I think the Tommy Pham trade broke us.
Tommy Pham was a rarity for the St. Louis Cardinals—an outspoken player. And then, at the trade deadline in 2018, he was traded. And we collectively assumed the two were related. That the St. Louis Cardinals, assumed to be a particularly small-c conservative organization even by the standards of Major League Baseball teams, were afraid of a player who was anything but utterly subordinate. The assumption was that the team demanded its players be silent—sure, Carlos Martinez could build pyramids out of Gatorade cups, but he wasn’t complaining about his playing time or his contract. Tommy Pham was a brazenly arrogant player—both his biggest fans and harshest detractors would agree to this, albeit with a slightly different tone—and the organization, whether fans met this with applause or an eye roll, would not deal with that.
A theory I would like to posit is that this was never what the Tommy Pham trade was about. This is hardly a defense of the trade, but rather a suggestion that perhaps the transaction was based on flawed evaluation rather than some sort of message to keep players quiet. Pham, a late bloomer, was 30 years old, hardly a young man, and had a congenital eye condition that, while seemingly controlled to some extent, had never gone away. While the Tommy Pham of 2017 was nearly an MVP-caliber player, with a wRC+ of 149 in 530 plate appearances, his mark through four months in St. Louis in 2018 was a perfectly fine but completely pedestrian 103, and defensively, he was struggling a bit in his transition from left field to center field. A younger, flashier center fielder in Harrison Bader was ascending and clawing away at Pham’s playing time throughout the summer. Tommy Pham was due a significant raise the next off-season. And while the three prospects the Tampa Bay Rays sent back in return for Tommy Pham were not quite blue-chip level talents, they were also still very much prospects.
To be clear once again, I still don’t like the Tommy Pham trade. It short-sightedly assumed that the Cardinals would not need outfield depth and it followed a trend of the team selling low on players and getting far less value for them than they should have—note that after a year and a half in Tampa, the Rays were able to flip Pham to the San Diego Padres for a top 100 prospect in Major League Baseball in Xavier Edwards and an MLB outfielder who would probably be a starter for the Cardinals in 2020 in Hunter Renfroe. But I understand what the Cardinals’ thought process was. They thought Tommy Pham was Allen Craig—a late bloomer who was surprisingly valuable for the Cardinals, was in the midst of a clear downturn, and was only going to get worse after being traded to another team. They were wrong and they deserve to be mocked for being wrong, but was Tommy Pham traded because he was brash and arrogant? It’s possible he got on the nerves of some teammates and coaches, but I really doubt it directly led to his departure from St. Louis.
Jack Flaherty is a far more indispensable part of the Cardinals’ short and long term plans than Tommy Pham ever was. When we last saw him pitch in a competitive baseball game, Flaherty was 23 years old, capping off a season during which he finished fourth in National League Cy Young Award voting and was arguably the sport’s hottest pitcher in the second half of the season. He is not eligible for salary arbitration until after this season and he will not be eligible for free agency, and the opportunity to make a salary truly commensurate with his production, until after the 2023 season.
Jack Flaherty is also an outspoken player. This was not a thing I really knew about him until four and a half months ago—prior to that, the only thing I really knew about the Cardinals’ ace, who will make his first Opening Day start tonight, was that he was this really huge Kobe Bryant fan. Flaherty was critical, though ultimately understanding, that the Cardinals did not offer him a sufficiently large contract for 2020 during Spring Training. But Flaherty also acknowledged that the Cardinals were gaming a system designed, and agreed upon by veteran players before him, to suppress the salaries of younger players. Flaherty believed that every team in Major League Baseball would have undercut him, either by offering him a salary far below his current value or by offering him an extension that would have given him far less than he’s worth over a longer period of time. He’s right. Flaherty also believed the system sucks. He’s right.
But a different form of outspokenness from Flaherty took shape in the wake of protests in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death. Like many players across Major League Baseball, most of whom had been stridently apolitical on social media over the years, Flaherty took to Twitter to express the most bland and obvious sentiment that still managed to be extraordinarily divisive until two months ago—that black lives matter. But Flaherty didn’t stick to using a hashtag one time—he has been notably present among athletes calling for the arrest of the police offers who killed Breonna Taylor, a Louisville woman killed in her home in March by officers executing a search warrant at what turned out to be the incorrect apartment. He critiqued sports leagues, including but not limited to his own, for insufficient care regarding efforts to return to play in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. He also tweeted various GIFs from The Dark Knight, but this wasn’t what raised eyebrows.
There have been massive cultural changes regarding the Black Lives Matter movement in the last few months, never mind between now and four years ago, when Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality by kneeling during “The Star-Spangled Banner” before NFL games drew international ire. Never mind the fact that Jack Flaherty is far better at pitching than Colin Kaepernick was at being an NFL quarterback—while Kaepernick’s sudden inability to find NFL work even as a backup was dubious, there wasn’t a rational argument that he was one of the best handful of players at his position in the league, as there is with Flaherty. But while Kaepernick kneeled mostly alone (safety Eric Reid also participated, but this was hardly a widespread trend), Jack Flaherty exists in an environment where protests are not only deemed widely acceptable, but broadly fashionable.
Before the Cardinals’ exhibition game against the Kansas City Royals on Wednesday, Flaherty wore a black t-shirt with the phrase “I CAN’T BREATHE”, widely adopted in the wake of the killing of Eric Garner, written on it. It has been suggested that Flaherty could participate in similar types of protests before games this season (the sheer logistics of him being the starting pitcher tonight make an identical protest nearly impossible).
I don’t know what the future holds for Jack Flaherty in St. Louis. He is, after all, a starting pitcher. Two years ago, it seemed certain that Carlos Martinez was going to be the ace for the Cardinals for the foreseeable future, and he was assured a spot in the team’s starting rotation earlier this week. But the idea that Jack Flaherty is somehow going to be blackballed from the Cardinals and dealt for peanuts is based on a series of false equivalencies. To compare arguably the brightest young pitcher the sport has to offer, who is advocating for a broadly popular social justice platform to a disgruntled, Baseball Middle Aged outfielder with widely known physical constraints whose primary social media focus, as much as it may have been his right for it to be, was himself, is exhibiting an overly fatalistic attitude to the Cardinals. The Tommy Pham trade was a mistake. The hypothetical Jack Flaherty trade would be a crime.
That said, I think we should all just sit back and appreciate Jack Flaherty sometimes. While I don’t think for a second he is going to be on a different baseball team anytime soon, it is statistically unlikely that Flaherty is going to be a lifelong Cardinal. It is even less likely that he will be this good for his entire career. Perhaps after 2023, as he has every right to do, Jack Flaherty is going to sell his services to the highest bidder and perhaps that bidder won’t be the Cardinals. And maybe at that point, I’ll have to evaluate whether the Cardinals did something financially responsible or whether the Cardinals are being cheap. But that’s over three years away. So for now, I’m going to try to enjoy watching Jack Flaherty pitch for my favorite baseball team. Because for the foreseeable future, Jack Flaherty ain’t going away.
Artwork courtesy of St. Louis Bullpen’s Andrew Gurney.