For the St. Louis Cardinals, the current period is clearly transitionary in nature as they are handcuffed by a number of high-priced contracts for aging and/or unhappy veterans, many of which will be coming off their books in the next year or two.
In the interim, the organization sees few viable free agents available in the marketplace and has wisely not chosen to trade any of the prominent names on their very short list of top prospects for fixes that may be short-term at best.
But why aren’t they doing something?
With few if any discernable moves made by the brass in this off-season to visibly improve the club for 2008, many Cardinals influencers and fans are nervous about the upcoming season. Rightfully, so, but isn’t it still possible for the Cardinals to maintain fiscally responsible policies without being continually accused of cheapness?
One of the poster children for those who incessantly harp on ownership is pitcher Rick Porcello. The 18-year-old was labeled the best high-school pitcher coming into the draft since Brien Taylor - or was that Josh Beckett?
While it is dangerous to believe anything in absolute, I think it was the folks at Baseball Prospectus who coined the acronym, TINSTAPP – There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect. That was devised in recognition of the fact that there are many pitfalls awaiting young hurlers before they become the next MLB superstar, including potentially being rushed along. If he would ever open up, an older and wiser Rick Ankiel might have a point of view about all that.
Coming into the June 7 draft, undoubtedly none of this bothered Porcello’s representative, super agent Scott Boras, who likely reveled in the buzz over his soon-to-be bonus baby emanating from the hype machine.
Yet, Porcello was not taken first, or second or even 17th in the 2007 first-year player draft. When the St. Louis Cardinals’ turn came at number 18, some hoped Porcello would be snapped up by the locals. Instead, the organization selected another high-schooler, shortstop Pete Kozma, who lacked the sizzle as well as the high price tag of Porcello.
Porcello remained on the board for another nine picks until he was selected by the Detroit Tigers at number 27. He was the seventh high school pitcher taken and 16th pitcher drafted overall that day. It is probably a good thing MLB does not bring the expected top picks together for the televised draft as does the NFL or it would have been an afternoon of embarrassment for Porcello the likes of which can only be appreciated by Brady Quinn.
Yet, Porcello got the big laugh, even if the last is yet to be determined. Though his contractual terms seemed to scare off so many organizations, it wasn’t long before the teenager came out just fine in the bank account department. More on that in a moment.
But despite all the detail, the focus of this piece is not Porcello, who by all accounts is a fine pitcher. In fact, there is only one reason he is receiving ink here, six months after the 2007 draft has been relegated forever to the history books. The name continues to be dredged up in St. Louis as a proof point to support the alleged cheapness of Cardinals ownership.
I honestly have to assume these people have never looked into the details of Porcello’s contract or they would surely find another rallying cry.
Remember that in addition to Kozma, 25 other players were taken before Porcello on June 7. Why is that? Are those clubs all too cheap, or were they simply not willing to bow to seemingly-unreasonable contract terms? All P.T. Boras needed was one sucker to step up, which he found in Detroit, but should it really have been the Cardinals, instead?
The St. Louis barb-flingers never seem to mention the huge risks assumed by the Tigers in signing Porcello. First of all, Detroit had to grant the 18-year-old a major league contract, tying up a 40-man roster spot probably three years too soon.
By the time Porcello reaches the bigs, if he ever makes it at all, his option years may already be exhausted. He will be no older than 22 years old at that point but will have to be ready physically and emotionally to stick at the MLB level.
Porcello could then be arbitration-eligible by 25 years of age and an unrestricted free agent by 28. At that point, he may not yet have reached his prime as a major league pitcher, yet Detroit could lose him. Either way, it represents a financial scenario that Boras has to relish.
In addition, it needs to be noted that in signing, Porcello received not just a big contract; it was a monster, a record-setting blockbuster. His four-year deal with two option years is worth over $10 million in total, of which $7.3 million is guaranteed. That just happens to be the largest guarantee ever given to a high school player and fourth largest for any player signing with their drafted team.
That’s right. In the history of baseball, no youngster coming out of prep school has ever had so much cash handed to him before throwing a single pitch as a professional. How is that for high risk?
Of that $10 million-plus, $3.5 million was required up front as a signing bonus. Putting aside the ongoing financial commitment for Porcello, for that same $3.5 million of signing bonus money, the Cardinals got their top eight signees in the boat, from Kozma all the way through their seventh-rounder.
In addition, in that portion of the draft, the Cardinals were spending slightly over slot and picked up several youngsters with upside in the process such as high schoolers Deryk Hooker and Brett Zawacki, while the Tigers were bargain-shopping. I am not saying one approach is superior to the other. Instead, they are just different.
By passing on Porcello, it appears to me that the Cardinals are simply being consistent. Given their economic status in the MLB community, they should no more be expected to give a risky, record and precedent-setting as well as probably budget-smashing major league contract to a high-schooler like Porcello than to sign Alex Rodriguez to a $275 million free agent deal.
Sure, people are upset and concerned about the direction of the Cardinals franchise, wondering exactly what their current strategy is. I can certainly understand that.
But those continuing to cite Rick Porcello as a soundbite example of alleged organizational cheapness with no balance whatsoever as to why it may not have been a good move for the St. Louis Cardinals are certainly misleading and hopefully just misinformed.
Edit 12/11: Updated ages to reflect possibility of fourth option year for Porcello.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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