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Updating the Cardinals Payroll Matrix: 2021-2023

So begins an uncertain off-season

2020 Grape Fruit League Media Availability Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The 2020 season, whatever existed of it, ended with a thud for the Cardinals a week ago. While other teams are still battling one another for the technically-not-asterisked-but-maybe-should-be World Series title, John Mozeliak and the Cardinals front office can begin preparing for the off-season. It’s going to be one of the more chicanery-laden off-seasons in recent memory for a variety of reasons, which we’ll get into shortly. First, it seems like a good time to update the payroll matrix and see where the roster stands before we address everything else.

I’ve included all players currently on the 40-man roster. You’ll see 45 players here. That’s because it includes four players on the 60-day IL (John Brebbia, Dakota Hudson, Miles Mikolas, and Ricardo Sanchez), plus Jordan Hicks. I’ve left the pending free agents on the table but they’re clearly marked with an “FA” in their salary for 2021. 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. For the first time since I’ve been creating these, I can finally omit Mike Leake and his retained salary. Buyouts are not included in the bottom line of the table, but they are mentioned as a footnote below the table. The salary information comes from Spotrac.

The most important figures are the guaranteed amount and the option amount. Not all of those arbitration estimated salaries will be paid in full for 2021, and certainly not for 2022 and beyond. More likely, the total for arbitration players will be about 23 of the amount listed.

It becomes especially tricky estimating arbitration amounts this year compared to past years. Jordan Hicks hasn’t pitched since the middle of 2019, so it’s hard to estimate what he’ll earn. Alex Reyes also has a complicated case. Jack Flaherty has a pretty good case for more than the $4M projected here. MLB Trade Rumors does a great job of projecting arbitration salaries early in the off-season and we’ll get the matrix updated as soon as their projections are posted.

As of now, here are several items the Cardinals will need to address before crafting their off-season plan.

St Louis Cardinals v Milwaukee Brewers - Game One Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The Franchise Icons

It’s the worst kept secret in baseball that the Cardinals would prefer to re-sign their twin franchise icons, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina. Wainwright has shown a willingness to sign smaller, incentive-laden contracts each of the last two years to cement his place as a Cardinal rather than playing somewhere else. Earlier this week, he offered a small hint that he’d be willing to join a broadcast booth if he retires, although whether or not he plays is anyone’s guess.

Molina is the much bigger question mark. The franchise wants him back, the fans want him back, and Molina probably wants to be back. There’s just the matter of the money, which is no small thing. His bat declined yet again this season, the sixth time in the last eight seasons that his wRC+ has slipped from the previous year. On the other hand, he means as much to the franchise for off-field reasons as any player since at least Ozzie Smith. I don’t envy the conversations the front office will have around this contract.

The Rotation

For the second season in a row, the rotation enters the off-season with gobs of questions. Jack Flaherty and Kwang-Hyun Kim are rotation locks. Everything after that is murky. Miles Mikolas should theoretically be back, but it’s hard to assume after season-ending flexor tendon surgery in July. Carlos Martinez only managed 20 innings and some dreadful numbers this season. Worse, his velocity was the lowest it has ever been, raising some major red flags. Hudson will miss most or all of 2021. Wainwright is a free agent. There are ample alternatives, many of them talented, but they supply little certainty. That list includes Daniel Ponce de Leon, Austin Gomber, Johan Oviedo, Alex Reyes, Jake Woodford, and Genesis Cabrera. Matthew Liberatore seems like a long-shot but also counts as an option, as does Angel Rondon.

How Much Will They Spend?

This isn’t a shot at Cardinals ownership. It’s an open question for every team in baseball for 2021. Every team just finished the season with an attendance of zero. Those gate receipts are important. The cooling effect is being felt and anticipated across the league, as multiple teams- including the Cardinals- are trimming front office and minor league staffs. It’s hard to see a scenario in which this year’s free agent market yields massive salaries for the participants. It’s also hard to imagine most teams being willing to spend big. It was trending away from that direction before all of baseball lost a year of gate receipts and tasty per-cap money inside the stadium.

As you can see from the matrix, the Cardinals’ payroll is going to be at least in the $156M range assuming they pick up the option on Kolten Wong (note: they should absolutely pick up the option on Kolten Wong). That doesn’t include whatever they might pay Wainwright and Molina, nor is there any external addition to help an average offense that lacked pop in 2020’s small sample size theater. On the other hand, the Cardinals will shed over $60M in guaranteed contracts in 2022. That fact might help cushion the costs baked in to 2021.

None of this is intended as a call for sympathy for baseball owners. Rather, it’s something to keep in mind about the Cardinals, and every other team, as free agency progresses. There’s a great deal of uncertainty all around the game. How much the Cardinals decide to spend in 2021 is going to have a lot more to say about the off-season than anything else.