Pham's frustrations justified, but Cards are right, too

April 4th, 2018

Here's my favorite bit of trivia about Tommy Pham, and it's maybe the most important one: He's 30 years old. Pham was one of baseball's best stories last year, spending the first month of the season in the Minor Leagues before exploding for five months, finishing the season as a Top 10 fWAR player, according to Fangraphs, and placing 11th in National League MVP Award voting, just ahead of . Most baseball fans had never heard of him before last season, when he was one of the top players in the game, and clearly one of the most exciting, a guy who plays with urgency and fire and passion and, frankly, pure fury. He's hypnotic.
But Pham is also 30, older than , older than Dee Gordon. And that single fact, the way baseball is run and baseball players are evaluated in the year 2018, tells you almost everything you need to know about him, about how the St. Louis Cardinals have valued him in the past and how they value him moving forward, and, perhaps most relevant to the current conversation, why Pham is so mad.
On Tuesday, with the release of a terrific piece by Sports Illustrated writer (and current "Jeopardy!" champion!) Jack Dickey, the world got to see what Cardinals fans (and Cards management) has known about Pham for a few years now: He's angry. A few selected quotes:
• "I said, 'You know what, I'm the best [guy] on this team, and you guys don't even know it."
• "When are they gonna call me up? And then we're three weeks in. The guys are still struggling, Grichuk, Dex [Dexter Fowler], Piscotty. And I'm still balling! ... I zoned out in Triple-A."
• "They won't sell me to Japan. What the [heck]? They clearly don't believe in me."
(Amusingly, these are not the quotes emphasized on the Cardinals' local broadcast Tuesday night.)

Suffice it to say, these are unusual things for any baseball player to say, in that they are interesting and show off an independent, actively rebellious personality. As noted by St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Ben Frederickson, there were two immediate, opposite reactions to this piece. One: Pham is an original! At last someone who speaks his mind! Fight the man! Two: This guy showed up late to games because he wasn't playing? He asked for his release because he'd been passed on the depth chart? This guy doesn't care about the team: He's all about him! I'm in the former camp on that one, but the whole of baseball history tends to prefer the latter. But the question remains: Is Pham right that he was passed over? Have the Cardinals screwed him over? Or were there good reasons for the Cards -- a team that's traditionally excellent at spotting and nurturing talent -- to have missed on him for so many years?
The thing is: You can make a strong argument that they were both right.
The case for Pham
Pham might be new to the rest of baseball, but for deep-dive Cardinals fans, amateur sabermetricians and prospect mavens, Pham has long been a cause celebre. He struggled his first couple of seasons in the Minors -- he played Rookie ball in 2006; to compare, his Cards teammate , who has less than two years MLB service time than Pham, played rookie ball in 2016 -- but emerged in 2008 as a legitimate 30-30 candidate, aided by a smart batting eye. But that eye was a problem for him too; he suffers from keratoconus, a degenerative eye condition he has been battling his whole career. (He once used half his monthly Minor League salary on contact lenses.) Pham had a wrist injury; he switched from shortstop to center field; he, mostly, got older.
But Pham always hit, and once he got healthy, he really hit. As the story detailed, his emphasis on analytics improved him dramatically, but on the Cardinals' roster, he never quite fit. The Cards have had a glut of outfielders over the past half-decade, from the late Oscar Tavares to to to , and even though none of them hit like Pham, St. Louis kept giving them opportunities. Pham, while still fighting for a spot, even did this in the 2015 National League Division Series, to this date the last great Cardinals postseason moment.
Despite that, Pham never got his chance. Even in 2016, when he began the season in the starting lineup, he couldn't get his job back after injury and was stuck on the bench even as players above him struggled mightily. As noted by St. Louis radio producer Brian Hoffman, Pham got only one start in September 2016 while went 9-for-91 on the month, playing Pham's position. The Cardinals missed the playoffs by one game. Oh, and last year, he sat in Memphis in April while the Cards fooled around with Matt Adams in left field. Pham noticed and noted it back then too.

And then last year, Pham was the last player sent down in Spring Training (for , another Cardinals late bloomer), and many St. Louis fans, myself included, thought his job in Triple-A Memphis would be to train Bader and other Cards center-field prospects. Who breaks through at 29? No one. No one but Pham.
Pham is a player who is driven by his anger, his need to prove everyone wrong, to destroy enemies both real and imagined. This time: The doubters are not imaginary. They were real. They were the Cardinals.
The case for the Cardinals
Pham's vision problems have been under control for the past few years -- thanks, as reported by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Derrick Goold, largely to better contacts he could afford because of his big-league contract -- but they certainly weren't for most of his career: Many within the Cardinals got a little spooked by the "degenerative eye condition" considering this is, you know, baseball. (Eyes are very important.) Pham's Minor League wrist injury couldn't have come at a worse time either, right when Piscotty and Grichuk and Tavares were coming up behind him.
From the Cards' perspective, whom are you going to invest your time and energy in: The older player with eye issues and a broken wrist, or the potential power hitting monsters who are younger and more projectable? Who would you rather have on your team, a 27-year-old outfielder who can't get healthy and has bounced around your system, or a 22-year-old with tantalizing power and nothing but upside? Pham has a right to feel passed over; he was passed over. But there isn't a team in baseball that wouldn't have made the exact same decision.
Were mistakes made? Sure. The Cardinals shouldn't have committed so many at-bats to Moss in 2016, or kept Adams out there flailing around in '17. But the Cards had made investments in each of those players, and each of them were more proven at the big-league level than Pham, by a large amount. If Moss isn't so terrible in September 2016, the Cardinals maybe make the playoffs and no one ever thinks about Pham. The Adams left-field experiment is more difficult to justify, but the Cards were just trying to find some way to get Adams' bat in the lineup. (For what it's worth, after St. Louis traded Adams to Atlanta, the Braves tried him out there, too.) It is not as if Pham were some obvious, slam-dunk option. He was a 29-year-old journeyman who had shown flashes but never quite put it all together. Add in manager Mike Matheny's aversion to change and management's aversion to outspoken players like Pham -- general manager John Mozeliak actually said after last season that "I don't want [Pham] to be our spokesperson" -- and, well, choosing Pham wasn't their path of least resistance, put it that way.
Also in their (slight) defense: Once Pham had clearly shown that he was playing like a superstar, the Cardinals put him in the lineup, essentially every day. And their offseason plans revolved around him, moving to right field and giving Pham the coveted No. 2 spot in the order. They're now counting on Pham as much as anyone on their team. It's a bit belated, obviously. But they're certainly not undervaluing him now.
So now that Pham is raking and the Cardinals are showcasing him, all's good, right? Well, that's the problem, and probably the impetus for Pham's current anger. This offseason, the Cards approached Pham about giving him a slight raise, which is normal for players the team controls who have had positive seasons. Pham, for all intents and purposes, told them to buzz off: "It wasn't strong enough for me," he said. But because St. Louis has team control over Pham, and because he doesn't have three years of service time yet, the Cardinals don't have to do anything but renew his contract at the league minimum. So they did. (Something they hadn't done in 10 years.) Which means Pham's 2017 breakthrough … wasn't rewarded at all. He has to go out and do it again, to prove himself all over again.
This is the smart move for the Cardinals. But again, Pham isn't a kid: He's 30. It makes sense for the Cards not to give Pham, say, the deal, which signed DeJong potentially through his age-32 season; if they did, they'd be signing Pham through his age 38 season. Pham hasn't even hit arbitration yet. There's no reason for the Cardinals to buy out his arbitration. But there's also no reason for Pham to give the Cards a break before he ever gets his first big payday. (Pham has earned barely more than $1.6 million total since signing with the team in 2006, which, as I noted a couple of weeks ago, is barely more than, say, an NYPD sergeant would have made in that time.) Pham has to have another superstar season just to finally get some solid MLB money, and even that will involve a (presumably contentious) arbitration. And St. Louis still controls his rights for two years after that. Pham will become a true free agent, for the first time, right before he turns 33. The Cardinals ultimately benefitted for being wrong about him for so long. The years Pham has to prove himself in the Majors will be entirely to the Cards' benefit.
This is to say: The Cardinals and Pham are stuck with each other. This isn't the NBA, where Kawhi Leonard can push for a trade because he's unhappy with where he is with his organization. (Only , with his massive contract and no-trade clause, was able to make that happen, and, as you might remember, that was quite the protracted process.) The bad part for Pham is that every good thing he does for himself to try to get that ultimate payday, for the next three years, benefits the Cards, who are getting that production for cheap. This is obviously frustrating for Pham. It would be frustrating for a lot of people. But that's the situation, one you barely find in baseball anymore. Most teams would have moved on from Pham. Most players would have never broken through like Pham did. The combination of those two unlikelihoods have led us here, where Pham is venting at the Cardinals to a "Jeopardy!" champion. He's right to. But the Cards are right as well. The best thing Pham can do for himself is to keep hitting like a maniac for the next three years. That is honestly the only thing he can do.