Whenever John Mozeliak found a microphone in front of his face for the past few years and was asked about the needs of the St. Louis Cardinals, third base has routinely found its way out into the conversation. The President of Baseball Operations has made it no secret that the hot corner is an area of need for the Cardinals during the hot stove season.
So when Josh Donaldson, former MVP of the American League and still one of the premier sluggers in the game, signed with the Atlanta Braves today for a safe, one-year deal worth $23 million, I shook my head. The Cardinals had a need that Donaldson could have filled without the cost of prospects or a multi-year angle, so what gives, Mo?
The Donaldson signing marks the official commencement blast of the 2019 MLB preseason, in other words, the hot stove arena! A time where general managers, owners and agents sit at a poker table with bluffs, bridges, sneaky hands, and large pots of future cash and statistics hanging in the balance. A time for fans to go into a frenzy after every signing, wondering if that guy could have completed their team's never-ending search for the missing piece to the puzzle.
Mark my words. Donaldson wasn't Plan A for the Cardinals, but he was still a sexy plan. The two sides have circled each other for years, dating back to when the Bringer of Rain won the MVP for the Toronto Blue Jays. I'd bet a car payment that the past two trade deadlines didn't pass without Mozeliak and Blue Jays General Manager Ross Atkins sharing a telephone call about Donaldson.
This month, with Donaldson free to sign anywhere and not costing a potential signing team a draft pick, the Cardinals decided to not contend with the Braves' offer. It's a bummer because, in one signing, the Cardinals would protect themselves from a Bryce Harper letdown.
Think about it. The Cardinals bring in Donaldson on a one-year deal and continue their pursuit of Harper. If that chase ends in disappointment, you already have a guy making $17 million-plus in Dexter Fowler, who has a chip on his shoulder and something to prove. You pair Fowler with Tyler "every day is leg day" O'Neill, and let the young and the old battle for the starts. In the end, the Cardinals would improve their lineup.
Mozeliak is all about gambles. He took one last year on opening day in signing Greg Holland to a one-year/$14 million contract. No team stepped too close to Holland, and the Cardinals did. It backfired, but this team takes risks. Donaldson has only played in 167 games over the past two seasons, a far cry from his previous yearly average of 156 games per season. However, bringing him would have filled a hole at a relatively low cost, and made the team instantly better.
Donaldson was claimed by the Cleveland Indians in September and showed in a month that he's still got it at the plate, and can help a team contend for the prize. He didn't go to Cleveland and become an afterthought. There was something there.
Now, you are probably wondering why I am complaining about this move after it's been signed, sealed and delivered just short of a physical at the doctor's office, and I'll tell you. At the end of the offseason, when the Cardinals throw the first pitch of their 2019 season, this miss will be factored into how well they did in the winter upgrading arena. If Harper doesn't sign here and the team doesn't upgrade the lineup, the Donaldson miss will sting more and leave a bigger mark of disgust. It's all relative.
Having said that, the pursuit of Donaldson shouldn't nudge up too close to the chase for Harper. These two should be separate. Right now, according to Spotrac, the Cardinals have $101 million committed to the 2019 payroll. Granted, that is before deals are carved out for the likes of Michael Wacha, Marcell Ozuna, Dominic Leone, and others. At the end of it all, the Cardinals could have acquired Donaldson, Harper, and retained most of their arbitration-eligible players. It would have been tight, but the team could have seriously gone after it.
Then again, perhaps Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. are truly setting their sights on Harper. A year ago, they went full-tilt for Giancarlo Stanton only to be rebuffed by the New York Yankee who may already be on the trade block. There is boiling water in the Cardinals' front office; a few suits trying to finally bring home a big fish. Think about it. For reasons that don't all include second place, the Cardinals have missed out on the likes of Jason Heyward, David Price, and Stanton. They may be ready to go full-steam ahead with Harper.
That's why it's OK to be bummed out about Donaldson without singing the blues just yet. It's not even December yet, so there is plenty of time. Of course, fans have heard that song before, and prefer it as much as they do Christmas music in early November. It's becoming a sad old tale about loss and grief from a fan base that shows up 3 million strong every year. The anticipation only gets hotter each year the team misses out on a big free agent and the playoffs.
Until the team lands a big fish like Harper, Donaldson, or Manny Machado, the disgust and overall complaining will continue, and for good reason. Cardinal Nation wants a true contender, not a pretty looking pretender.
Missing out on Donaldson isn't the end of the world. It wasn't even Plan A, or arguably B. However, a third baseman was scooped up today for a modest term, so the sweating in St. Louis has officially begun.
Today will only be a disappointment if spring arrives with another thud at the Jupiter doorstep.
Cardinal Nation is angry and anxious, two things that are easily calmed with authoritative action.
What do Mozeliak and DeWitt Jr. have in store? The answers will arrive soon enough. This is only the beginning.