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Flying the coop

Cardinals doubt they can keep Renteria, Morris past 2004

Posted: Tuesday May 25, 2004 12:13PM; Updated: Tuesday May 25, 2004 6:08PM
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Bargain Shopping
Player Age Avg OBP SLG Contract
Durham 31 .278 .352 .430 4 years, $27.1M
Vidro 29 .306 .367 .473 4 years, $30M
Power Trio
Garciaparra 1,376 419 56 233 .305 .349 .523
Renteria 1,624 488 34 240 .300 .360 .433
Tejada 1,920 547 92 350 .285 .339 .485
* 3-year averages, 2001-03

Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty hoped to sign shortstop Edgar Renteria and ace pitcher Matt Morris to contract extensions before spring training ended. St. Louis has been successful keeping players away from free agency by extending contracts. Mark McGwire, Morris, Jim Edmonds, Scott Rolen and most recently, Albert Pujols, signed long-term deals with the Cardinals.

But the charm of one of America's best baseball cities hasn't been enough to lock up Renteria and Morris this time. Jocketty is up against a different problem: The marketplace has been hard to define.

"We talked in spring training and never got close," said Jocketty about negotiations with Renteria and Morris. "We agreed to talk again, maybe as we get near the All-Star break. I'm not either optimistic or pessimistic. I have no feelings either way, because one thing everybody is dealing with is defining what the market is.

"Look at the contract Jose Vidro signed [this month]. I thought the Expos got themselves a good deal on that."

Vidro signed for four years and $30 million. When you compare it to what the Giants gave Ray Durham two years ago (four years, $27.1 million) --- and Durham had the leverage of free agency -- it was a good contract for Montreal. The Expos will pay Vidro only $725,000 more per season than the Giants are paying Durham, even though Vidro is two years younger and a better player.

Nomar Garciaparra found out the realities of the new market. After turning down $15 million a year, Garciaparra discovered last year the offer was trimmed to $12 million per year. And now that he's missed two months of the season with an Achilles tendon injury, his value isn't getting any higher. Where does that leave Renteria?

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"I think they're looking at [Miguel] Tejeda as a comp," Jocketty said. Tejada signed as a free agent with Baltimore for six years, $72 million. The Cardinals are unlikely to visit that neighborhood. Tejada is a game-changing hitter who provides much more power than Renteria. And power is what owners value the most. If the Red Sox can't get Garciaparra re-signed under terms they like -- it's unlikely they will given his injuries and the negotiating history -- they'd love to take a shot at Renteria. Whom would you rather have for the next five years: Renteria or Garciaparra? For comparison's sake, look at what they did over the previous three seasons, with Tejada thrown in as the $12 million-per-year barometer (see chart, above).

Garciaparra, who turns 31 in July, is two years older than Renteria, has more of an injury history and is less of a defensive force than the Cardinals shortstop. Any team would have to be concerned what might happen to Garciaparra's numbers once he gets out of Fenway Park. Over the past three years he's hit .343 at home and .266 on the road (thought his career splits -- .338/.307 -- are not as one-sided).

St. Louis, which has a new ballpark coming for 2006, may have financial room for Renteria and Morris, though it's likely to be a tight squeeze with the commitments they've already made to Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds. Morris, who once again is acting as his own agent, said he would consider signing an extension this summer, though he acknowledged, "The closer you get [to free agency], the smarter it may be to see what's out there."

Morris hasn't pitched particularly well this season, giving up nearly as many home runs (15) as he did all of 2003 (20). But he's just emerging into a pitcher's prime -- he turns 30 in August -- and has the stuff and makeup of a legitimate ace. Even with a down year, Morris will have many teams in pursuit if the Cardinals don't lock him up. Nobody's throwing around crazy Mike Mussina/Mike Hampton money these days, but Morris should compare favorably (with less durability) to Bartolo Colon, who signed for four years and $52 million with Anaheim last winter.

The Cardinals have had perhaps the best track record of keeping players they wanted, something the Braves enjoyed up until the past two or three seasons. With Renteria and Morris, however, St. Louis has a new challenge: a changing market that is difficult to define.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.