Though the Cardinals have already made one trade to bolster the lineup this winter, speculation on another move for a transformative talent has begun to swirl.
Contrary to the previous belief that the Orioles would hang onto star infielder Manny Machado through the offseason, reports have surfaced in the last week suggesting Baltimore is considering moving the 25-year-old third baseman. Machado, who has expressed the desire to play shortstop next season, is set to hit free agency after 2018. Baltimore is considered unlikely to offer the mega-dollars required to keep him.
The Orioles had the worst starting rotation in the majors last season, with their starters compiling a ghastly 5.70 ERA. With that in mind, it’s no surprise Baltimore is reportedly seeking major league-ready pitching in any potential Machado deal.
If ‘elite infield bat available for young pitching’ sounds like a pop-up ad campaign targeting John Mozeliak’s iPhone, that’s because it should be. Unfortunately for the Cardinals—and for their fans determined to see Machado in red next summer—these matters are rarely so simple.
Sure, the Cardinals have pitching depth—even after moving Sandy Alcantara and Zac Gallen in the trade for Marcell Ozuna, St. Louis’ stash of impressive young arms includes Alex Reyes, Luke Weaver, Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, Jordan Hicks and Ryan Helsley. All but Weaver (who graduated from the prospect ranks by throwing more than 50 MLB innings in 2017) appear among the Cardinals’ top 10 prospects per Baseball America. If the O’s want controllable pitching, the Cardinals have it.
That doesn’t mean they should be so quick to part with it. Not when the team trading for Machado—as good as he is and projects to be—is only guaranteed his services for one season. The Orioles are reportedly refusing to offer potential trade partners a 72-hour window to negotiate a contract extension with Machado before finalizing any trade, which means dealing for him comes with a mountain of risk.
When the Cardinals traded Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins for Jason Heyward in November 2014, they did so knowing Heyward was under contract for only one season. While the team surely had designs on retaining him in free agency following the 2015 season—like it had done with Matt Holliday after a deadline deal brought him to St. Louis in 2009—there were no guarantees. Heyward ultimately spurned the Cardinals for the rival Cubs, signing a $184 million deal with Chicago.
In that situation, St. Louis arguably dodged a bullet. Assuming Heyward doesn’t opt out, the Cubs will be on the hook for $105 million from 2019-2023 for a player who has performed well-below league average offensively since joining Chicago. Mocking the Cubbies for the Heyward deal is fodder for Cardinals fans.
Now, if the Cardinals shell out premium players for Machado and he signs anywhere but back with St. Louis in free agency… Hoo boy. You can bet those fans won’t have quite the same forgiving reaction toward the front office this time around.
The sea of red seen at Busch Stadium every summer might morph into a raging typhoon.
That’s because Machado’s big contract won’t be like Heyward’s. It won’t be like Albert Pujols signing a $240 million contract at age 32, either. That deal has already turned into an albatross, as the former Cardinal graded out as the worst player in baseball in 2017 based on wins above replacement—and that’s only in year six of a ten-year commitment by the Angels.
No, when Machado enters free agency at age 26 next winter, he could conceivably sign a ten-year deal and be worth every penny for the duration of the contract. Never before has such a combination of talent and youth been subjected to the whims of the open market. Next year, both Machado and Bryce Harper can experience exactly that, competing for the richest contract in MLB history.
Sounds right up the Cardinals’ alley, eh?
Some would argue trading for Machado now gives the Cardinals the best chance to woo him into a long-term agreement come next winter. While giving him a chance to fall in love with the city and its fans before negotiating a new contract is a nice thought, this man has no reason to settle for a sweetheart deal.
There’s only one recruiting tool with which the Cardinals should expect to find success in attracting Machado long-term: Money.
And a lot of it.
So if the Cardinals are content with anything less than victory in the Machado sweepstakes next winter, offering Weaver and Flaherty and whomever else for him now would seem imprudent. It could be more than a decade of team control of quality starting pitchers heading the other way in such a deal. Meanwhile, if St. Louis has its phasers locked on signing Machado in free agency when the time comes—no matter the cost—is it necessary to mortgage future assets to have him right now?
Wiping out the greatest strength of the organization for one year of a superstar player might sound fun—and don’t get it twisted, it would be crazy fun—but it would also risk sending the Cardinals down an uncomfortable path should it go awry.