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Do the St. Louis Cardinals have the payroll flexibility necessary to sign Jason Heyward long term?

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

On Episode 15 of the Viva El Birdos podcast, Aaron Finkel and I got to talking about the likelihood that new St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward, who is set to become a free agent after the 2015 season, might sign a long-term extension. During the course of that discussion, Aaron and I looked at the Cardinals' current payroll obligations through the next five years. The Cardinals have the payroll space necessary to sign Heyward.

We know through the reporting of Derrick Goold at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the Cardinals put together three- and five-year payroll plans. Obviously, these plans are not set in stone. Sometimes a player like Allen Craig, to whom you've guaranteed at least $31 million over five years, sees his offensive production fall off a cliff in the second year of that contract and you trade him for a veteran starter who is guaranteed $500K in 2015 ($5 million less than Craig) and nothing beyond that ($20 million less than Craig). Assigning Craig's contract to the Red Sox freed up payroll that the Cardinals had previously planned on paying out through 2017, if not 2018 (Craig has a $13 million club option with a $1 million buyout). This is just an example, but you get the idea.

Back when fall had not yet turned to winter, Bill DeWitt Jr. announced the Cardinals' intentions to increase payroll in the next three to five years. Subsequently, I put together the following graphic, which shows the Cardinals' contractual obligations through the 2020 season:

The Cardinals have a lot of young players under club control playing for the league minimum or close to it. Those players will become more expensive once they hit arbitration eligibility after notching three years of MLB service time. The Cardinals will likely agree to extensions that buy out arbitration and free-agent years with some of these players. Whether they sign players to extensions or go year-to-year via salary arbitration, the Cardinals' crop of young players are going to start taking up a larger share of the club's payroll in the years to come. Increasing payroll in the next three to five years so that it climbs into the $130 million range makes sense.

Keep in mind that none of the players who are under club control are guaranteed a contract beyond the present season. Arbitration-eligiblity players go year to year unless they sign an extension (like the Cards and Lance Lynn recently did). Each offseason, MLB clubs must decide whether to initiate the salary-arbitration process by tendering a player a contract for the following year. This offseason, the Cardinals elected to non-tender Daniel Descalso, making him a free agent able to sign with any club. If a team and player are going year to year during his arbitration-eligiblity seasons, the club is free to cut bait like the Cards did with Descalso.

Guaranteed contracts are another animal. Including Aledmys Diaz, the Cardinals currently have 13 players with guaranteed MLB contracts. We looked at when he might become a free agent last year, which makes him a unique case. Excluding Diaz, due to his arbitration eligibility after his current MLB deal expires, here are those players and the season through which they are signed:

  • Mark Reynolds, 2015
  • Randy Choate, 2015
  • John Lackey, 2015
  • Jason Heyward, 2015
  • Jaime Garcia, 2015 (club options for 2017 and 2018)
  • Jordan Walden, 2016 (one club option for 2017)
  • Matt Holliday, 2016 (one club option for 2017)
  • Lance Lynn, 2017
  • Jhonny Peralta, 2017
  • Yadier Molina, 2017
  • Adam Wainwright, 2018
  • Matt Carpenter, 2019 (one club option for 2020)

The Cardinals have seven players signed to guaranteed MLB contracts past 2015. The Cards have five players guaranteed major-league contracts past 2016. There are two players—Wainwright and Carpenter—signed to guaranteed big-league deals past 2017. After 2018, only Carpenter is guaranteed a contract. As the youngsters become more expensive, the pricy core veterans will be coming off of payroll. In fact, the Cardinals appear likely to have a fair amount of payroll flexibility in the medium and long term. The following graphic show the Cardinals' guaranteed payroll obligations from 2015 through 2020 at present and how they rank in MLB overall (excluding Toronto, for which Cot's doesn't have payroll data).

Heyward seems open to signing an extension to play in St. Louis. The Cardinals have the payroll space to make it happen. It will be interesting to see how Heyward's contract status plays out in 2015.