I have, in the past few weeks, presented a few possible free agent options of the Cardinals to peruse. They have all come the disclaimer that they probably aren’t happening, but if they are happening, one way to do so would be creatively structure a contract so that the Cardinals pay more in 2022. This is not a pandemic-related suggestion. The Cardinals current 2022 payroll projection is incredibly low.
As such, I thought it would be worthwhile to visit the 2022 payroll. Put a number to my suggestions. It’s easy to say they can sign two relatively high profile free agents if they wanted to, but let’s actually back that up with numbers. Some of these numbers will be estimated, some are known now. While I’m not going to be exact with my overall conclusion, I think you’ll get a range.
The Cardinals currently have six players making at least $11.5 million in 2021. Of those six players, four are likely to become free agents after next season. Dexter Fowler and Andrew Miller will certainly be free agents. Miller might come back, but he won’t get anything approaching his $12 million salary. Fowler will not.
The other two are likely to not come back because of options. The much maligned Matt Carpenter deal was, believe it or not, structured to be team friendly. Carpenter had 169 PAs, and over a 60 game season, that pencils in at 456 PAs for the purposes of his vesting option. In order to have that option vest, he needs 644 PAs. While he has reached that number before, he hasn’t in four of the past five seasons, and he’s no longer a leadoff hitter. It’s not going to vest. Carlos Martinez has a $17 million team option for next season with a $500,000 buyout. It does not seem likely to be picked up, in my opinion, and if it is, Carlos returns to form in 2021.
Aside from that, they have just three players with guaranteed deals in 2021. Paul Goldschmidt is making $26 million, Miles Mikolas $17 million, and Paul DeJong $6.17 million. Combined they make $49.17 million. Adding in the buyouts of Carlos and Carpenter, the Cardinals have just $51.67 million committed. That’s not where the story ends though, or this post wouldn’t be necessary.
The Cardinals have 10 players destined for arbitration in 2022, although not all 10 will get tendered a contract I’m sure. Some, such as Tyler O’Neill, may be traded. Some, such as Tyler Webb, might get released before reaching arbitration. And some, such as John Gant, may be allowed to become a free agent instead of tendering a contract. The likelihood that all 10 play all season for the Cards and then are tendered a contract is incredibly small.
MLBTR has estimated arbitration prices for players in their first year of arbitration, which helps make this process easier. I’ll be following the rule of thumb here, that players get 25/40/60 percent of their value in arbitration. In essence, a player entering their first year of arbitration will receive 25% of what they’d get on the free agent market, or at least in theory. 40% for second year, 60% for third year. It works slightly different for Super Two players but the Cardinals don’t have anybody for that, so that’s certainly easier.
MLBTR projects John Gant’s salary as $1.7 million for 2021. He’s in his second year, so I imagine that’s more accurate than the following players. That means he’s valued as a $4.25 million player right now, and should get a $2.55 million contract for his third year of arbitration. Harrison Bader, with a $1.45 million projection, is set for $2.32 million. I’m going to say $4 million, just because that seems criminally low to me.
Jack Flaherty is trickier. His 2020 season featured a 4.91 ERA, which apparently matters a whole lot to MLBTR’s projection since he’s projected for just $2.6 million, and thus as a $10.4 million player. These values are not permanent though. So if a player “takes a leap” between his first and second arbitration years, they’re not going to stick to that old number. But at the same time, they aren’t going to ignore how they valued him this year. I’ll just guess that they’ll end up valuing him as a 2 WAR player in 2022, after he has a greater than 2+ WAR season, and his 2022 arb salary is $7 million.
We have two injured guys who have a projected first year arb: John Brebbia and Jordan Hicks. I am unfortunately not going to assume Brebbia comes back, but his salary should not be much of a factor even if he does. Hicks is trickier. He has the same $0.9 million price tag, but he has a better chance to increase that a bit. I can’t find a comparable player to him - one who missed a season and a half prior to their first arb who went on to get some saves in that 1st arb year. So we’ll just say $2 million for him, but I think it can go higher.
Now, the first arb in 2022. This... is basically impossible to do right now. But I’ll try. To do this, I’m just going to find a comparable player and see what they got. Giovanny Gallegos comparable player is Luke Jackson. Jackson had a bad 2020, but his 2019 got him his 2020 salary. For that year, Jackson had a 3.84 ERA, 18 saves, and a crap ton of strikeouts. I hope Gallegos manages a better ERA than 3.84, but I’m not sure he’ll manage 18 saves, so I think it’s as good a comparison as I’ll find. Jackson got $1.83 million.
Next up is Dakota Hudson. We need a player who went into his first arbitration year missing the previous season with a similar resume to Hudson. The best I could find was Yonny Chirinos, who hasn’t quite been as good as Hudson. Chirinos only made three starts this year and then underwent Tommy John. MLBTR projects him for a $1.6 million salary. Let’s say $2 million and be satisfied for Hudson.
Then there’s Tyler O’Neill. A world where he gets tendered a contract is probably a world where he breaks out a little. So I’m going to use Mark Canha as my inspiration. Canha had a decent rookie year, then had two bad years where he barely played. In 2018, in 411 PAs, he had a 2.1 WAR season. Assuming a 114 wRC+ for O’Neill is perhaps too bold for now, but O’Neill is a Gold Glover now, so I think that evens it out. Canha got $2.05 million in his first season of arb. I don’t want to hate on Tyler Webb here, but I’m not going to assume he’s in the 2022 payroll. If he is, his contract might be $1 million, so it won’t make much of a dent.
And that’s it. That’s the extent of the financial obligations. It comes out to $72.25 million for 11 players. We can add $12.25 million for the players making league minimum and the players on the 40 man not in the majors. Which still leaves the Cardinals 2022 salary at $84.5 million. Carlos Martinez or Matt Carpenter can completely surprise us and still leave the Cardinals with a $101.5 or $102.5 million salary. The Cardinals haven’t had that low of a team salary since 2010.
Their 2021 team salary right now is $129.9 million. It will probably end up higher than that. Not a lot higher, but I can’t see them letting Yadier Molina or Adam Wainwright walking away. Even not accounting for that, the Cardinals have a difference of $45.4 million in their current 2022 payroll and their 2021 payroll. And that’s pretty much the minimum. Cause I definitely expect full stands and a full schedule for 2022.
Of course if improbably salaries return to what they were, the Cardinals had a $168 million payroll for 2020 (pre-pandemic, so they didn’t actually spend anywhere near that). That’s an $83.5 million difference. Now, maybe they won’t spend that because... that’s a lot of money to spend and it’d be unusual for the Cards to spend over $50 million in one offseason. But theoretically, it’s there.
So when I say the Cardinals have a lot of money off the books, this is what I mean. They should definitely get at least one premier, elite free agent and they are more than well set up to do just that.