Why a Long-Term Deal for Pham May Not Come

photo: Tommy Pham (Scott Kane/USA TODAY Sports Images)

Despite clearly being the St. Louis Cardinals’ best offensive threat, center fielder Tommy Pham is playing on one-year contracts. Brian Walton looks into why that may not change.

As the St. Louis Cardinals offense continues to struggle through the first quarter of the 2018 season, mired among clubs in the bottom third of the Major League Baseball in major statistical categories including batting average, slugging and OPS, there is one consistent performer – center fielder Tommy Pham.

Tommy Pham (Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

But is Pham a core player for St. Louis?

The question was raised this spring when teammate Paul DeJong, younger, but also considerably less experienced than Pham, received a record six-year deal plus two option years that could keep the shortstop with the club through 2025.

As many may recall, the Cardinals approached Pham with a much more modest two-year offer this spring. After it was rejected by the 30-year old, the team renewed his contract on a one-year term, which is their right with players who have not yet accrued enough MLB service time to qualify for arbitration.

A few weeks later, in a profanity-laced Sports Illustrated article, Pham was highly critical of his treatment by the organization. He readily admitted that while back in Triple-A in early 2017, a move he felt was unjustified, he “zoned out” on his work, hoping to force the Cardinals into cutting him loose. The outfielder later expressed regret about his repeated f-bombs, but not his message.

“I won’t sell myself short,” Pham vowed to reporters at the time his contract was renewed. Few questioned his resolve.

Pham, the club’s best player in 2017 by a huge margin, logging 6.1 fWAR, is performing at an even higher level this year, with 2.1 fWAR already in 2018. He is ahead of last season’s pace in all four slash categories – average, on-base percentage, slugging and OPS. While early still, a 30-30 season is not out of reach.

Against that backdrop, a member of The Cardinal Nation message board community presented a case for why he believes the Cardinals should make Pham a four-year contract offer. His concern is that if this does not occur, the organization could lose Pham due to what he believes is their “slow action”.

I thought long and hard about this, ultimately writing down my thoughts, which I am sharing here. By the end, you will see where I am guessing the Cardinals stand on the matter – and why.

Why a long-term deal hasn’t come – and may not

Pham is currently 30 years of age with over two years of MLB service time. That means that the soonest he could leave as a free agent is following the 2021 season. In other words, St. Louis controls his services for 3 3/4 more years.

One downside of continuing to go year-to-year on his contracts during that time is that Pham could be unhappy with every annual offer, and take the team to arbitration each February like clockwork. But if so, that is between the two parties.

One side of me wonders if continued contract conflict would provide ongoing fuel to motivate Pham. His words in the SI article made it clear he is already not enamored with his employer. Pham is wired differently from many other players, a trait admired by many.

Any new contract would need to go four years or more to keep Pham a Cardinal any longer than is already possible by doing nothing other than going year-to-year. 2022 would be either his first possible free agent season or first “extra” year as part of a longer-term extension.

Under this hypothetical four-year deal, the Cards would avoid three possible arbitration hearings and lock up one additional year – his age 34 season in 2022.

Of course, the money would have to be significant enough to motivate the player to accept. This is a very important consideration that no one other than Pham and his agent fully have a handle on. Some fans incorrectly assume that all that is needed is for the team to make a good offer, and the deal gets done.

Based on his public comments about his current contract, it seems unlikely that Pham would give the team a discount on future years. He is betting on his upside, but what is that?

Looking ahead, are his stats more likely to get better, get worse or stay the same? You can bet that Pham’s negotiating position will continue to be that he will only get better. However, a typical MLB player’s offensive stats begin a decline in his 30’s. As points of reference, Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler are currently both 32 years of age and other than Yadier Molina, the pair are the oldest position players on the team.

Like it or not, the club also has to take Pham’s injury history and ongoing vision problems, which currently seem adequately corrected, into some consideration.

So, is it worth it for the team to take the risk to commit to his salaries for the next four years ahead of time in return for getting that additional year, his age 34 season, guaranteed? The club would likely have to pay close to market value – unless you believe that for some reason Pham would actually take a discount.

The risks for the Cardinals in not doing anything are at least three-fold: that his annual salaries could be higher if he excels, that he walks after the 2021 season and may be grumpy about a perceived ‘lack of respect’ in the interim.

My guess is that Pham is using his contract status as an ingredient in the fuel mixture that keeps his high-powered engine running at peak efficiency. I also suspect the Cardinals can live with that.

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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnation.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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