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Current Payroll Commitments, 2020-2022

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Detailing the Cardinals current payroll commitments and what it means for future spending.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

With hot stove season coming to a boil, the financial state of teams becomes a prime point of discussion. Attention is paid to the coming season’s financial outlook, with diminishing levels of thought given to each subsequent year due to the increasing levels of uncertainty. Although it’s difficult to care about things happening far in the future, investing time to do so is not a waste. Understanding the Cardinals financial commitments, especially relative to the rest of the league, paints a picture of the organization’s health and propensity for high-dollar moves to come.

The Cardinals have just over $103 million in committed payroll for the year 2020. This is about 56 percent higher than the league average mark of $66 million. They have had an above average payroll, according to Spotrac.com, every year since 2011. In 2018, there was a jump in the their payroll, pushing them about $24 million above average, or 17 percent, the most they’ve surpassed the league average mark by since 2012.

In 2020, the Cardinals have $103 million in committed payroll excluding arbitration and pre-arbitration contract commitments (the exclusion of both will be consistent throughout this story). Tying up this amount for 2020 maintains the Cardinals aggressive financial position relative to the league, one that kicked up above their historic norms in 2018 and looks to continue in 2019 based on early figures.

Looking ahead to 2021 and 2022, the Cardinals payroll commitments revert to league average. If 2018 and 2019 are predictors of a perennial spot inside the top 10 for years to come, this would suggest the Cardinals are willing to spend money in free agency over the next few years. Does this theory have holes? Absolutely, but given the rumors around players like Paul Goldschmidt and a comparable offer for Josh Donaldson in recent days, the concept may have some truth.

For now, what we can do is break down the Cardinals financial commitments on a player-by-player basis form 2020 to 2022 (assuming options are picked up).

St. Louis Cardinals Payroll Commitments 2020-2022

Player 2020 Adj Salary $ 2021 Adj Salary $ 2022 Adj Salary $
Player 2020 Adj Salary $ 2021 Adj Salary $ 2022 Adj Salary $
Molina $20,000,000 N/A N/A
Carpenter $18,500,000 N/A N/A
Fowler $16,500,000 $16,500,000 N/A
Gyorko $13,000,000 N/A N/A
Martinez $11,700,000 $11,700,000 $17,000,000
Wong $10,250,000 $12,500,000 N/A
Cecil $7,250,000 N/A N/A
Gregerson $5,000,000 N/A N/A
DeJong $1,666,666 $4,166,666 $6,166,666
Total $103,866,666 $44,866,666 $23,166,666
Spotrac.com

The black marks are apparent here, but I don’t think the Cardinals situation is one that is difficult to stomach. Dexter Fowler and Brett Cecil are the two toughest names to look at after their 2018 campaigns, especially trying to project what they’ll produce two years removed from their rough seasons. Otherwise, the Cardinals have some surplus value candidates in Yadier Molina and Matt Carpenter, both players who have the potential for 2.5- to 3-WAR seasons at the cost of a 2-WAR player. Age could catch either of them, but their production up to this point has been so beneficial to the team, late-career struggle is made slightly more tolerable.

Move from 2020 to 2021 and the structure of the Cardinals team starts to change. Molina, Carpenter, Jedd Gyorko, and the duo of relievers all come off the books, while Fowler enters his final season and Martinez draws closer to the backloaded portion of his contract. This semi-purge of lifetime Cardinals makes them immediately younger and in need of potential holes to fill at catcher and atop their order.

One factor that opens up the Cardinals long-term commitments more than expected is the departure of Stephen Piscotty, who would have been one of three players under a non-arbitration contract. He was signed to an extremely affordable—signature move by the Cardinals—six-year deal with an option for his seventh season, with each season’s value falling below the average price of one win at the major league level (about $10 million, depending on your source). Even if he didn’t substantially affect the Cardinals payroll in a big way, his presence in the outfield would have likely caused them to alter thoughts about paying for another corner outfielder.

Another small detail that allows the Cardinals to have limited long-term commitment is the Cardinals not signing Albert Pujols during the 2011 offseason. If he did sign with the Cardinals, even for a reduced contract than what the Angels are currently paying him, there would be something around a $45-50 million hit for 2020 and 2021, vaulting the organization into the number one or two spot in terms of highest financial commitment (dependent, of course, on how that contract would’ve affected other moves). Given the current play of the first-ballot Hall of Famer, this non-move by the Cardinals front office can be considered one of the biggest money-saving moves of the last 10 years.

With a growing propensity to spend in 2018 and 2019, combined with an average commitment after 2020, the Cardinals future financial situation suggests they can and will spend.

Comparing the Cardinals situation to the rest of their division helps put their commitments in further perspective.

NL Central Payroll Commitments, 2020-2022

Team 2020 Adj Salary $ Rank 2021 Adj Salary $ Rank 2022 Adj Salary $ Rank
Team 2020 Adj Salary $ Rank 2021 Adj Salary $ Rank 2022 Adj Salary $ Rank
Brewers $64,800,000 16th $54,500,000 8th $32,000,000 10th
Cardinals $103,866,666 5th $44,866,666 12th $23,166,666 15th
Cubs $115,500,000 3rd $60,000,000 7th $43,500,000 5th
Pirates $34,100,000 24th $40,100,000 15th $22,500,000 16th
Reds $66,473,214 15th $39,973,214 16th $43,785,714 4th
Spotrac.com

Projecting three years into the future has substantial flaws, but it does allow you to pick out a few contracts that might be particularly detrimental. This is most apparent with the Cubs. Jason Heyward and Yu Darvish, both players who will be over 31 years old, are owed the entirety of the $43.5 million disclosed above. The Reds will be paying 38-year-old Joey Votto $25 million and 30-year-old Eugenio Suarez just over $11 million. Suarez’s contract is more than tolerable, but Votto will be a great baseline of how an elite hit tool develops as the age of 40 approaches. The Pirates have their money tied up in Felipe Vazquez and Gregory Polanco, while the Brewers are paying 36-year-old Lorenzo Cain and 2018 National League MVP Christian Yelich.

Cubs, Reds, Pirates, Cardinals, and Brewers would be my rank of most to least concerning commitments.

The Cardinals second lowest financial commitment in the division for 2022 bodes well (for now), but a lot of the potential surplus value rides on the continued and prolonged health of Carlos Martinez. His role will also define a majority of the this value as well. Given we don’t know what it will be in 2019, predicting it for 2022 is an exponentially harder task.

These figures are bound to change substantially with more moves and commitments. But that means more assets for the Cardinals are in a position to take advantage and prosper.