Once upon a time, St. Louis Cardinals' General Manager at the time and current President of Baseball Operations, John Mozeliak, told the media that the team had payroll muscle to flex.
Translation: we can spend some cash if the need fits. Like a bank on payday, they would dispense the big bills if there was a player that fit the description of game-changer.
Fast-forward to the end of the chilliest offseason in recent or long-term memory, and the Cardinals will begin the 2019 season with a lower payroll than they had last season.
The team that owner Bill DeWitt Jr. told the media in the year-end media gathering wasn't looking to be merely good enough to win 85 games or look good yet compete in the playoffs is seemingly finished adding and spending this winter.
It's Black Friday and two LARGE flat screens are sitting there, and the Cardinals are saying no thanks.
To be fair, the rest of Major League Baseball owners are saying no to Bryce Harper, but that doesn't defeat the purpose of this post.
The Cardinals are currently neck and neck with the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers for the 2019 National League Central Division, and they are holding serve.
Let's pour another cup of coffee and take a closer look as St. Louis weather continues its drunken temperature binge.
Currently, the Cardinals are at $161 million according to roster resource (a cap tip to Daniel Shoptaw of Cards Conclave for the assist). That is slightly over the opening day $ of 2018, but right under their season ending total of 2018, which was $163 million.
Now, a normal-functioning mind would assume, after missing the playoffs for the third season in a row after collecting $3 million-plus in attendance, the payroll would go up for 2019. Considerably so. Just sit down, take a sip of that iced coffee with an extra shot of espresso, and think about it. Your team has been out of the playoffs, and I'm even talking about a single wildcard berth game, for three years-and you just stand pat.
During the Cardinals' playoff sabbatical, the Cubs have won the World Series and the Brewers have risen up out of the ashes of "where were they" to stand toe to toe with the other two Midwest heavyweights.
The Cardinals have stroked their classy history socks to win totals that didn't approach 90 wins yet settled at reasonable respect levels, and they still don't need Harper.
I know, they went out and acquired Paul Goldschmidt, who looks like a proud pillar of promise to plant in the newly refurbished Gateway Arch Grounds, for one season.
They signed free agent lefty Andrew Miller, whom the Cubs know very well from their playoff battles not too long ago. However, as much as I like the Miller add, he is coming off a terrible year and IS NOT a sure thing.
Goldschmidt is hired for one season. There are no guarantees in sports, but this is borderline hope.
Would a Harper addition put the Cardinals over the top, WAR wise? You bet.
Right now, the Cardinals are projected to win 86 games, which would remarkably two less than 2018.
Call it a shrewd outlook for Dexter Fowler (only a 0.3 WAR projection), a humbling glance at Matt Carpenter (3.3 WAR), being unable to diagnose young pitching, or a hard-to-acknowledge worth in the Shildt factor, but Fangraphs has the Cards kicking it old school back to 2016. Yikes.
The Cubs are projected for 88 wins while the Brewers are given an unruly total of 81. Now, you could pump a few wins into each team's total when taking a different look, but most sites don't have the Cardinals over 90, a total that would put them in playoff contention or at least, the conversation for October baseball.
Now, being such a sabermetrics man, one would think Mozeliak would see this and have a reaction.
You'd think he'd see a need to make a push for a free agent, either a starting pitcher to fortify the uncertainty of the rotation or a bat to make sure the starting lineup isn't living on a prayer come April. He has not. The man seems to be all set in everything except which bowtie he's wearing on April 15.
For what it's worth, Keuchel was worth 3.6 WAR in 2018 and Harper, in what many would call a down year, was worth 3.5 WAR. That's seven wins up for grabs.
Sure, the Cardinals could upgrade at backup catcher with free agent Martin Maldonado, who was worth 0.9 WAR last season. They could sign shortstop Jose Iglesias to backup Paul DeJong. The Cardinals are riding on Marcell Ozuna's shoulder healing up, Harrison Bader avoiding a sophomore slump, and Fowler escaping the clutches of negative WAR-land.
I'll ask the question have this offseason. If the Cardinals were so keen to go after Giancarlo Stanton last year, taking on his entire $285 million in salary, why aren't they going after a player with a similar impact in Harper?
Ozuna is here for just one more season, and Fowler, good story and all, is no guarantee.
Mozeliak, adverse to free agent speculation, will not provide a definitive answer.
Wouldn't it be nice if for one day owners and team executives had to be completely honest with fans? "We didn't go after this guy because we all agreed that in year 5, he would start to deteriorate." What if everybody in the Cardinals' inner circle doesn't agree on Harper? What if there are two people who really like the move, but don't win out to the majority? I'd like to know about that one day.
What made Stanton the right play, but not Harper? If they are holding out for a strong Nolan Arenado push next winter, this restraint makes sense, but who really believes they will follow-through there?
I'll stand pat in the thought that the Cardinals did enough to work themselves back into the Central Division contention for 2019 without sending a clear message for the future.
I think this team can win 90 games. Since late July, when Mozeliak threw his hat into the ring for wrong-doing and started cleaning up the 40-man roster, the team played different.
There was a transition. Adding Goldschmidt and Miller will certainly help in 2019, but what about 2020 and 2021, where the payroll right now only reaches $44 million?
Let me put it this way. The Cardinals have bought a tux to the big dance and are sure an invitation will be in the mail come October, but with a chance to lock that event up in stone, they instead passed on the idea. They will enter 2019 with just about the same payroll as 2018, with long-term flexibility in full-throttle mode. Adding Harper wouldn't handicap them long term. It truly wouldn't. He's 26, not 31 years old.
Far-fetched or not, I still want the Cardinals to enter the Harper sweepstakes and make an offer.
I really don't care what everyone else writes, honestly thinks, and whispers into their alcoholic beverage of choice late night in their living room.
Do you think the Cardinals should go after Harper, or one of the many unsigned free agents? Or do you think they are right to stand pat? Really think about it now. Stand back and register all of it. With a chance to push ahead of the pack, the Cardinals are gambling on a number of probable outcomes.
Instead of flexing their payroll muscle, the Cardinals are gambling once again, risking the disappointment of their fan base. One can only hope it pays off. If not, the playoffs will be missed for a fourth straight year. The rest of the league isn't letting up.
While their goals seem to revolve around "competing," it's easy to question how badly the Cardinals want to separate themselves from the pack.