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Free Wong

The Cardinals waited.....and waited....and waited some more. Nothing. Then something. After the Cardinals finally unburdened themselves of the ruggedly handsome managerial deficiency that is Mike Matheny, something Wong-related finally happened. He popped off. He thrived. Given an opportunity by not-Matheny to play every day without having to look high over his shoulder for anyone looking to displace him, Wong spent 2019 playing like the guy he was always expected to be. He won the Gold Glove, finished 20th in the NL MVP race, and hit career high marks in just about everything.

And then in roughly the same time it takes to determine that you don't want to know what Parler is and following a season abbreviated by a pandemic he's out the door. Wong, much like Dobby, was set free.

His departure may be the inevitable result of the confluence of said pandemic, volatility in pricing for the free agent market, and institutional memory. It's a shot to the gut for a longtime Wong honk such as myself, but a multi-year deal at anything near even a slightly discounted market price adjusted for deflation is a bad bet and bad economics.

That's not to say that Wong isn't worth every penny of whatever his asking price is. He's probably quite capable of earning it but probably not with St. Louis. The Cardinals seem poorly positioned to risk all that much on a 2B with a light bat. They've already got plenty of guys who are underwhelming at the plate, and risk tolerance really is a thing.

So is budgeting.

The Cardinals have $97.9M committed for 2021 to just 6 players (Goldschmidt, DeJong, and some other guys). The usual "mid-market team can't afford to spend like the Dodgers smart with limited revenues blah blah words" mantra aside - the Cardinals actually have several reasons not to spend. MLB teams collectively lost $72 trillion (yes, that's slightly exaggerated) in 2020, or so they would have you believe. For once I actually believe them if only because the DeWitt Megafunplex at Ballpark Village needs drunken revelers to make money, and there was a noticeable dearth of drunken revelers this year.

In addition to impacting things that actually matter such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, COVID has hurt MLB badly. Playing in front of a near-empty stadium hurts the bottom line. Not playing in front of any people in any stadium immolates it. Even if a baseball bubble could be created to mitigate risk for players, such a bubble would just give Justin Turner ample opportunities to hug COVID into everyone anyway.

No, teams actually lost money, and there is no guarantee that they'll return to the glory days of owners rolling naked in piles of beer-soaked bills any time soon. Even if they do, many will argue that they can't spend freely until they recoup some/all of the money lost during 2020. Granted, some teams will still be using that argument a decade from now, but we can forgive the Rays their parsimonious ways as long as they fight the good fight every 7-8 years.

The MLB off-season already looked like it could be one of curtailed spending. The looming CBA cat fight creates uncertainty which gives owners a convenient alibi to be proffered should someone ask about an uncharacteristic redirection to a more sustainable spending model. After all, it's difficult to predict how many crap tons of money will be left when you don't know how many crap tons you'll receive or how many crap tons your employees will need in compensation.

The money saved by the suddenly virtuous paragons of dollars and sense could also be stashed hurriedly

into war chests in preparation for labor strife. That's happened before (or so I've been told by old people in tales of yore), and it's just one more unknown variable going into free agency. Analyzing free agent market forces generally is a fool's errand, but it's not a reach to think that the downward pressures on pricing are many and powerful.

Perhaps the Cardinals are playing the long game and hoping that the market will set Wong's price low enough for them to slide in late and snag him. Seems unlikely since even an artificial devaluation of Wong should still mean a good payday and such a strategy would serve to poison the well anyway. Besides, the Cardinals have a lot of recent history with taking players in or beyond their age 30 seasons and giving them a lot of money.

Look no further than the $35M waiting to be doused in accelerant and set aflame in contractually obligated tribute to Fowler and Carpenter for next year. If a goodly portion of the $51M still owed Miles Mikolas or the $2.7 billion owed Goldschmidt ends up in the same overused fire pit of irrational exuberance, then whatever Wong would accept to stay in St. Louis would just be the yellow icing on the fiscal urinal cake. Even if those contracts age well, retaining Wong's services could significantly affect what the Cardinals can pay Yadier Molina in his age 50 season.

He's a worthy, desirable luxury but a luxury nonetheless for a team that needs to improve at scoring points when sportsballing.

While I could appreciate the team taking a "Damn the reputation, full steam ahead" approach, I'd regret it. After all, they need to save all their pennies for Jack Flaherty who could be eligible for free agency around the same time that ALL Missourians figure out that they should wear masks.

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