Do The Cardinals Owe David Freese An Extension?
Professional instigator/occasional columnist Joe Strauss uncorked another craftily-designed tweet guaranteed to agitate his Cardinal-loving readership. The seemingly-innocent missive went something like this:
Strauss doesn’t name names here, but he’s clearly referring to Jason Motte and David Freese. Both players face arbitration in the next month (it’s the first time for Freese), and both are likely receiving substantial raises.
When I re-posted Strauss’ contention that the Cardinals are balking at the idea of signing 29 year-old Freese to a long-term contract, fans reacted angrily. Here is a sampling of the insightful replies:
- “I will be really mad if we lost Freeze !!!”
- “Freese needs a long-term deal.”
- “They better sign the Hometown boy …”
- “ARE THEY STUPID OR WHAT?”
- “That’s bull. Tht would be the biggest mistake ever”
- “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard!”
Those are some incontrovertible arguments, eh?
As always, fans react with their heart before their head. In this baseball-crazy town, Freese instantly enshrined himself among Cardinal legends with his impossible October heroics in 2011. The same fans who smile at a Tom Lawless memory or get misty-eyed thinking about over-the-wall catches by Willie McGee now focus their unyielding devotion on Freese. And, as any Cardinal fan knows, that adoration lasts forever.
But is Freese really a “must sign” type of player? Should the franchise that boldly walked away from Albert Pujols after eleven incredible seasons now lavish a long-term deal on Freese based on two weeks of spectacular postseason baseball?
Let’s remember that Freese is a 29 year-old player (he turns 30 in April) who is just reaching arbitration for the very first time. That means he’s a late bloomer. Jon Jay and Edward Mujica will reach the same point a year earlier, and true superstars (like Mike Trout or Pujols) reach it in their early twenties. Late bloomers do not typically receive extensions due to their advanced age and the team’s natural control over their most productive years (ages 27-32).
Look at it this way: Freese will not become a free agent until 2016 when he is nearly 33 years old. Until then, the Cardinals have him under contractual control. That’s a huge benefit for the team.
The reason Freese is reaching this point in his career so late is another part of the problem – injuries. Freese has a surgical history that would give Josef Mengele an erection. Injuries stymied most of the three years Freese spent in St. Louis after the Cardinals acquired him before the 2008 season. Consider this: from 2008-2010, Freese played in just 87 games due to repeated injuries to his bird-like ankles. Even his “magical” 2011 season was delayed due to a broken hand.
Freese finally survived an entire season in relatively good health in 2012. He also had a solid season, producing a .293/.372/.467 batting line with 20 homers and 79 RBIs. But that’s just one season. The Cardinals have never extended a player based on just one season of work.
Unfortunately, there is good reason to be wary of Freese’s future. There seems to be a growing body of evidence that Freese focuses more on partying than physical conditioning (true, he’s in better shape than I am, but you know what I mean), and his repeated driving infractions (drunken driving and accidents) are increasingly worrisome. This is important to consider because I think the Cardinals place a value on a player’s off-field activities as an indicator of their overall attitude.
Compare the laser-like intensity and focus of Pujols or Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright or Chris Carpenter, players who all received generous and lengthy extensions from the club. Does Freese really fit their established mold of all-around excellence, talent, and determination? I haven’t seen that yet.
I think Freese is a wonderful person. He does quite a lot for charity, and is, by most accounts, a genial and approachable guy. He’s certainly talented enough to play in the major leagues and provide adequate production.
But the Cardinals are running a business first, and they don’t give out long-term contracts to players because they’re nice or because they kiss old ladies. They’re also not inclined to give out big bags of cash to players because they did something spectacular in a series once or twice (ask David Eckstein). Long-term contracts are investments, and the Cardinals have been judicious (and I believe fair) about how they spend those kinds of years and dollars.
I get the uncomfortable feeling that Freese is still coasting on the tremendous amount of goodwill generated by his once-in-a-generation moment two Octobers ago. I don’t see the kind of intensity and hunger from Freese that I saw from Pujols and Molina after they reached personal and postseason milestones. I see a talented guy continuing to bask in the glow of a miraculous moment as the Hometown Hero. While that might have some PR value for the team, it probably holds little else as a basis of a long-term deal.
Meanwhile, younger, cheaper, and hungrier third baseman are rapidly ascending beneath Freese. Matt Carpenter is already here, and prospects Carson Kelly and Stephen Piscotty are making their names known. Why would the Cardinals invest in Freese for multiple years when they have so many valuable third base options?
I realize that Freese has a sentimental value to fans of the Cardinals and residents of St. Louis. His fame is certainly forever etched in Cardinal lore regardless of what happens to him throughout his career. But the idea that the Cardinals “must” sign Freese to a long-term deal caters to emotions rather than facts. The Cardinals owe Freese nothing. And such a deal would, in my opinion, be an unwise move by an organization that has shown an incredible amount of insight and patience when making investments in their players.