ST. LOUIS — When the Cardinals began, in earnest, their role in the Stanton Saga their goal was to put together such a compelling offer for the Miami Marlins that the only thing between them and a bona fide, MVP-caliber addition to their lineup was Stanton’s decision.
This past weekend the Cardinals’ pursuit of the reigning National League MVP accelerated toward what could be a conclusion this week.
Officials from the Cardinals met with Stanton’s representatives and, reportedly, the player in the Los Angeles area. The Cardinals’ traveling party, which included chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., did not leave that meeting with any sense of Stanton’s timetable for a decision. They did come away convinced their offer to the Marlins is the strongest, in terms of prospects and possibly in terms of money taken on. Their chief rivals for Stanton remain the San Francisco Giants, who have been as aggressive as the Cardinals, and the Los Angeles Dodgers, who are at best tepid with their interest and in the conversation primarily because Stanton reportedly prefers LA.
He has all the leverage.
In other words: If he wants the West Coast, and only the West Coast, the Cardinals cannot compete.
To begin the week and cut through the fog of speculation and shine a light on kernels of what’s actually known, here is a rundown and recap of where things stand:
• The Giants and the Cardinals both sent executives to the Los Angeles area last week to meet with, on consecutive days, Stanton’s representatives, the Wasserman Group. MLB Network first reported the Cardinals’ meeting, and it was later confirmed by the Post-Dispatch and everybody else. Rick Hummel had the news covered here.
• Stanton was present at these meetings, according to Jon Heyman of FanragSports.com. Heyman also canvassed some of Stanton's acquaintances to get a sense on his preferences and expressed skepticism of his interest in St. Louis.
• By MLB rule, as explained early last week in the Post-Dispatch, the Marlins can grant interested teams a window during which they can contact and recruit a player. There does not need to be any change in the player’s contract during these discussions. Also, by rule, there must be significant movement toward an agreement between the Marlins and the team for this window to be approved. An agreement can even be in place. So, these meetings this past week, by MLB practice, indicate that an agreement between the Cardinals and the Marlins and the Giants and the Marlins is at least close, if not completed.
• The Cardinals offer includes at least one of their top pitching prospects. Craig Mish, of Sirius XM, has reported that Sandy Alcantara is involved. Sources have indicated to the Post-Dispatch that a handful of pitching prospects had been discussed and that the Cardinals wanted to keep Jordan Hicks and Alex Reyes out of the deal, if possible. Luke Weaver has a spot in the team’s rotation, leaving Alcantara and Jack Flaherty as the likely offers.
• From the beginning, a Cardinals source described how they believe they have the players that can help a team that wants to “take a few steps back” and rebuild. That group of players would include major league-ready outfielder(s) from the stockpile of talent the Cardinals have. They have a range of options there, from entering-arbitration Randal Grichuk to rookies Harrison Bader and Magneuris Sierra. Jose Martinez would also be discussed if the Marlins want an immediate starter in the outfield with five more years of control, and he has been discussed with Miami.
• Mish reported that the Cardinals are willing to take on more of Stanton’s money than the Giants. This is no small thing. The Post-Dispatch has previously reported that the Cardinals had discussed acquiring reliever Brad Ziegler and his $9 million salary for 2018 as a way to further ease the Marlins' financial burden.
• As they considered their offer for Stanton, the Cardinals looked at the $295 million and 10 years remaining on his deal in terms of production over that time. Once they put a value on the production they expected to get during that time, the remainder would be what the Marlins would have to cover. This is where the Cardinals have gotten before with free agents — and the market has pushed past them. The Cardinals recognize they have not had much success signing players like Stanton as a free agent and their access to a talent like that in the draft is minimal, and thus a trade like this — rare as it is — is their best way to land the needed transformative bat. That has the team stretching beyond past pursuits.
• The Miami Herald was the first to detail the tax implications of a trade for Stanton. Florida has no state income tax, and that benefits Stanton for the 81 games that he plays at home, not to mention the guaranteed interleague games against Tampa Bay. State income tax is 13.3 percent in California, where Stanton would play more than 100 games as a Giant, and it's 6 percent in Missouri, where he would play less than 90 games as a Cardinal. The Herald quoted an agent (not one of Stanton’s) that the slugger would want to be “made whole financially” in order to agree to a trade. The agent referred to it as “a monster nut.”
• There are many ways the contract could be shaped to be more appealing for Stanton to accept a deal. Stanton and his new team could bump up his opt-out, giving him a two-year test drive with the new team before he could opt out and become a free agent. (Right now his opt-out is set for 2020, after three years with a new team.) The tax loss could be part of the offer as well, or be part of the money (or all of the money) that Miami is asked to compensate.
• The Cardinals have not been told whether Stanton would or would not accept a trade to them.
• The Cardinals were always aware that Stanton had all the leverage and that the Marlins could use them to increase the offers from team(s) Stanton would accept a dealt with. During the GM Meetings, I asked Marlins' president of baseball operations Michael Hill if he would negotiate in good faith with a team that Stanton would decline. An executive with another team who went through a similar negotiation said that his team stayed in pursuit despite reports the player would decline "because you go until they say no, because at least then you tried."
• Buster Olney of ESPN.com reported over the weekend that Stanton is “said to be open-minded listening to ideas” from his suitors, the Giants and Cardinals. … Ken Rosenthal, at The Athletic, distilled Stanton’s decision down to this: “Does he want to join the Los Angeles Dodgers more than he wants to leave the Miami Marlins?”
And that’s the crux of it.
That’s where the Cardinals wanted to get these conversations.
This past week, The Miami Herald confirmed what many sources had described: That the Marlins could go to Stanton with basically an ultimatum. It really is the only way for the Marlins to regain any leverage in this situation. As Clark Spencer, at The Herald, wrote, “The Marlins informed Stanton in October that if he refused to waive his no-trade rights and accept a trade, he would remain a Marlin and team officials would look to trade off top players to reduce payroll.”
That has always been in the Cardinals’ view.
If they could get an offer that the Marlins liked, then they could present a here/there decision to Stanton, and that might be enough to get his OK. If not, then the Cardinals would already have an head start on conversations with the Marlins about the other outfielders they could move, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. The goal was to get to a point where Stanton had to say no. And if he did, the Cardinals are still in position to get a yes from Miami.