The rumor mill regarding the Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays pitcher David Price is spinning at a nearly 24 hour a day pace now as the trade deadline approaches. And has always with potential blockbuster deals, the true reality and details regarding them are always tough to gauge at face value. However, one thing is for certain: the team has not had a clearer and more present need to swing a major move than it does now in several years.
More so than any other team that is in the ‘Price Sweepstakes’, the Cardinals have the ability to deal from the top of the deck of their prospect pool, with little impact to their long-term Major League forecast. While any such trade would certainly require them to move some portion of their everyday talent, such a move could feasibly be made without blowing too many crucial bricks out their considerable foundation and still remaining an immediately competitive Major League team.
Yet that is what John Mozeliak and company has to negotiate internally (and have shown resistance too in the past): is it finally time to move potential for a quick, impact return? And is this the year where there is no other option to create needed distance, regardless of how promised the future is with that acquisition…yet again?
For months now, the relationship between any potential Price/Cardinals match has simply been a game of connect the basic dots. Small-market team with big money player has to make move to get value for soon-to-be untenable asset. The Rays value prospect value in return, and all of the low-budget control years such properties bring.
Meanwhile in St. Louis, there is a team with expectation that is only met by winning its recently elusive, yet within grasp, World Series ring. It is an organization stocked with the type of young, yet ready to contribute talent that is the hallmark of the Rays’ organization and can afford expenditure without gutting itself in the process. All things considered, it is a reasonable and realistic match that is the simple type of situation that can get even the most one-sided fan stirring (and even banking upon).
Yet it was not until this past weekend that it seemed to really gain momentum to the point where the word around both clubs from officials, columnists, beat writers and even Price himself began to match what fan bases have been rumbling about for months. Along with the Dodgers, Mariners and Giants, the Cardinals have been placed firmly in the midst of the potential acquisition buzz for the biggest in-season pitcher swap since the Cliff Lee deal of nearly five years ago.
But it is no surprise that the Cardinals would find themselves here. They approach the deadline with a talented, but uncertain rotation. Adam Wainwright and Lance Lynn are mainstays; they are the lone safe bets in stock. Joe Kelly is returning from injury, while Shelby Miller has struggled and is currently on an R&R stint in the bullpen. Carlos Martinez has been up and down in the returns he has given since joining the rotation and Michael Wacha will not be cleared to attempt to comeback from a bone spur issue in his shoulder for another two weeks. All things considered, if the Cardinals want to pull themselves away from the pack in the NL Central, a power move that adds to the rotation is becoming increasingly clear as the only way to do so.
It was not too long ago that the club found itself in a similar place as well. In August of 2009, with a talented, yet top heavy, lineup in need of a boost to pull away from the pack, the club swung a 3-for-1 deal to bring the year’s top free agent to be bat to town in the form of Matt Holliday. Holliday responded by turning in a .355 average for the club down the stretch and helping them win the NL Central by nine games. A gamble for sure, yet goal was to do what it took to win then, which they achieved concisely.
The situation this summer mirrors that one. The team is solid, yet not much more than any other team within their own division. There is a clear area to upgrade in and to gain an upper hand. Price is without a question the best player on the market, and a member of a team that is running out of time to get a return on him before he is forced out of their expense range. Unlike in 2009, the Cardinals stash of minor league-to-young Major League talent is a treasure trove that they can deal from without the worries of leaving themselves completely bare down the line. Sure, they would lose some of the precious cost-controlled assets that this team has been smartly constructed around, but they have all of their impact players either under long-term deals or within arbitration control range as is, so the risk is not as severe of being left exposed, even if they fail to resign Price long-term if a deal is able to be reached.
Yet the economics of making a potential win-now move have to be respected, as does the concern about if he is worth it as well. It seems asinine to consider the chance to pair together two of the game’s top arms in Price and Wainwright as a bad thing, caution should be observed, because as there is with everything, every action has a cause and ripple effect.
Price’s next deal will certainly be greater than any deal that the Cardinals have ever underwritten before. Currently, Adam Wainwright’s $97.5 million extension pays him at a rate of $19 million per season, which is a steal on the pitching market today, yet is still the largest deal in club history. Holliday’s seven year, $130 million deal that he took to return to St. Louis was a mind numbing deal at the time, and stood as significantly the largest deal in club history. And as was the case, it essentially made the team pick make some very tough choices down the road (Pujols, Lohse). This time around, a $150 million deal over six or so years is completely reasonable for Price, but that would impact the ability to retain some combination of Wacha, Miller, Lynn, Trevor Rosenthal or Matt Adams over time. The last time the club by passed on a massive deal that was before them, the rewards down the road included extensions for Wainwright, Molina, Matt Carpenter and Allen Craig—essentially, a bulk of the core of the team was enabled to be retained.
There is a decision to make—which sum is greater?
The Holliday pact came after a period where the team rolled the dice and won in the open market—which seems to be something the club wants to avoid this time around. It has been said that the team would want certain financial assurances that Price would agree to an extension as a contingency of any deal, which seems to be both an awkward request and potentially a stopping gap in a deal being reached while time is ticking down towards the deadline.
The Dodgers and Mariners both especially would seem less inclined on such a safety belt arrangement. Because money is power at all times, whether it is in the moment or down the road. And both clubs have more spending power than the Cardinals do to potentially retain the star that should command a very substantial deal that comes in the wake of the Clayton Kershaw landmark deal, as well as the forthcoming contract that will find Max Scherzer, another former 20-game winning, Cy Young winner like Price.
Yet on the same accord, there comes a time where living in the moment also overrules living for an uncertain future. Basically, a calculated risk that pushes the limit and changes the face of the team is taken. That is certainly what the Cardinals have the ability to do in a swap for Price, which would give them one of the most intimidating starting rotations in baseball, regardless of the status of Wacha, Miller or Martinez going ahead. And that is certainly an alluring scenario.
But the reality of the other edge of the sword is there as well too. If 2014 has shown anything, it is that nothing is forever. The slump of Craig, the slow start of Oscar Taveras, the less-than desirable returns from Peter Bourjos, the injuries to Molina and Wacha and even the unpredictable nature of Rosenthal, all of these issues have dawned at different times throughout the season and due to the depth of talents of all sorts the club has at its expense, it has been able to take the scenic route back towards the top of the NL this year.
So the simple science of it all is what’s worth it? If winning the 2014 World Series is the absolute goal, and the idea is that paramount over everything else, go all in and worry about the rest later. But the great strength of the team has been its practiced patience over the years with its assets. All things considered, this season needs a booster shot and Price certainly is a perfect fit with the team, but there are plenty of other elements to consider as well. Too large an asking price is possible, and while it can be met if decided, could it all be for nil if his reward for his talent too large a ransom for the team to meet later…or within a comfortable timeline.
As it always, blockbuster are far from hastily, or small magnitude developments.