But this is a proud franchise that doesn't strip down its roster. They want to win the World Series every year, and their last playoff game, more than three years ago now, featured a giddy crowd singing "Go Cubs, Go" as the Cardinals skulked home for the offseason. Fair or not, much of this has been put on the shoulders of the front office, and if it falls short again, fans will start looking at Mozeliak and DeWitt; there is no Matheny to blame anymore.
The Cardinals need a splash. They need a centerpiece. The Cards need a superstar. They need Bryce Harper. And they should stop at nothing to get him.
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.