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What if the Cardinals Decided to Slash Payroll?

Or: How to Steal Your Colleagues’ Words and Ideas for Fun and Profit

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Cincinnati Reds David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Luke Weaver made his second major league start last night. After his first appearance, I wrote things went about as well as could be expected for Weaver, considering he was facing one of the most potent offenses in all of baseball, in their home ballpark (which just happens to be one of the more unusual environments in the game due to its peculiar features and weather concerns), and having made but a single Triple A start before being called up. In other words, Weaver was probably pushed faster than the organisation would have liked, was squaring off against a very tough Cubs lineup in Wrigley Field, and acquitted himself most admirably all the same.

Last night, things did not go nearly so well for Dream Weaver Jr., in spite of his facing off against the Philadelphia Phillies, who currently do not in any way feature one of the more dangerous offenses in the game. So what was different?

Well, to be honest, not a ton. Weaver’s stuff looked roughly the same to me, maybe even a little better. The fastball seemed to have an extra bit of juice last night compared to last weekend in Chicago. Maybe his location in general was a little less fine. Beyond that, he looked pretty similar.

In doing this bit of abbreviated analysis, I’m going to steal a sentiment put forth by the always-delightful IHeartBoog in the latest of her always-delightful game recaps published just last night. What Boogsy said was this:

Weaver's final line: 5.0 IP, 3 R, 9 H, 6 K, 0 BB. I think that last stat might be pretty important, so I will choose to focus on that. In a game where he didn't really have great stuff, Weaver still managed not to walk anyone. Free passes are the worst. Silver linings!

She’s right, you know; free passes absolutely are the worst, and the fact Luke Weaver didn’t hand the Phillies any last night is a very big positive. In fact, it’s the best thing he does as a pitcher. His walk rate in the minors was absolutely minuscule, and I’m going to tell you right now, that isn’t likely to change in the big leagues.

It’s also going to be one of his major weaknesses, if I’m being honest. Not the fact he doesn’t walk hitters; if a pitcher never walked a single batter he would have an enormous advantage over the rest of pitcherdom pretty much automatically. Rather, the fact Luke Weaver seems so very averse to handing out those free passes rightly reviled by our intrepid recapper indicates a fundamental truth of his pitching, which is that Luke Weaver throws a lot of strikes. And in doing so, Luke Weaver is in and around the strike zone a great majority of the time.

The upside to that, of course, is that Weaver should avoid walks and get plenty of quick outs. The downside is that Weaver, while possessed of plenty good enough stuff to succeed at the major league level, does not possess the kind of stuff that can make him absolutely unhittable. While I actually agree (for once), with Mike Matheny when he spoke after the game about Weaver trying to be too fine with his pitches and thus allowing his pitch count to balloon, there’s also the unavoidable truth that Luke Weaver’s one real plus offering, the one pitch that truly deserves an elite grade, is a changeup. And while changeups can certainly generate swings and misses — just look at Carlos Martinez’s on a good day, or those of Wacha, Jaime, or Trevor Rosenthal for that matter — the changeup is most effective when thrown in such a manner as to resemble the pitcher in question’s fastball. It’s why Michael Wacha’s changeup (and overall repertoire), is absolutely devastating when the fastball is at the kneecap, and taken for a ball low and out of the zone when the fastball is sitting mid-thigh or higher.

Luke Weaver has good enough stuff to get outs at the major league level. I’m not sure he has the stuff to consistently get hitters to swing and miss at a high rate, however. The last pitch he threw of the night, the changeup to strike out Cameron Rupp, was a thing of absolute beauty. But he had to throw a perfect change to get that swing and miss. The fact so much of Weaver’s arsenal consists of pitches that look alike and move in relatively similar manners (the fastball and change by definition are going to look very similar, and the cutter, while moving the other way horizontally, lacks real vertical depth), combined with that penchant for working in and around the zone so much, is going to mean he will probably be somewhat more hittable than some other pitchers might be, even if their stuff is of similar quality.

We’ve seen lots of very encouraging stuff from Weaver so far. Still, I wonder just how good he can be when it seems like he lacks a breaking ball he can consistently put hitters away with. Maybe the changeup is so good it won’t matter, but it’s not tough to imagine the bad version of Luke Weaver as a strike-throwing machine who simply can’t get enough of those strikes past hitters to really excel.

Now, 875 words in, let me get to the subject I actually meant to write about this morning.

I was reading Ben’s piece on Jhonny Peralta’s tough season yesterday, and I nearly did a thing I very rarely do anymore: I scrolled down to the bottom of the page and started to write a comment. I’ve never been an extremely prolific commenter on this site; I know some of you have tens of thousands of comments over the course of a few years of membership, while my info page tells me that in a few days short of a decade of using this account on this blog (I joined under my current username shortly after reading a guest post by Will Leitch, abandoning my first account due to forgetting the password and not particularly liking the username I initially went with anyway), I have commented exactly 8,452 times here at Viva el Birdos. Over the past couple years, however, my commenting has slowed even further, to a virtual trickle, for a few different reasons, all of which are personal in nature and also really not that interesting.

However, I felt I had a thing to say about Jhonny Peralta, and so began typing out a comment. While I was typing, though, I had another thought about some other things, and began to incorporate those thoughts into the comment. However, after drawing in those thoughts, I realised the comment was beginning to get quite long. So long, in fact, that if I had gone ahead and finished said comment, it might very well have been a short article in and of itself. And so I scrapped my comment and decided I would write my thoughts in actual article form. (Admittedly, this is one of the reasons I don’t comment as much here anymore; in general, if I think of something interesting enough to talk about on the blog I tuck it away in case I can’t think of a post subject some morning.)

My thought about Jhonny Peralta was this: “I really kind of hope at this point that the Cardinals don’t bring ol’ Misplaced Aitch back next year. His trade value is definitely way down from where it was, say, last offseason, but still, the Cardinals have enough other options on the infield that I would prefer to see him and his salary moved for whatever they could get.”

As I was saying that, my further thought was this: “Then again, I feel that way about some other Cardinals, too, and Jhonny isn’t at the top of that list, so, you know.”

And that’s when I started to think about fleshing out the idea(s) in article form, rather than a comment.

The Cardinals, at the moment, are in a rather strange position. They are a team with a core/corps of aging, soon-to-be-outgoing players, and an upcoming group that hasn’t yet quite evolved into a proper replacement core. They are a transitional team, in many ways, and yet are still very much in contention, very much in the playoff hunt. Perhaps it’s that proximity to the playoffs, rather than any other factor, that makes this year’s club feel a little odd. If the Redbirds were just a little bit worse, and a little further out of it, this would feel like a proper transitional season, and the expectations would be correspondingly lower. This in-between state is a strange one to try and get one’s hands around.

There’s also an interesting thing about the club in terms of payroll, and that interesting thing is this: the Cardinals’ opening day payroll this season, according to Cot’s, was $145, 553, 500. Where the 500 dollars came in is something I wold be really fascinated to know, but not so fascinated as to actually scroll through the salaries to see who has a non-rounded thousand in their contract. Just seems like an odd thing not to round off, when you’re dealing with really, really big numbers overall.

That $145 million payroll is a very large number, but not an unreasonably huge one. In a game with so much money flying around as major league baseball right now, even a number that seems ridiculous to normal people can basically be seen as a middling sum. After all, the Dodgers are still running a payroll of almost a quarter of a billion dollars, the Yankees are over $200 million, the Red Sox are almost at the $200 million mark, and the Cubs this season blasted right past the Redbirds in going up to just over $170 million. Also, none of those franchises are struggling to make payroll, either. In other words, there’s a lot of money in MLB these days.

Still, for a club working with a relatively small market (though one with nearly unprecedented levels of engagement), a payroll close to 150 million bucks is serious business. There’s also the fact that payroll figure is actually a huge jump up from last season to consider; opening day 2015 the Cards sat at $122 million, so we did see a rather stealthy ~19% jump from last season to this year. I mean, seriously; did you realise the Cardinals raised payroll by almost 20% from last year? I sure didn’t.

But thinking about Jhonny Peralta’s contract, and hoping the Redbirds just get out from under it, got me to thinking about the payroll in general, and how the Cardinals under John Mozeliak have gone about managing their money.

One of the biggest features of the Mozeliak era in St. Louis has been an avoidance of dead money. That’s not to say there haven’t been any missteps that have cost the club, of course; every team occasionally hands a player a contract that doesn’t work out great. But there are no huge piles of money being spent on non-productive players under the Mozeliak regime; there are no A-Rod contracts, no CC Sabathias, no Pablo Sandovals. There are very notably no Pujolses on the team under Johnny Mo and Co.

Even so, as I got to thinking about Peralta and some of the other biggish contracts on the Cardinals right now, I started wondering what it would look like if the team decided that, before next opening day rolled around, they would like to really slash payroll heavily.

Here’s the thing about that: the Cardinals have a handful of highly-paid players, but no true albatross contracts. So there’s no one roster spot you could cut that would suddenly change the club’s financial situation instantly. However, if we start looking around, there is maybe a little more fat that could be trimmed than one might perhaps think at first. (And no, that is not a joke about Jhonny Peralta being the player who inspired this exercise.)

The Cardinals’ highest paid players are currently Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, Mike Leake, Jhonny Peralta, and Jaime Garcia. That’s right; Jaime Garcia’s $9.25 million 2015 salary is one of the six highest on the club. After him, we start getting down to fairly small fish pretty quickly, though Matt Carpenter is set to start earning quite a bit more in the near future.

Of those six players, three are essentially immovable. Wainwright, while certainly compromised from his glory days self, is still a very solid pitcher, and his role as team leader may not be worth $19.5 million annually, but it does make him very much a fixture on the club. Plus, full no-trade clause, and I think Waino likes it here. Yadi is similarly a lesser version of the player he used to be, but let’s face it: he’s Yadi. He’s not going anywhere.

Mike Leake is also probably not going anywhere, simply because of his no-trade clause. Further comments seem wasted here.

Those other three, though...those are more interesting. We’ve considered at length life without Matt Holliday, and I think most fans would be fairly comfortable with the idea that $16 million could be used in some way more productive than Holliday at his age. Paying the one million buyout and sending sixteen somewhere else is probably a better idea than keeping him around for seventeen. Peralta is set to make $10 million in the final season of his four-year, $53 million deal, has been a replacement-level player this season in 177 plate appearances, and will turn 35 next year. Jaime Garcia is still a very productive pitcher, and his $12 million option is very affordable for the level of quality you’re usually getting with Jaime, but damned if there aren’t a shit ton of pitchers in the Redbird system who might be jockeying for a spot in the rotation sooner than later.

So what if we simply declined Holliday’s option, allowed him to walk to an AL team who could DH him regularly, put Jhonny on the market for the best return possible without picking up any more of his salary, and picked up Jaime’s option then traded him as well? (And Jaime should have plenty of value with that salary, as well, so the return could be quite good.) That would save us $16M on Holliday, $10M on Peralta, and $12.5M on Jaime. Lopping $38.5 million off the top of the 2017 payroll doesn’t sound too bad, does it?

But now let’s go and look at some other options. Trevor Rosenthal, in spite of being terrible and then injured this season, is set for arbitration again this year, and will get a raise regardless. The roster matrix estimate had him at $8 million, and that’s probably not unreasonable. Trade him if possible, just release him if not. Either way, cut another $8M from the pie next year.

“Hey, what about Broxton?” I hear someone shouting from the back. (As You Van Slyke It, I’m looking at you.) Well, what about him? He’s due to make $3.75 million next year, and those shoes can be filled by someone else at this point. The pants, not so much, but the shoes definitely. Give him away to anyone for international pool money or something. Or public pool gift certificates, I don’t care. Cut another 3.75M.

Jedd Gyorko’s salary doesn’t start to escalate until 2018, when he’s set to make $8M, and he’s been really good. So we’re keeping him. (Seriously, that contract actually looks kind of crazy good at this exact moment in time.)

Lance Lynn will make $7.5 million next year, and considering he’s hurt right now, I don’t think you can move him very effectively. Then again, if he comes back before the end of the season miraculously and looks good, then maybe you could. It’s hard to consider moving two starting pitchers in one offseason, but for the purposes of this exercise I’m going to do it. So take 7.5M off.

Looking through the rest of the roster, I think that’s about all the cutting we can do. Brandon Moss is a free agent, so even though he’s pulling down a little over $8 million this year, I can’t really claim savings by him not being on the Cardinals next year, since by default he won’t be here unless they choose to bring him back. Beyond Moss, there really aren’t any other big chunks of change to cut.

So totaling it all up, and not really worrying too much about what returns we might be able to get from trades, we save:

  1. $16M — Holliday option declined
  2. $10M — Peralta traded
  3. $12.5M — Jaime option exercised, then dealt
  4. $8M — Rosenthal traded/released
  5. $3.75M — Broxton traded
  6. $7.5M — Lance Lynn traded

Which all adds up to right about 57.5 million dollars. Admittedly, some of this is hypothetical money — Garcia’s option, Rosenthal’s potential arb payout — but the point is this: if the Cardinals have all these players on the team next year, they will be spending about $60 million on the lot.

And this leads us to the real question: how much better is that team than the one without any of them?

Now, admittedly, if you moved both Jaime and Lance Lynn, I think you would potentially be leaving yourself dangerously thin in the rotation. Besides, Lynn will be a better trade piece at the deadline next year if he comes back and pitches like Lance Lynn, so perhaps there’s a better value to be had there. So we’ll hang on to Lynn. If nothing else, he can take Michael Wacha’s spot next year as Pac-Man transitions to late inning relief. I think you might still miss Jaime of that group, but with Luke Weaver and Alex Reyes both knocking on the door of the majors, how much would moving on from Jaime really hurt the club?

Jhonny Peralta has been worth -0.2 wins this season. Matt Holliday has contributed 0.5 WAR to the cause. Garcia has been very solid, but again, if it’s Reyes or Weaver in his spot next season, how steep will the falloff actually be? Rosenthal is not contributing currently. Broxton is replacement level.

I think there’s a very real argument to be made that the Cardinals of 2017 will be every bit as good a team without any of those players as they would with them. (Again, Jaime falls into a separate category, more of a roster space consideration than not being productive at his salary.) Does an infield alignment of Carpenter, Peralta, Aledmys Diaz, and Jedd Gyorko really seem any more productive than Marp/Diaz/Gyorko/Greg Garcia? Is Peralta any better a bet at third base than Gyorko at this point, really? We still have the potential for a reemergence of Kolten Wong, who, by the way, makes half his $25 million in the 2020-21 seasons, so no need to worry about his salary just yet.

I’m not saying I think the Cardinals should cut payroll before 2017 just to do it. If they slash payroll drastically and don’t reinvest that money somewhere (I do think Moss would be a good buy for the next 2-3 years), then I’ll probably be disappointed and moderately annoyed by that. But I have to say, looking at the group of players above, and honestly asking myself if I would rather have those players or 50+ million dollars for Mo to work with, I’m going to have to take the money. Of course, the absolute shitshow that is the free agent class this offseason means there may be nothing good to spend that money on, but my point stands: the Cardinals with those players are $50 million more expensive, and probably not much, if any, better than the version of the team with none of them.

As I said before, this Cardinal team seems to be in a rather strange place right now. They are a transitional team, waiting to see what the next great club is going to look like. We have a pretty good idea of the outline, but we’re not quite there yet. This is also a club that, in spite of having a reputation for avoiding dead money on the books like the plague, looks like it might have something like fifty million dollars worth of eminently replaceable payroll potentially on those books for 2017.

So, yeah. Kinda weird, right?