And yes, there’s plenty of time dedicated to the one you think
Welcome to week 4 of The Mozeliak Years, by which I mean the series of articles. We’re actually in week 716 of the Mozeliak years, but I digress. We’ve already covered the way the St. Louis Cardinals have performed on trades, free agency, and draft and development during the years in which John Mozeliak has led baseball operations. Now, it’s time for the second to last installment. This time, we’ll cover contract extensions. Initially, I had planned to cover other miscellaneous items- field staff (e.g. Matheny, Shildt, coaching hires), and the hacking scandal- but as you’ll see, the extensions will be more than enough. You can find the other articles in the related links below.
One more time, there’s an important caveat. Baseball front offices are not led by auteurs. Anything unearthed here is attributed to Mozeliak because his stamp is all over the franchise, but we can be honest and acknowledge that decisions are made collectively with input from ownership, Michael Girsch, scouts, field staff, the team of quants, and so many more. MLB baseball operations heads are less Truffaut, more the Russo brothers.
If you polled most Cardinal fans about contract extensions during the Mozeliak years, they would undoubtedly bring up one or two extensions immediately- the 2019 extensions for Matt Carpenter and Miles Mikolas. That’s just a drop in the bucket in the Mozeliak years. By my count, Mozeliak’s Cardinals have extended a player’s contract twenty times.
Of those twenty extensions, nine of them represent the franchise buying out a player’s cost-controlled years. The column is labeled arbitration years, but note that the column frequently also includes a year or more of pre-arbitration years.
The table almost does the analysis all by itself. There are some clear categories:
The first extensions for Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright were enormous, franchise-altering bargains. The second extensions for Waino and Yadi represented good values even if injuries sapped some of Wainwright’s production. The first Matt Carpenter extension in 2014 is arguably the most productive extension in the Mozeliak years. Paul DeJong has also been a massive success, and he has almost two and a half more years to add production.
The next successful tier includes Kolten Wong and Carlos Martinez, with caveats. Wong was seemingly a different player every year but his production was always there, solidly average and even a little above. He was a good value. Martinez started his extension years looking like he’d be a massive bargain. Then the injuries started. He recovered enough production in the bullpen to still supply value, even if it was only a fraction of what everyone hoped. Barring any more fWAR this season, the Cardinals will have paid Martinez about $7.5M per win through his arbitration years plus two free agent years. It’s not the high value of the others but it’s acceptable.
Some of these extensions don’t fall neatly into success or failure categories. The obvious example is the Allen Craig extension. Craig went bust after the extension. He gave the Cardinals a solid 2.5 fWAR in year one, and was then Thanos Snapped out of MLB existence gradually in 2014 and 2015. After 2013, he had $29M and change left on his deal. That extension looks like a mistake… except Mozeliak et al. traded Craig when he had approximately $28M left on the contract, before he evaporated, and got a year and a half of John Lackey for rock-bottom prices in exchange. The extension was bad but the recovery was brilliant.
The Stephen Piscotty extension has generally been a below average value- he’s only been worth 3.6 fWAR (2020 caveat). His production has been a little below average. Mozeliak found a way out from that extension, but the return package (Yairo Munoz and Max Schrock) didn’t provide much in return. There was also the personal component to the trade, which makes this analysis seem silly.
Extensions for Lance Berkman (pre-2012), Chris Carpenter (pre-2012), and Molina’s third extension (2018-2020) were about rewarding veterans and keeping them in the fold. In the case of Yadi and Chris Carpenter, they’re recent franchise legends. That’s not to say that the Cardinals assumed they’d get nothing out of those deals, and they did get something out of the Molina contract. Primarily, it means they were willing to overpay for legacy. It wasn’t the wisest move in the world but it avoided a revolt from fans over losing extremely popular players.
Westbrook had been cromulent in 2012 (a 3.80 FIP, a 2.0 fWAR in 178 IP) and his velocity wasn’t showing marked decline. After the extension, his velocity slipped, his K/BB collapsed, and he was suddenly below replacement. He retired, sparing the Cardinals the option for 2014. The extension was poor but it was a reasonable enough gamble.
The extensions for Trever Miller and Ryan Franklin look bad from an fWAR perspective. However, Miller’s Win Probability Added (WPA) combined for 2010 and 2011 was a net positive. Franklin’s WPA was 15th in baseball (among relievers) in 2010… and followed it with the 3rd worst in 2011 in just 27.2 innings. They were great in 2010, awful in 2011, and it balanced out to a slightly below average combined WPA.
It’s Complicated Part II: Goldschmidt
In 2019, they traded for and extended Paul Goldschmidt. Goldschmidt’s been worth about 3.7 fWAR per 680 plate appearances- a full season for an everyday guy like Goldy. That’s perfectly fine and may even improve depending on his second half this year. However, it’s also a step or so below what the Cardinals thought they were acquiring. They were desperate for a star player to energize the fans and Goldschmidt had been a metronome of production prior to that point. It allowed them to stay out of a free agent bidding war for more costly premium production over more years… but also meant that their star acquisition was in the 30+ club instead of younger players like Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. The quandary is that the game has long been straying away from giving high dollar contracts (either free agency or extensions) to players age 30+, and especially not to players at limited defensive positions (1B, LF).
They gambled that bucking the trend would pay off. At the time of the extension, ZiPS thought Goldschmidt would provide 11.2 fWAR from 2019-2021. If we prorate 2020 and 2021 (big if, I know) to 162 games, he’s been worth 12.1 in those years. He’s been somewhere in between the standard “subtract 0.5 fWAR over 30” decline and what ZiPS saw for him. Looking at the FanGraphs analysis at the time of the extension, he’s been almost exactly halfway between the two estimates provided for him. One of those had his extension estimated at 5/$155M and the other had him at a $119.6M value. The deal was closer to the latter than the former, and he’s performed halfway between the two. In other words, Goldy’s been fairly close to what projections expected. I’m sure they would have liked more out of him, especially in 2019 and 2021, but this really wasn’t a bad extension. Complicated, sure, and the trade itself doesn’t look great, but the extension was not bad.
Two extensions have been disasters. Miles Mikolas signed his extension in February 2019, which covered 2020 through 2024. It tacked four years and $68M on to the end of his original deal. At the time, the Cardinals had Jack Flaherty under contract for 2020, and several question marks in the rotation. Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha were free agents-to-be, and Waino had only started 8 games the year before. Martinez was still hoping to return from his injury-riddled 2018 and was already on the shelf at spring training. There was a lot of depth- Dakota Hudson, Austin Gomber, John Gant, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Alex Reyes on rehab… but almost no certainty for the 2020 rotation. Mikolas had just completed a splendid 2018 that earned him down ballot Cy Young votes. FanGraphs saw the extension as a fair deal both for Mikolas and the Cardinals, and his 2019 didn’t change his projection much.
He’s only pitched 4 innings since. Betting on pitcher health is always at least a little bit of a gamble. Essentially, the Mikolas deal was the lesser or two evils- either they could extend one pitcher for whom they were up to date, medically. Or they could have paid free agent prices for two (or more) pitchers with less medical info. This seems less “bad process, bad results” and more “meh, it’s an ok process, but bad results”.
Matt Carpenter (aka What You’re All Here For)
Now for the main event- the Matt Carpenter extension in April 2019. Carpenter’s contract at the time was guaranteed through 2019 and included an option for $18.5M for 2020. In the extension, the Cardinals picked up the 2020 option, added $18.5M for 2021, and a 2022 option for $12M (or $2M buyout). That last option would be negated if Carpenter reached 1100 plate appearances in 2020-2021, which would automically kick over an $18.5M option for 2022. The deal has turned out so spectacularly bad on the field that it’s easy to forget the conditions in which they had reached the deal.
Carpenter had just finished 9th in NL MVP voting in 2018, and his fWAR from 2013 through 2018 was 11th among all position players. ZiPS foresaw 10.0 fWAR for the three guaranteed years of the extension (2019-2021). He was the best Cardinal by far during the playoff-free window (2016-2018), was popular with fans, and wanted to stay in St. Louis.
There were some red flags. Carpenter was entering his age 33 season, and the team was asking him to move backwards on the defensive spectrum from 1B to 3B. His 2018 homerun outburst was remarkable, but it was more a result of a smart hitter maximizing his production- a much harder skill to repeat. To wit, the average distance on his homeruns was 181st out of 237 players with 10+ dingers that season. That’s not a bad thing, of course- nobody gives rats’ buttcheeks how long your homeruns are when you hit 36 of them- but it speaks to the repeatability of doing it again. Hitting a bunch of wall scraper homeruns is the equivalent of winning a bunch of one-run games. It’s great to do, but it’s also likely to come back to earth.
It couldn’t have turned out worse. Carpenter’s been a 90 wRC+ hitter since and obviously isn’t the kind of player who recoups lost value in the field or on the bases, attested to by his 1.4 fWAR since signing it. If you were looking at his projections at the time of the deal, he has basically turned in something like his 10th percentile projection. It’s a lemon but you’re lying if you claim to have known it’d be this bad in April 2019.
The problem with the extension is that it was an unforced error. Carpenter was under contract for 2019 and even had an option for 2020. They didn’t need to extend Carpenter. There was no harm whatsoever in waiting at least until the end of 2019. Doing so would have given them more data- in this case, they would have seen the 95 wRC+ at age 33 as a much bigger warning sign. Even then, had they liked him, they still had him under contract for 2020 via the option. They didn’t need to make any kind of decision on Carpenter for at least one more season and at most two. They jumped the gun and it blew up in their face.
The Mozeliak years have yielded a lot of great extensions for cost-controlled players, which is an important distinction. Some of those extensions set the franchise up for enormous success for much of Mozeliak’s tenure. Even the bad ones- Allen Craig and, to a lesser degree, Stephen Piscotty- didn’t hurt the franchise because they were able to escape the commitments. Buying out arbitration years for young franchise cornerstones might seem banal and standard operating procedure in today’s MLB, simply a baseball operations head doing his job. But if you look at a list of extensions for cost-controlled players, there are invariably a few duds in any year. The 2017 cycle, for instance, saw Wil Myers and Rougned Odor rewarded handsomely. Gregory Polanco and Odubel Herrera’s 2016 extensions look bad. The Blue Jays locked up Randal Grichuk long-term in 2019 and the Yankees misfired on Luis Severino. Mozeliak’s done very well in the realm of buying out arbitration years and covering for his mistakes when they’ve happened. Without knowing for certain, I’d guess that the Mozeliak Cardinals have been towards the top in extracting value from such extensions.
Where they’ve misfired is on legacy extensions. Some of those are reasonable enough. Chris Carpenter was beloved; Westbrook, Berkman, and Miller/Franklin were for modest prices; even the pricey Molina extension from 2018 to 2020 at least returned some value. The second Wainwright and Molina extensions provided nearly 30 fWAR, clear positives.
Much like their success with free agents beyond Mikolas and Kwang-Hyun Kim, their skill with veteran extensions has taken a marked downturn since 2017. That’s when the Molina deal was signed, followed by Mikolas, Goldschmidt, and Matt Carpenter. For $297M of extensions (~$168M of which has been paid thus far), they’ve gotten 8.8 fWAR almost exclusively from Goldschmidt and Yadi’s 2018-2020. Admittedly, the Molina, Mikolas, and Goldschmidt extensions all have their nuance that makes them somewhat understandable, but they did not need to sign the Carpenter extension. There are a growing number of unforced errors and/or panic moves- the money burned on an army of free agent relievers; going past their puke point for Dexter Fowler; potentially underestimating the trade value of messrs. Pham, Gallen, Voit; and the Carpenter extension. In short, Mozeliak has had his victories in extensions and some of his worse extensions weren’t that impactful. But it’s hard to ignore the value lost and- in one case- lack of logic on the most recent veteran extensions.