Thanks to the excitement of the World Baseball Classic, I haven’t had a chance to get to a question that’s really got me thinking over the past week: is there a better general manager in the National League than John Mozeliak? I’m starting to lean toward no after Mozeliak pulled off yet another coup for the Cardinals, inking Allen Craig to a 5 year/$35 million dollar deal with a 6th year/$13 million option. There are some legitimate injury concerns with Craig, who’s spent part of the last 2 seasons on the DL, but there is also some legitimate hitting chops. Craig has been a rock solid producer over his first couple hundred games, hitting an even .300 with oodles of extra-base hits. And when you factor in the going rate for 1st baseman these days — at least 15 players will make more than $10 million a year to play 1st– this deal is a downright steal.
Just take a look at what some of these other big money 1st baseman will make. Ryan Howard is owed $95 million guaranteed over the next 4 years and he’s coming off a season wrecked by major knee surgery which led to poor performance. Prince Fielder went for $23 million a year on a big deal to Detroit a season ago while Mark Teixeira will make about that much money in New York and he’s already admitted to being overpaid. Adam LaRoche was given a 2 year/$24 million dollar contract with a$15 million dollar 3rd year mutual option and he’s already 5 years older than the newly signed Cardinal.
There’s also the issue of the big fish that either got away or was let go: Albert Pujols. As everybody knows, Pujols opted to take his talents to Los Angeles one offseason ago, inking a massive 10 year/$240 million dollar deal that will pay the man well past his prime and into his 40’s. If the Cardinals exercise their option on Craig, they will pay him about $48 million for 6 seasons, or $11 million dollars less, than what the Angels will pay Big Albert for just his age-40 and 41 seasons.
And while it may be absolutely ludicrous to compare the contributions of Craig and Pujols up to this date — his first 10 years are the stuff of legend — it is fair to wonder who’s going to be more valuable going forward. Pujols (age 33) is 4-and-a-half years older than the newly signed Cardinals’ 1st baseman and already appears to be in a bit of a decline. His batting average, on-base percentage, homers, and walks have all ticked down from otherworldly to just merely better than average and his defensive abilities are in definite decline.
Allen Craig on the other hand is just entering the prime of his career. He’s going into his age-28 season in 2013, which is typically when a player is at his best. Craig also has a lot less mileage on the odometer than Pujols, having played in 1,600 fewer games, which means a fewer nicks, bumps, and bruises to slow him down. Expecting Craig to hit something like .300/.350/.550 for the next couple of years isn’t out of the question and if he’s able to pop 30 homers out of Busch Stadium, St. Louis has a bona fide All-Star on their hands.
The Cardinals also come out way ahead of the game financially thanks to opting for Craig’s affordability over Pujols. Yadier Molina was given a 5 year/$75 million extension last offseason after Pujols declined to re-up with St. Louis. All Molina did in his first year of the deal was hit for career highs across the board while furthering his reputation as a Hall of Fame level defensive backstop. Jaime Garcia also was extended an offseason ago for just $27.5 million through 2015. Carlos Beltran was locked up for a pair of years at $13 million per to provide a 2-year outfield stopgap until top prospect Oscar Tavares is ready and Beltran has been sublime in that role. He managed to play in 150+ games for the first time since 2008 and regained his power stroke, bopping 3o homers.
That’s about $128 million dollars worth of salary committed to 3 players (2 of which are younger) for a total of 12 seasons and the Cardinals are already coming out ahead. A year ago Craig, Garcia, and Molina combined to put up 9.5 wins above replacement, which is a little more than double the production Los Angeles got out of their highly paid superstar.
And things are only looking up in St. Louis. The franchise is widely considered to have the finest farm system in baseball, which should help the front office keep the books clean and the payroll down. Chris Carpenter’s $10 million dollar deal expires after this season as do the deals of Carlos Beltran, Rafael Furcal, and Adam Wainwright. Those four players combine to account for nearly 40% of the Cardinals’ current payroll, and out of the group only Wainwright is likely to be resigned, which should free-up another $20-$25 million next offseason. With clean books to splurge on any of next offseason’s free agents, an intelligent front office led by John Mozeliak, a bushel of high-level prospects, and the newly-signed Allen Craig, the future in St. Louis shines bright.