The Cardinals have received quite a bit of criticism this off-season. Despite filling there only real hole on the position players side with Dexter Fowler, as well as spending for a luxury of sorts in Brett Cecil, many fans wanted to see more, and bigger moves. Maybe you wanted Justin Turner. Maybe you wanted Edwin Encarnacion, or his former teammate Jose Bautista. Maybe you wanted to trade for Chris Archer, Evan Longoria, or Kevin Kiermaier (or all three), though they never seemed to be available. Maybe you wanted Chris Sale, though its hard to imagine many wanted to see the Cards match the Red Sox’ offer.
As we’ve seen in the two previous winters, there’s been calls that the Cardinals are being complacent. That they have an ownership group with the resources to make big moves, but a preference to profit instead. This type of thinking is a direct result of the ascension of the Cubs to the top of Major League Baseball. After three consecutive division titles, the Cardinals supremacy in the Nation League Central was painfully upended by the team’s historic rivals. Worse yet, there’s every reason to believe they’ll be at the top for a long time in Baseball terms. Never mind the fact that they basically lost on purpose for three years in order to build this current super-team. Fans want to compete with the Cubs now.
The problem is, getting on the Cubs level just wasn’t realistic. Take this tweet from St. Louis Post Dispatch writer Jose de Jesus Ortiz:
If Cecil & Fowler are the only 2 additions the #STLCards make this offseason, they will finish at least 10 games behind the Cubs. Book it.— Jose de Jesus Ortiz (@OrtizKicks) December 23, 2016
The problem with this logic is that if we take for granted that the Cardinals are ten games back of the Cubs right now (which is a tad less than what I would put it at but is a realistic number) then that means with Encarnacion, the Cardinals are still a team eight games worse than the Cubs. It wasn’t going to take a few big moves for the Cardinals to get on the Cubs level, it was going to take about five.
Judging by moves that have occurred this winter, it doesn’t seem any series of moves that could have shrank a ten game gap was even possible. There just was not enough star free agents available, nor were that many great players available in trade, except for Sale and Eaton, both of which would have requiring dealing Alex Reyes plus other decent prospects.
With the context of a weak free agent market, and a correspondingly seller-friendly winter trade market, the Cardinals still signed two players that figure to be valued contributors to the 2017 team. Comparing the Cardinals off-season to a hypothetical one that somehow gains the team ten wins on paper makes their moves underwhelming. Comparing them to what everyone else did though, completely shreds any thought of the Cardinals being complacent. Using MLBTradeRumor.com’s Transactions tracker, here’s how the Cardinals rank in free agent signings:
The Dodgers had three prominent out-going free agents, and they re-signed all three. Go figure. The Mets re-signed Yoenis Cespedes and retained Neil Walker when he accepted the qualifying offer. Other than those two, no one else spent more money than the Cardinals. They didn’t just edge everyone else out, as less than a third of the league even spent half as much.
Now, there’s a couple nits you can pick with this graph. One, this isn’t measuring change in payroll from 2016 to 2017. Once terms with Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha are figured out, the team will have about the same payroll as last year. The team didn’t dominate in terms of adding 2017 payroll, just total future payroll.
This also doesn’t count the prospect cost that teams like the Nationals and Red Sox paid to improve their team. Still, as long as the Cardinals are comfortably well-below the Competitive Balance tax line, I don’t think I’m alone in preferring that the team pay in dollars rather than talent when it can.
With those two caveats in mind, the Cardinals were one of baseball’s biggest spenders this winter. You can say they’ve been cheap and complacent, but the numbers just don’t support it. There wasn’t much to go after in this market, but the Cardinals managed to bring in two players that should be strong contributors to the 2017 team. No, that won’t put them on the Cubs level, but nothing realistic would have. They’re virtually tied in the projections with the Giants and Mets at the top of the Wild Card standings. The team’s moves this winter helped solidify that. Expecting more than being the third biggest spender this off-season just wasn’t realistic.