A few weeks ago, I wondered what Cardinals payroll might look like if they added Giancarlo Stanton. While Stanton did not miraculously appear, the Cardinals did make a pretty surprising trade, sending Mike Leake to the Mariners along with $17 million. Shaving off around $12 million in payroll per season over the next three years should have a pretty significant impact on spending in the near future.
From 2011 through 2014, the Cardinals Opening Day payroll was stagnant, averaging $112 million per year, moving between $110 million and $116 million. The team saw a decent leap in 2015, going up to $122 million followed by sizable leap in 2016 to $146 million. This year, payroll remained essentially flat at $148 million, though actual spending was done a decent amount as the team spent over $20 million on amateurs—international and domestic—in 2016 and spent about one quarter of that this season due to fewer draft picks and international penalties.
The Cardinals definitely have room to spend from their current salary, and moving Leake provides the team with even more room to maneuver. The long-discussed television contract kicks in next year with the Cardinals seeing a raised fee and part-ownership. The team also continues to see very good attendance numbers even if the number actually attending hasn’t been up at levels previously seen.
The Cardinals payroll sits right in the middle when compared to the rest of MLB, and missing out on free agents like David Price and Jason Heyward plus a weak free agent market last season left the Cardinals with little to spend on despite their robust finances, ending up giving Dexter Fowler a five-year deal and Brett Cecil four years. This year’s free agent class isn’t particularly strong so the Cardinals will have to get creative to make the team better.
They will have the money to do so. The chart below shows how much the Cardinals have guaranteed for next year, and also includes estimated arbitration salaries and enough league minimum players to fill out a roster. Team options are included in the latter number. While we don’t know the exact financials in the Leake deal, it is reasonable to assume a steady rate of pay.
Even if the Cardinals had no interest in increasing payroll for next season, with Trevor Rosenthal a non-tender candidate, Kevin Siegrist now designated for assignment and much of Leake’s money now gone, the Cardinals currently sit $26 million below this year’s figure. Assuming the Cardinals can make a healthy increase in payroll to $165 million or so, they are going to have more than $40 million to add players this offseason.
They don’t really have any huge commitments for the future. That $140 million number in 2020 includes more than $30 million in options for Matt Carpenter and Jedd Gyorko. If that money is going to be used wisely, it likely needs to come in the form of a trade. There are few impact players available in free agency. If the Cardinals end up using the money freed up by trading Mike Leake on a relief pitcher, that is money likely to be wasted.
If the Cardinals are going to make some big moves this offseason, particularly on the position-player side, some of those players above as well as their future salaries are likely to move as well. If Tommy Pham and Dexter Fowler are locks for starting roles next season, then Stephen Piscotty or Randal Grichuk would seem likely to get moved. If the Cardinals were to add a third baseman, Jedd Gyorko might have to move along.
The Cardinals still have a lot to play for this season, but the team is clearly already planning for 2018. They are going to have tons of cash, solid players at every position at the major league level, and a very good farm system. This winter needs to be big.