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Updating the Payroll Matrix (2020-2023) and an Early Look at Off-Season Concerns

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As the regular season winds down, how does the payroll look in St. Louis moving forward?

MLB: Colorado Rockies at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season is slowly coming to a close, with just nine games remaining. If those nine games go well enough, we’ll have at least three more games to discuss in October and hopefully many more than that. Once all of that smoke clears, it’ll be time for John Mozeliak, Michael Girsch, and the DeWitt family to do it all over again. With that in mind, it seems like as good a time as any to update the payroll matrix and take a look at some potential concerns that will shape the direction of the winter months at Busch Stadium.

First, some parameters are in order. I’ve included all players currently on the 40-man roster, but removed Marcell Ozuna, Adam Wainwright, and Michael Wacha- the three players currently without a Cardinals contract for 2020. You’ll see arbitration estimates, which I’ve defaulted to $4M/$6M/$9M for higher profile players and $1.5M/$2.3M/$3.5M for lower profile players. I’ve included the Cardinals’ commitment to Mike Leake for 2020, the final year of their obligation to his contract. Any buyouts are not included in the bottom line of the table, but they are mentioned as a footnote at the bottom. The salary information comes from Spotrac.

I’d urge you not to put too much emphasis on the 2022–2023 totals, as huge swaths of it are comprised of late arbitration salaries for players in their second and third years. Many of them may not even be on the roster by 2021, much less 2023. In short, I wouldn’t expect the Cardinals to pay Yairo Muñoz, Edmundo Sosa, Mike Mayers, Tyler Webb, and Rangel Ravelo a collective $14.3M by the time 2023 rolls around. The far more important figures are the guaranteed amount and the option amount. Moreover, not all of those arbitration estimated salaries will be paid in full for 2020. More likely, the total for arbitration players will be about 23 of the amount listed. Now let’s take a quick look at some potential concerns.

Filling the Rotation

One way or another, the 2020 Cardinals will need to replicate or improve upon the 2019 contributions of Wainwright and Wacha. That’s going to be approximately 290 innings, 2.3 fWAR, and more than 50 games started. Admittedly, 2019 hasn’t gone great for Wacha, but he’ll have to be replaced somehow. More importantly to the staff, Wainwright has racked up 2.6 fWAR to date with both an ERA and a FIP better than league average.

If you look at the roster and prospect lists, you’ll see a lot of youngsters who could theoretically fill in some of those innings. That list would include Jake Woodford, Daniel Ponce de Leon, Genesis Cabrera, Ryan Helsley, Austin Gomber, and the (small) chance Alex Reyes recovers enough to log starter’s innings. Those pitchers are all wonderful depth options for both the rotation and the bullpen. It’s certainly possible one of them could step up to provide a regular starter’s innings. However, assuming as much would be unwise on the front office’s part. More reliability is needed than what’s currently on 2020 roster in at least one of those two starting pitching slots.

It’s worth mentioning that bringing Adam Wainwright back could theoretically be one of those options. What he chooses to do is currently up in the air but bringing him back for an encore wouldn’t be the worst idea if he’s up to it.

There’s also a reasonable chance that Carlos Martinez will return to the rotation for 2020. That’s the ideal situation for all involved. It would raise a different issue- namely that they would then need another late inning reliever in the mix. Helsley, the emergent Junior Fernandez, and Reyes (fingers crossed) seem capable, and the rest of the above list seems capable of handling the middle innings to varying degrees. Even in the scenario where Martinez returns to the rotation, there’s enough volatility in the planning that another starter makes a lot of sense.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

The Big Bear

A far bigger issue than the rotation is the Marcell Ozuna situation. Ozuna seems destined for free agency at this point despite a professed interest in returning to St. Louis. How much that matters is certainly open to debate. Using simply fWAR, it’s approximately 2.5 wins that’ll need to be replaced. If you’d rather think of the component parts, they’ll need 550 outfield plate appearances, the value of an upper 20s/lower 30s homerun total, and a wRC+ around 15 to 20 percent better than league average.

It’s an enigma. On one hand, free agency or internal options (Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Randy Arozarena, Jose Martinez) either require more money or provide less certainty than Ozuna. On the other hand, the production they’ve gotten from Ozuna- while certainly valuable- isn’t impossible to replace. On the other other hand, few players on the open market match Ozuna’s upside. He’s somewhere between a luxury and a necessity. Parsing the difference is not going to be easy.

Available Payroll

If you’d like a baseline, per Spotrac, they’ve spent the following amounts over the last five seasons:

  • 2015: $139.04M
  • 2016: $156.57M
  • 2017: $157.44M
  • 2018: $177.39M
  • 2019: $172.55M

By the time you include arbitration salaries, they’re somewhere in the $154-$159M neighborhood. That’s not to say the franchise can’t spend more. That’s hardly the case. Rather, the larger point is that if they want to make any significant additions via free agency, trade, or retaining their own free agents, it will require an increase in payroll by ownership. If Ozuna simply accepts a qualifying offer for 2020, that dollar amount alone would push the payroll to 2019 levels without offering any help in the rotation beyond internal choices.

There also isn’t much opportunity to trim salary. Carlos Martinez could theoretically be made available, but doing so only shaves $11.7M off of the 2020 payroll and blows a hole either in the rotation or the bullpen. Recent seasons for Dexter Fowler (2018) and Matt Carpenter (2019) make it virtually impossible to get clear of their salaries, and they provide more value to the Cardinals than they do other teams anyway. There may be a few million here and there with a restructured Molina contract extension (just a theoretical, nothing more) or non-tendering a player like Leone. It’s still an insignificant savings.

They would seem to have four obvious paths:

Path #1: Extend Ozuna, fill in the rotation and/or Carlos Martinez’s vacated bullpen slot with internal options, and take on a slight increase in payroll.

Path #2: Take on a mid-range free agent starting pitcher for one slot, fill the second one and Ozuna’s role with internal options with a slight increase in payroll.

Path #3: Dramatically increase payroll to both re-sign Ozuna (or a free agent outfielder) and sign a mid-range starting pitcher, then fill in the second rotation slot with internal options. “Dramatic” in this case means $185-190M.

Path #4: Only internal options are used to replace Ozuna, Wainwright, and Wacha. Nobody wants this.