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The Argument for a Big Offseason

If the Cardinals want to make a splash going forward, there’s no time like the present to get started.

MLB: SEP 27 Brewers at Cardinals Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Not too long ago, I all but conceded in a column that I don’t expect the Cardinals to do much this offseason. A depressing feeling, to be sure, but one that pretty much matches up with the rest of how this horrid year has gone. It has been a demolition derby of a year for many people’s mental health, financial health, and occasionally physical health, and a quiet, balloon-slowly-deflating offseason for the local nine seems like a perfect capper. Thanksgiving has now come and gone, and so far very little has happened this offseason, both for the Cardinals and pretty much every other team. It seems like this will be the state of things.

The Dodgers were rumoured to be in on trading for Nolan Arenado. Now the Dodgers are rumoured to be out on trading for Nolan Arenado. Cleveland has informed teams they want to move Francisco Lindor. Francisco Lindor has not been moved, nor has there been a whole lot of chatter about a team emerging as the frontrunner, or some club being in close talks, or blah, blah, blah. Even the usual offseason cliches and clickbait we see every year seem to have decided to just take November off pretty much entirely. We have, to be fair, heard rumblings from both the Yankees and the newly-terrifying Mets about various dealings and wheelings — or perhaps wheelings and dealings — so maybe it just goes to show that you can’t keep the New York teams quiet, even when the rest of the game seems uninterested in doing absolutely anything.

Certainly, the possibility of anything big or notable happening here in St. Louis this offseason seems far and wee, far and wee. Sure, there has been a little Arenado speculation here and there, mostly because people just seem unable to let go the idea Arenado is supposed to be a Cardinal, for some reason, but I haven’t seen anything in that direction I would deem legitimate. There was a little smoke a couple weeks ago regarding the Redbirds being one of the teams in on making the move for Lindor, which did of course lead to me losing a whole weekend to baseball priapism, but that smoke seems to have been more turkey juice running over in the oven than actual fire. The Cardinals are, we have heard again and again, intent on cutting or at least freezing payroll this offseason, and pretty much everything else, action or inaction, will flow from that desire.

To be fair to the Cardinals, I understand why they would be looking at the payroll numbers and cringing more than a little bit. Not that their payroll is absurdly high, but of all the franchises in the game it seems like the Redbirds took a beating beyond the pale this year. The Cards’ television deal is a strong one — and let’s face it; we have not seen any real push to raise payroll and compete for top players since that billion-plus dollar deal was signed — but they legitimately rely on fans coming through the turnstiles to keep the pipeline of cash flowing every summer, in a way that is both appealingly old school and exceedingly vulnerable to something like a global pandemic that wipes out an entire season’s worth of gate receipts. The 2020 baseball season was a disaster for pretty much everyone financially, and probably even a little more for the St. Louis Cardinals.

Now, that bit about being fair to them also requires us to be fair to reality, and the reality is that the Cardinal organisation has been banking huge profits for years at this point, and no one should be worried about any of the DeWitts making their Porsche payments. I would never accuse the Cardinals of crying poor, exactly; they have never really gone in for public histrionics very much. They have strongly demurred on things like reports of $70 million annual profits, but given they want the books to be a black box and the numbers other sources have put together seem pretty legitimate, I am disinclined to give the team the benefit of the doubt they haven’t been making money hand over fist for the last decade plus, while not really putting as much of that profit back into the team as we might maybe like as the supporters and chief financiers of this occasionally disappointing enterprise.

So this is the state of things. Little has happened, and little is likely going to happen. The club lost a lot of money this summer, and somehow all those years of raking in the cash mean nothing when a real loss comes calling. Never mind we’ve milked these suckers for everything they’re worth year after year while both turning huge profits and watching the franchise appreciate in value by ridiculous leaps and bounds; our gravy train derailed this year, and losses are simply not acceptable in this ultra-capitalist hellscape that is modern sports.

Alright, enough pseudo-Marxist rabble rousing schtick from me. What I really wanted to talk about today is not bread and circuses and how those circuses are paid for by the circus-goers, but rather how to make a better circus. The Cardinals seem intent on doing very little this offseason. I think that’s a mistake, and I’m going to tell you why.

If the Redbirds were a smart and opportunistic organisation, the way we thought of them in the past but maybe not so much today, this would be exactly the sort of opportunity they would try and take advantage of. In the endless game of finding market inefficiencies, there is no bigger opportunity than the whole game suddenly deciding they can’t afford upgrades, and everyone is just going to have to take less.

Over the past several years, the cost of a win on the open market has not risen quite as precipitously as it did earlier in the decade, but neither have costs stagnated, either. Back in 2013, the cost of a win was calculated to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of $5 million (unless you prefer this alternative calculation, which pegs the number at more like $7 million and is definitely worth considering), while this past offseason that cost had risen to somewhere north of $9 million. Again, we could quibble around the edges a bit with methodology, but we can ballpark a win in the $9-10 million range and not be too very far off the mark. Now, players at the top end have always been underpaid under this rubric; Mike Trout makes $30 million, and that seems like a lot, but when he’s producing 8-10 wins a year all by himself, we’re forced to conclude he’s a bargain at basically any price. The elite players never get what they could, both because projected values always try to pull them back toward the middle, and because simple human nature depresses the salaries at the very top. We can argue all day about linear valuation of wins, but the idea of a player making $50 million annually is just too much for most people.

This offseason, though, I’ve seen speculation that cost per win number could fall by as much as a third. If wins really do go from ~$9 million to closer to $6 million, a team could get a whole lot of value for a much lower price than in the past, and presumably in the relatively near future. To be fair, if teams decide that a big chunk of the money in the game is just gone, and not coming back, maybe this argument doesn’t mean so much. But, consider for a moment the Rockies are paying Nolan Arenado $32.5 million a year through 2026, which will be his age 35 season. (And yes, he can opt out after 2021. He would have to be a lunatic to do so, considering how much we’re talking about salaries decreasing right now.) If you were to, say, trade for Francisco Lindor and sign him for something like $23-25 million a year and get his 4-6 win production from age 27 on, that’s an enormous competitive advantage over a bunch of teams dragging around much larger contracts signed before covid came to baseball land.

The supply of talent this offseason is going to be enormous, compared to the number of teams looking to actually take advantage of it. The non-tender deadline is approaching (December 5th, to be specific), and some of the player names being bandied about as non-tender candidates seem almost unimaginable. Do I really believe the Cubs will non-tender Kris Bryant? No, not really. But...we’re in uncharted waters here. It’s possible that a player of near Bryant’s caliber will be hitting the open market, solely for salary relief purposes. It’s possible we see a pool of talent available this offseason like we’re never seen before, both in terms of non-tender players hitting the market and near non-tenders being aggressively shopped to get them off a team’s books.

So what we have here is a pool of available talent that is likely going to be unusually deep, and almost certainly underpriced when compared to recent offseasons. This is an opportunity for a smart team or smart teams to buy large numbers of wins at significantly reduced prices, it would seem.

Which brings us to the second major part of this consideration: are the Cardinals in a position to be that team, or one of those teams? On first glance, we might not think so, given the club’s current payroll status and stated desire (or at least hinted desire, if unstated), to cut costs. This, however, is an incredibly short-sighted way of looking at franchise building, and the fact I’m certain the Cardinals themselves look at things this way makes me wonder if this ownership group will ever really build a winner again.

As things stand now, the Cardinals’ opening day payroll for 2021 looks to be right around $127 million. That’s down $35 million from opening day 2019, when they boasted the seventh-highest payroll in the game at 162 and change, with their final tally for the complete 40 man tax number coming in at nearly $198 million. Now, I’ll be honest: when I see a number like that $198 million mark, I don’t entirely understand everything that goes into that. I know there’s a lot that isn’t reflected in the 26 man payroll, but ~$35 million in spending above the active roster seems strange to me. Regardless, the Cards came in seventh in payroll in both the 26- and 40-man versions in 2019, then fell slightly in 2020 to tenth. We don’t know where they will rank yet in 2021, obviously, but if they stay down in the ~$130 million range I have to believe they will rank significantly lower than even tenth. Then again, if other clubs are set on cutting payroll this offseason as well, then maybe I’m wrong, and the rankings will end up looking similar to how they have in the past, just with lower numbers in general.

I have no idea how much the Cardinals actually lost in 2020, nor will they tell us. Any number floated will, I’m sure, be of the fuzzy math variety, and they would probably project losses against potential profits to make the number seem way larger, rather than reflecting any kind of reality as far as what was really lost. Regardless, cutting $35 million in payroll would seem to be a good start, if your focus is mitigating the 2020 losses, as well as anything that could potentially happen in ‘21.

However, looking only at 2021 doesn’t tell us the full story. In fact, it doesn’t even really tell us the biggest part of the story, as the long-term financial outlook of the franchise has very little to do with what the 2021 payroll will be.

Consider: after 2021, the Cardinals’ payroll drops from $126,600,000 to just $51 million. Admittedly, that is only guaranteed money, so it doesn’t include arbitration players and 0-3 players and any potential options being picked up. However, on the option front, it seems very unlikely that any options the Cardinals hold on players in 2022 and beyond will be picked up. For instance, Matt Carpenter has a $2 million buyout on an $18.5 million ‘22 option; I have to believe the club will do literally everything they can to avoid having that option vest. The vesting conditions are 1100 combined plate appearances in ‘20-’21, with a minimum of 550 in 2021. I don’t know exactly how the prorated PAs from this year work, exactly, but I would bet my next year’s salary Carp will come in below 550 trips to the plate next season. Carlos Martinez has options for 2022 and ‘23 at $17 and $18 million, respectively, but I would nearly guarantee 2021 will be El Gallo’s last season wearing a Redbird uniform, if he even makes it that long. As much as I loved Carlos once upon a time, he never took that final step to consolidate himself, with command that never reached ace levels, and since his shoulder issues began he hasn’t even been a dependable starter, much less the near-ace he was from 2015-’17. If it were me in the GM’s chair, I would probably move him this offseason, but I’m not sure if the Cards feel they could fill the rotation spot if they moved any more pitchers.

In 2022, the only players under guaranteed contracts are Paul Goldschmidt ($25.33 million), Miles Mikolas ($17 million), and Paul DeJong ($6.2 million). The club’s only third-year arbitration case will be John Gant, which means I think there’s a decent chance John Gant is on the trading block this coming season or in the ‘21-’22 offseason. Gant has been great for the Cardinals, but if there’s one thing this organisation has proven it can produce it’s useful relief arms, and Gant isn’t so much better than his potential replacements that the club can’t move on when he starts to get expensive.

It is this backdrop we need to consider when envisioning what the Cardinals’ near-term future looks like. After 2021 Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, Andrew Miller, and Carlos Martinez all likely come off the books. Only one of those players was a meaningful contributor to the 2020 club, and even that one — Andrew Miller — was more good than great, a far cry from the dominant force he once was. The Cardinals are spending almost $59 million in 2021 on those four players, and if they get five total wins from that group it would have to be considered a surprise at this point. Fowler hasn’t been good since 2017; Carp has been abysmal the past two seasons following his now-clearly fluky late-career power tear of 2018.

Consider, also, how many of the players the Cardinals will likely be counting on to produce in at least a role-playing capacity are not yet even in arbitration. Tyler O’Neill will be arb-eligible for the first time in 2022, either in line for a big raise after a breakout 2021 or headed for some other team after another season of medium deep fly balls. Dakota Hudson will hit arbitration for the first time in ‘22 as well. Tommy Edman, likely the club’s new starting second baseman (which I am in support of, by the way), will not be arb-eligible for the first time until 2023. Dylan Carlson has less than a year of service time at this point. Harrison Bader and Jack Flaherty are both arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, and who knows if the Cards will hang on to Bader as he starts to become more expensive, or cash in the value of a player whose biggest qualities tend to peak early.

So this is the situation. The Cardinals have very little guaranteed money on the books beyond 2021, and not a whole lot of guaranteed production, either. As I said earlier, I’m very certain the club will do nothing of note this offseason, preferring instead to cut payroll in an attempt to immediately reverse the losses they suffered this past summer. An organisation looking at the long term, on the other hand, would look at ~$60 million coming off the payroll heading into 2022, a potentially depressed financial market for talent this offseason, and a pool of available players supercharged by clubs looking to cut their own losses, and see an opportunity to get ahead of things and acquire a core talent or two this winter. Those early-arb players I listed a moment ago are useful role-players and complementary pieces, but there are very few core talents amongst that group. Flaherty, yes, and probably Carlson, but beyond that? It’s a lot of the same sorts of good but not great players the Cards have produced in droves this past half decade. Is Tyler O’Neill a substantially better bet than Randal Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty at this point? Probably not, honestly, even if I still like him more.

What the Cardinals need is a core, and they have about half of one. DeJong, Flaherty, Carlson, and Goldschmidt is a good start, but it’s not enough, particularly with Goldy well into his 30s at this point.

Admittedly, the 2021-’22 offseason looks like a very good one in terms of talent, and a club wading into that fray with a huge chunk of cash to spend could absolutely make some hay. However, if the Cardinals are serious about not only maintaining a place of relevance, but taking advantage of the Cubs falling off and the NL Central seemingly being ripe for the taking, they should really make at least one big move this offseason, and set themselves up for great things in the future. There is a wave of potential coming over the next two seasons out of the minor league system, but as we have seen since 2015 it’s best not to count entirely on your pipeline for stars, because so many of the players you think could be are going to fall just a touch short and settle in as useful, but not dominant, forces.

As I’ve said multiple times already this offseason, I don’t expect the Cardinals to do anything major. They will cut costs, and try to get back to profitability, and count on not having an outbreak of the superflu next season to carry their group of players to greater heights. I hope, however, that everyone can see that it would really only require one year of payroll pain to make big time upgrades, as this franchise is currently situated beautifully for a window opening in 2022 that could allow them to not only compete, but take a huge step forward into real prominence once again.

The only real question is whether ownership has the will, and the stomach, to do so. And I suppose we’ll get our answer over the next couple months.