In 2013, the Cardinals ran with a $116 million budget. It's reasonable to project some expansion on top of that, as needed, but the club is not going to spend money just for the sake of spending money.
The Cardinals owe about $76M in contractual obligations next year for a fixed core of players. And Ty Wigginton.
Wigginton: $2.5M [farting noise]
Westbrook: $1M buyout [assuming it is exercised] [not a big assumption][ed. - no longer an assumption; the team has announced it is buying out Westbrook's option]
Axford [Arb2]: projection $5M-$6M
Axford made $5m this year but had his second bad year in a row. A decent end to his season salvaged a little value, but he's too expensive for the Cardinals to pay him. Look for the Cardinals to either seek a pre-arbitration deal for $3m-$4m, or to non-tender him and let him test the waters.
Freese [Arb2]: projection $5M-$6M
Freese's decline in 2013 was some mix of real decline due to age and injury and ordinary baseball weirdness. He's not washed up, but his expiration date may be approaching fast. He's 30 years old now and fragile. I like him to be close to league average, so his salary seems like a decent investment, especially given the extraordinarily weak market for third basemen. If nothing else, he could have a lot of value at the trade deadline, in the event that Kolten Wong looks like a bona fide second baseman. Trading or nontendering him now would be selling low on a commodity which probably still has decent value.
Rob Johnson[Arb2]: projection $700K
Johnson served on a minor-league contract this year. The Cardinals might make him the same offer again, but I doubt they go to arbitration with him.
Jay[Arb1]: projection $2M
Like Freese, Jay will probably rebound some in 2014. He has only modest trade value and is not expensive, so there's little reason to give up on him, even if the club invests in a centerfield upgrade.
Salas[Arb1]: projection $900K
Salas's peripherals dropped in a big way this season, but he seems to have run his course with the club, getting few innings even when he was with the major league club. He's crowded out by younger, better relievers. Nontender.
Descalso[Arb1]: projection $1.1M
Descalso's hitting profile doesn't justify much of a payout in his first year. He's been with the club a long while now. I suspect the club is not convinced of Descalso's potential replacements. He's cheap and easy to reup for 2014. The club will offer him arb and settle with him for something around a mil.
Offering arb to everybody: $15-$17M
More likely outcome: $8M-$12M
League Minimum Guys
There's seven guys on contract and another 4 or 5 arb-eligible guys likely to stick. That leaves us with something like 14 league minimum players to pay about $500k to.
Most likely: $7M
Free Agents/Trade Lust Objects
a) Free Agents on the Team
Carlos Beltran is probably getting a qualifying offer, which this year is $14M. I'd propose he get a secondary offer of around 2 years/$18M. Adjust your budget accordingly.
Edward Mujica is not getting a qualifying offer. His dead arm or whatever it was that happened to him at the end of the season will hurt his value somewhat, but he's still going to be much more expensive than he should be. He's a 3.6, 3.7 FIP guy who also had 37 saves this year and a 2.78 ERA. Even in a crowded closer market, someone's going to throw $5M or so his way. The Cardinals should let him walk.
b) Free Agents Elsewhere
Stephen Drew is one of the only plausible targets at the Cardinals' position of most need, shortstop. He made $9.5M last year in a make-good one-year contract following a 2012 lost to injury and ineffectiveness. He still looks like a 2-3 WAR shortstop, which is a 2-3 WAR upgrade on what we have. The shortstop market is a little crazy, but it may be cheaper to overpay in money than in prospects. Getting Drew on a $12M AAV contract would be a great deal for the Cardinals; getting him on a $15M AAV contract would be tolerable and more plausible. [ed. - Late breaking news tells me the Red Sox are offering him the qualifying offer; no surprise there. The loss of a draft pick plays into the market for Drew's services, both in discouraging our team and other teams.]
The other shortstop free agency option is Jhonny Peralta. The Tigers exercised a $6M option on Peralta for 2013, and they got their money's worth in 107 games before he went on a suspension in the Biogenesis scandal. The taint of the scandal and the questions about whether his hitting will tank now that he is (presumably) no longer juicing may affect his free agency value. The Tigers are not expected to re-sign him. He's been a very good defender, but his hitting has seesawed between elite (122, 123 wRC+s) and passable (86, 83, 91). As a comp, Melky Cabrera coming off a career year and a PED problem with the Giants scored a 2 year, $16M contract with the Blue Jays. Of course, he peformed appallingly badly in the first year of that contract. Peralta could be a cheap option but a grab bag of uncertain outcomes. Let's say he signs for a similar 2 year, $16M contract.
Another entry from the Red Sox org, Jacoby Ellsbury is looking for a Carl Crawford-style contract, something like a $150M/7 year deal. That's a little over-the-top, but $100M/5 years seems like the floor here. That's a lot of money at a position of only modest need. Still, center field would be the best place to plug in a 5 WAR talent. If we make a QO to Beltran and he turns it down, this becomes a more realistic option. [ed. - Jacoby Ellsbury is also being offered a qualifying offer by the Red Sox, surprising no one.]
If you take the position that the club is very down on Kolten Wong AND David Freese, which I doubt, you could take a look at signing Omar Infante, a 2.5 WAR-ish second baseman from Detroit. You could shift Matt Carpenter to third, sell low on David Freese, and back Infante up with Wong. He probably would not be prohibitively expensive, especially if balanced against shifting Freese's salary off the books. A lot of his value is tied up in defense and position, so he could be a $10M/yr kind of guy. Infante has the advantage of being right-handed. He's 32, though, so a longer-term contract might make the club pause.
Otherwise, there's not much on the shortstop, second base, third base, or center field markets for the Cardinals to consider, assuming we're not in on the Robinson Cano bidding (we're not).
c) Trade Targets
The only reason these few free agents can't drive up the markets too much is the availability of other players in trade.
Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox is owed $9.5M next year, and $10M in 2015, with a $10M club option for 2016 and a $1m buyout. He's another 2-3 WAR shortstop, with his defense providing most of his value. The White Sox won 66 games this year, so I think they'd be willing to part with Ramirez for young talent. Our major problem is that the White Sox pitching is much better than their position player depth, so we match up somewhat poorly for a trade.
JJ Hardy has one more year of control in Baltimore, at $7M for 2014. He's a bargain, and the Orioles could play phenom Manny Machado at shortstop. However, Machado injured a knee ligament near the end of the season, and is expected to delay his return until after Opening Day. Hardy would be a fantastic get, as a 3 WAR shortstop for not much money, but the cost in prospects could rise as a result. Baltimore definitely needs pitching, though.
The Angels shopped Erick Aybar to the Cardinals fairly heavily at the deadline, so he's plausible in an off-season trade. Aybar is 29 and under control through 2016, at $8.5M per season for the next three seasons. He's a 3 WAR shortstop. So far, the Angels have mentioned wanting pitching for Peter Bourjos and/or Mark Trumbo, but I'd imagine the right pitching prospects could get you Erick Aybar (and maybe Peter Bourjos).
Asdrubal Cabrera is plausible as a shortstop get, but the Indians have indicated they are likely to keep him. He's also probably the least impressive upgrade at shortstop of all these options. He only has one year of club control left, at $10M in 2014.
There are four possible trade acquisitions at shortstop, all of which are owed $10m or less next season. Consider them in your fantasy trade scenarios.
To follow up on my mention of Peter Bourjos above, I think he'd be an interesting target. The Angels have already said he's available. He doesn't hit quite as well as Jon Jay, but his defense is outstanding, and he's two years younger. He's also right-handed and would pair nicely with Oscar Taveras as the small end of a platoon/defensive replacement. He is in his first year of arbitration and will probably make $1-2M like Jon Jay. I'd also note that Joe Kelly has a 2.69 ERA and a 10-5 record that probably overstates his talent by quite a bit. This is a great sell-high moment for him, especially to a not-particularly-savvy GM like DiPoto.
So, you have the money and the details and some food for thought. Go to town!