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What does a $130 million payroll look like for the Cardinals

The Cardinals expect payroll to rise in the coming years, but much of that increase will go to young players reaching arbitration. Even so, the Cardinals will still retain the flexibility to pursue a core player from outside the organization.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals payroll is expected to rise, perhaps to around $130 million by 2017, as Ben noted yesterday. As for this offseason, the Cardinals might have trouble raising payroll given so few holes and even fewer options to make dynamic changes. At the end of the 2013 season, the Cardinals had few holes and a decent amount of money to spend. They quickly signed Jhonny Peralta. Then they traded David Freese and Fernando Salas for Peter Bourjos and Randal Grichuk. They rounded out their moves by signing Mark Ellis. Even with the new additions, the Cardinals began the season behind their previous payroll level. For the second straight year, the Cardinals appear to be entering the offseason with money to spend, but few realistic places to spend it on.

In July, when adding David Price or Cliff Lee looked like realistic options, I discussed the Cardinals payroll considerations. I wrote that the Cardinals did have money to spend on a $20 million per year player, but in the offseason, trading Allen Craig or Jon Jay might be necessary to free up some money. The Cardinals did trade Craig, but brought back a much cheaper alternative to David Price in John Lackey, scheduled to make just $500,000 in 2015. Prior to the trade, here is where the Cardinals' payroll stood over the past few years.

Cardinals payroll

Adding Lackey this past season bumps up the 2014 payroll to 2013 levels, but heading into the offseason, the Cardinals again have money to spend. On Monday, Ben put forth the Cardinals current roster matrix and noted the Cardinals were roughly $20 million down in salaries heading into 2015 before arbitration. Yesterday, Ben discussed the arbitration eligible players and the reason for expanding payroll over the next few years. Here is Ben's graphic from yesterday.

2015-2020 STL Payroll Obligations

Digging a bit deeper, we can estimate the arbitration eligible salaries and figure out how much money the Cardinals have to play with over the next few years. With just the guaranteed money owed to Holliday, Peralta, Molina, Garcia, Carpenter, Wainwright, Choate, and Diaz, the Cardinals payroll stands at $84.825 million per Cot's Contracts from Baseball Prospectus. Adding ten cost-controlled, minimum salary players, like those listed above as well as Martinez, a couple more bullpen arms, and John Lackey's salary gets the Cardinals to around $90 million.

Estimating arbitration salaries is not precise, so I will be fairly aggressive and assume that the Cardinals are keeping everyone this season. Tony Cruz and Shane Robinson, in their first seasons of arbitration eligibility should come in around one million dollars each. Peter Bourjos and Daniel Descalso, both in their second year of arbitration should make roughly $2 million each.

Jon Jay made $3.25 million this past season in his first year of arbitration eligibility, and could make between five and six million next year. Lance Lynn is in his first year of arbitration and he will make close to $4 million in 2015. With absolutely no additions, bringing back guys like Robinson and Descalso, and aggressive arbitration estimates for Lynn and Jay, the Cardinals could field a complete team roughly equivalent to this year's team for $106 million.

Repeating the exercise for 2016 yields similar results. Bumping Jay up to $9 million and Lynn up to $7 million and adding one million dollars to the rest of the players eligible this offseason amounts to $26 million. From the chart above, Trevor Rosenthal, Shelby Miller, Matt Adams, and Seth Maness will all become eligible for arbitration in 2016. Giving $4 million each to the first three players and one million dollars to Maness adds another $13 million. The Cardinals have guaranteed salaries of $72.7 million, bringing payroll to around $112 million. Add in a half-dozen minimum salaried players and the Cardinals are close to $115 million.

The 2016 figure seems high, but keep in mind $10 million went to the combination of Bourjos, Robinson, Descalso, and Cruz. In 2017, Jay, Bourjos, and Descalso are off the books, as is Matt Holliday unless the Cardinals choose to bring him back with a $17 million option. Bringing back Holliday seemed far-fetched when he signed his contract heading into 2010, but as salaries rise and Holliday continues to contribute, the option might be worth picking up. In addition to the group from 2016, players like Michael Wacha, Kolten Wong, and Carlos Martinez are likely to become arbitration eligible. Giving the newly eligible players $4 million, giving the second year players $7 million (save for Maness who will get $2 million), $10 million for Lance Lynn and $3 million for Shane Robinson puts the Cardinals arbitration bill at $48 million dollars. With guaranteed salaries around $57 million and another half dozen minimum salaries, the Cardinals again end up around $110 million.

Given the Cardinals willingness to go up to $130 million and the rising arbitration salaries, the Cardinals will have the money to pursue another core player. While arbitration eligible players lead to rising costs, they also create great flexibility. Proven cost-controlled major leaguers are a major commodity, allowing the Cardinals to trade from their youth and at the same time lock some players up to extensions to keep them in St. Louis past their initial six seasons.

Just like the Cardinals did in July, they have room to pursue a high-salaried player from outside the organization. Two sought-after players, Troy Tulowitzki and Giancarlo Stanton, do not appear to be options this winter. Tulowitzki is coming off injury while Stanton might not be available until the Marlins are certain they cannot re-sign him. Jose Bautista was a name thrown around in Derrick Goold's chat earlier this week, but he noted the Cardinals did not appear to be interested in adding an outfielder. The Cardinals have the ability to add an impact player to their organization, but the fit appears elusive. Expect the team to retain its flexibility going into next season, perhaps bolstering the bench with some power. However, if a star player becomes available, the Cardinals will be in position to make a move.