So you may have heard by now; this is kind of a big offseason for the Cardinals.
The Redbirds are coming off a season that saw them win 100 games for the first time in a decade, and become the first 100 game winner in the big leagues since 2011. The pitching was historic; the hitting, not so much. This season was also the first time in a very long time the Cardinals have been really, truly pressured by the the rest of the division; the Pirates have obviously been very good the past couple years, but having not just one, but two other clubs in the high 90s in victories this season chasing them is a completely new thing. The Cardinals will not, unless things change from where they stand today, open up 2016 as the favourites for the National League Central.
Furthermore, one of the driving engines of the Redbirds' success in 2015, Jason Heyward, is a free agent. The Cardinals gave up quite a lot of talent to acquire him, and rightly or wrongly, much of how that trade is viewed in the future will come down to whether Heyward returns to the club beyond this year, or ultimately moves on to another team without a return engagement.
Given the pressing needs of the roster, the presence of one elephant-sized player who needs to be re-signed, and not to even mention the ridiculous depth of the free agent class into which the club is wading, the 2015-2016 offseason looks like it could be a real doozy for El Birdos. Club-record deals are being bandied about in the rumour mill on a more-or-less daily basis, and at least some in the fan base have confessed to some delusions of grandeur, along the lines of a record-setting Jason Heyward contract, plus another record-shattering deal for a free agent pitcher (coughs David Price's name), or perhaps another offensive piece (coughs Chris Davis's name, somewhat less enthusiastically).
Along with this track of thinking, however, has come a predictable, and completely rational, objection. This line of reasoning goes something like this:
"The Cardinals aren't the sort of franchise to just go spending willy nilly, like a sailor on shore leave. They're much more conservative financially."
"The Cards have room in the budget for one big contract, but definitely not two. It just doesn't make sense."
or, most simply of all:
"There's no way the Cardinals are going to add 35-40 million dollars to payroll in one offseason. Not happening."
It's that last one that's the most interesting to me, because it seems the most common. Variations of that line of reasoning are pretty much everywhere, from the comments section of this board, to other Redbirds fansites, to the electronic pages of the local paper. A whole lot of people seem very much in agreement that the Cardinals are unlikely to add that much payroll that fast, and we should all pump the brakes pretty hard on our wishcasting.
It's the line of thinking behind Jeff Gordon of the Post-Dispatch saying he believes the Cardinals will wait until next season to make any major moves, at which point the club will have tons of payroll coming off the books, in the form of Matt Holliday's contract expiring, Jhonny Peralta's contract becoming cheaper and possibly more movable, and the like.
Now, I'm not actually here to go after Gordon today; I'm not a fan of the man's work quite often, but in this case I think he has a reasonable point. As do all the others out there who look at the Cards' payroll, and say there's no way they'll escalate it a huge amount all in one offseason, that it will be a more gradual ramp. Maybe one sizable move this year, then maybe another decent-sized acquisition next offseason, when the club has had more time to evaluate where they are. Those are sensible points.
The problem, though, is this: there is virtually nothing worth investing in next year.
Now, I'm not going to try and speculate as to what the trade market might look like next offseason; it's impossible to know what could be in the works by that time. So if you're only focused on trades that might happen after 2016, then that's fair. But in looking at what is likely to be available in free agency, what could be had by the Cardinals or any other team for just money, next offseason is a desolate wasteland compared to this year's free-agent Eden.
Here is the full list of all possible free agents for the 2016-2017 free agency period, courtesy of MLBTradeRumours. Go ahead, take a moment. Read over it. Scroll down, looking for names you find interesting.
I know, right?
For those who didn't read the list all that carefully -- or at all -- I'll summarize: Stephen Strasburg is likely to be a free agent, but will command a Boras-sized deal, and personally, I wouldn't touch him with a ten-foot pole anyway. But, that's just me. Strasburg is obviously a premium talent, and will be hitting free agency at 28, young enough to imagine a team giving him a contract that runs seven or even eight years, in spite of his history of injury.
After Strasburg, on the pitching side, the most attractive starting option will probably be...Brett Anderson, if he manages to stay healthy for a second season in a row, which seems almost unimaginable for Brett Anderson. He'll be 29. After him, 30 year old and also terrible Jeremy Hellickson jumps off the page, as well as 31 year old and chronically inconsistent Gio Gonzalez. If, that is, the Nationals decline Gonzalez's 2017 option for $12 million. Jon Niese has a $10 million option for 2017, and Matt Moore has a $7 million option for the same. After those guys, well...how do you feel about Andrew Cashner? Or Yusmeiro Petit? Yeah, that's about how I feel about them, too.
I suppose Clay Buccholz could be an interesting target, but that seems like a dangerous ride.
On the position player side, Jonathan Lucroy could be the headliner, hitting free agency at 31, but he has a 2017 option for barely over $5 million, which I can't imagine the Brewers not picking up unless he falls apart so completely as to have no value. Carlos Santana is an intriguing name, but has a 2017 option of his own for $12 million, which I tend to think will be exercised. Matt Wieters, Francisco Cervelli, and Jason Castro could all be free agents from the catching ranks, but I have to believe the Pirates will lock up Cervelli, Wieters is very much a wild card, and Jason Castro sucks.
Speaking of sucks, Jay Bruce will be a free agent! He'll also be only 30, not too very old for a free agent signing. Only two problems: there's a 2017 option on Bruce, and he is terrible. If he somehow isn't terrible next year, the option will probably be picked up. If he is terrible again, well, why would you want him?
Jose Bautista will be available, but 36. Carlos Gomez is probably the only really intriguing center field name, but his health is a question mark at this point. At least somewhat, anyway. Brandon Moss should be available. From the Cardinals, probably. So, you know.
Both the Escobars, Alcides and Yunel, have 2017 options that will probably keep them off the market. Yunel Escobar is also 34, and is beginning to show some definite signs of decline. Martin Prado will be available, and actually would make for an interesting fit for a team looking for the next best thing to Ben Zobrist. Then again, Prado is also 33, and has not approached his 2012 season with the Braves since leaving. Justin Turner is an intriguing name, but will be 32 and just had a microfracture procedure on his knee. That's worrisome.
Please don't think I'm going through the list and just cherrypicking players I know nobody would really want; I'm actually doing the opposite. I'm picking only what I consider the best names on next year's list. The fact the names are what they are is exactly the reason why I'm doing this.
What I'm saying is, if the Cardinals are going to expand payroll and buy some talent on the open market, it almost has to happen this offseason. Next year there may literally not be more than three or four players worth investing in when it's all said and done.
Now, the question remains: would the Cards be willing to jump payroll by something like $40 million in one offseason to acquire both Jason Heyward and, say, a David Price? Or Davis and Price? Or Heyward and Zobrist? Or whatever duo you want to speculate on, really. The point is, payroll will have to rise significantly if the Redbirds wanted to bring in two meaningful pieces this offseason.
A better question, though, is this: would the Cardinals be willing to pay that much for one season? Because after the 2016 campaign comes to a close, the Redbirds could potentially be losing
-- $16 million worth of Matt Holliday ($17 million option, $1 million buyout)
-- $11.5 million worth of Jaime Garcia
-- whatever Brandon Moss gets in arbitration this year, projected around $7.5 million
-- $6.225 million worth of Jon Jay (boy, was I wrong to think the Jay extension couldn't possibly bite them in the ass)
-- a few more million off Jhonny's contract, which goes from $15 million this year to $12.5 in 2016 to $10 million in 2017.
That is roughly $45 million the Cardinals are likely going to drop in payroll from 2016 to 2017. I know they expressed interest in picking up Holliday's option, and I feel like it would be a great thing to do, but considering the situation in the outfield at this point, minus the DH coming to the National League, I just don't see Holliday as a great option at this point. Or at least the Holliday Option as a good option, if that makes sense.
If the Cards could figure out a way to move Peralta after the 2016 season, hopefully to make room for an internal option on the infield, that would be another $10 million lopped off completely, which would bring the total closer to $55 million dropped from 2016 to '17.
Now, of course, I understand there will be other raises to young players that will eat up a fair amount of that surplus and the like. But what I'm saying is this: if the Redbirds really wanted to jump payroll by $40+ million in 2016, it would only have to be for one season, because so much is dropping off after the year.
And that, dear friends, is why I say if the Cardinals are serious about spending, about bumping the payroll to stay competitive in the suddenly-brutal NL Central, the time to do it is really this offseason, when you have an historically amazing free agent class, a large amount of payroll flexibility already, and an enormous amount of money dropping off the books in a year, just ahead of the huge new television deal kicking in and upping the revenue streams even further.
Payroll is going to have to increase for this club to remain at or near the top of the league going forward. This year, there is a multitude of things to spend that money on. Next year, there is almost nothing. If, as some have speculated, the Cardinals would like to wait for another year to make some big moves, I'm afraid those big moves are just never going to happen.