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Who Else Could Get the Payroll Axe?

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The Cardinals probably aren’t done cutting payroll. Who else could go?

St Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Behold, the Cardinals slogan for 2021: “we’re going to do more with less.”

Those were the words of encouragement offered by John Mozeliak to his baseball operations team in his post-season press conference. He’s backed up his words with action.

Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina (joining Brad Miller and Matt Wieters) were allowed to go to free agency, freeing the Cardinals of $39M in ’20 payroll. Kolten Wong followed, despite a $12.5M option year that was a relative discount. Wong was worth $29.5M by Fangraphs’ $/WAR estimate in 2019. He was worth $10.7M by the same measure in just 53 games in this shortened season.

The presence of Tommy Edmanwho can likely approximate Wong’s production for the league minimum – allowed the club to save an additional $11.5M in payroll, despite the hole his absence leaves in the infield.

With those moves, the Cardinals have found temporary stability in their payroll. It’s a good time to stop, take a breath, and take a look at where the club currently sits.

We can withhold judgment on the “do more” part of Mozeliak’s statement for now. The “with less” part is what we’re evaluating. Cardinals “Opening Day” payroll currently sits at $134.5M. That includes currently guaranteed contracts, current arbitration estimates (provided by Cot’s contracts), and enough pre-arb players to finalize a 26-man roster with all necessary depth positions filled.

This is not a suggested or final payroll. It’s an “as of today” snapshot.

That $134.5M current payroll is about a $30M cut from the estimated $166M in Opening Day payroll that the Cardinals would have spent in 2020 had COVID not happened.

The largest payroll cut that Cot’s has on record for the Cardinals came in the middle of the Great Recession – 2008-2009. That rebuilidng team slashed spending by $11M. This followed a trend throughout baseball. As the economic condition in America worsened in the late 2000s, so did the spending by owners.

That’s a vital subpoint in this entire conversation. Where the economy goes, baseball goes.

If the Cardinals cut payroll by $11M in the middle of an economic downturn while still having around 3 million fans in the stands, how low will they go with similar economic uncertainty, a full season of massively reduced revenue, and no certainty that things will return to normal in 2021?

Today’s $30M cut might not be low enough.

How low could the Cardinals’ payroll go? Who else can the Cardinals cut? I’ve ranked potential cuts in order of most likely to least likely:

Yomiuri Giants v MLB All Stars Photo by Kiyoshi Ota/Getty Images

1. JOHN BREBBIA - $1.5M (estimated)

Brebbia has been a useful member of the Cardinals bullpen and is a likable kind of guy. Unfortunately, Brebbia had to have Tommy John surgery in June, ending his season and likely delaying his return to action until late in 2021. Brebbia is arbitration-eligible. The Cardinals can save an estimated $1.5M by non-tendering Brebbia in a few weeks. This move seems almost certain to happen, regardless of the current financial situation. It does not mean that Brebbia’s time with the Cardinals is over. The club could re-sign Brebbia for a standard league minimum contract and retain his control while he rehabs.

Chicago Cubs v St Louis Cardinals - Game Two Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

2. JOHN GANT - $2.3M (estimated)

Gant was one of the better relievers for the Cardinals in 2020. Gant arrived as a swing starter, but with the emergence of younger arms, it looks like his days in the rotation are over. Instead, he’s settled into the 7th-8th innings and has performed well. Gant is second-year arb eligible after receiving a $1.7M (prorated) contract in 2020. Gant is due for a $600k raise. In a normal season, the Cardinals probably retain Gant. This year, the club has young arms like Whitley and Elledge who are likely to provide comparable production for the league minimum. Because of the presence of those arms, the emergence of Alex Reyes, the likely return of Jordan Hicks, and Ryan Helsley’s expected recovery from COVID (remember how much COVID impacted the Cardinals pitchers), Gant seems likely to be non-tendered and it would not be a terrible baseball decision.

St Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

3. Carlos Martinez - $11.7M (or a portion of that amount).

Here is where this list gets sketchy. Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch has repeatedly reported that the Cardinals are expected to shop Martinez this offseason. There have been whispers of a potential Martinez trade in the past. Those whispers are now full volume shouts.

Why would the Cardinals make such a move now? Martinez is under team control through 2023. The team can save $11.7M this season and a total of $46.7M by moving Martinez’s contract. They can likely get a haul of prospects in return, despite Martinez’s struggles post- COVID. Even in a pandemic, some MLB clubs would be willing to take on his salary to secure his upside for three seasons of discounted control.

Now flip that logic around and there’s the reason to keep him. Wainwright is a free agent. Hudson is injured. Mikolas’ return is clouded. If the Cardinals trade Martinez, they will have to invest in at least one outside starter for ’21 while also relying on young arms and that starter likely won’t have Martinez’s upside. The club has reason to like prospects Zack Thompson and Matthew Liberatore but there is no guarantee that either player will even reach the major leagues. Is it worth it to trade Martinez when he’s at his lowest value with so many questions marks in the rotation?

In the end, I think the Cardinals could trade Martinez. It allows the Cardinals to both shed payroll and restock their farm system. It’s a risky move but one the Cards would be justified in making.

National League Wild Card Game 1: St. Louis Cardinals v. San Diego Padres Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

4. DEXTER FOWLER - $16.5M (or a portion of that amount)

Fowler’s name has emerged alongside Martinez’s as a trade possibility. Why? First, they would like to save $16.5M from a will-be 35-year-old outfielder who has under-produced. It’s unlikely that any MLB club would be willing to pick up all of Fowler’s salary, but even if the Cardinals were able to save between $6-10M on his deal, they would gain some flexibility that could be re-invested in younger players. Second, the Cardinals are searching for ways to improve their offense. There is little reason to believe that the now replacement-level Dexter Fowler can help with that. He occupies financial and roster space that could be re-allocated.

That said, Fowler is at the bottom of this list because every other team in the majors is in the same position as the Cardinals. Who would take Fowler right now? Even if the Cards ate some of his salary? No one will. The Cardinals might want to trade him. They won’t be able to.

OTHER OPTIONS: HARRISON BADER, JACK FLAHERTY, JORDAN HICKS - $12M (estimated)

This is your “break in case of emergency” section. No one – not the Clark Street accountants, Bill DeWitt, Mozeliak, and Girsch, or the most ridiculous fan on Twitter – wants the Cardinals to non-tender or trade Hicks or Flaherty. That said, these three players account for an estimated $12M of payroll space and could bring a huge prospect return in a trade. If the virus gets worse, the club can’t project fans in the stands at all in ’21, and if they find themselves choosing between trading Flaherty and bankruptcy, then maybe – MAYBE – it could happen.

Of the three, Bader is certainly the most likely to be moved. If O’Neill had not collapsed offensively, I would have listed Bader as a trade candidate this season regardless of finances. As it stands, the club needs him in center. He also made strides offensively, especially against breaking balls. At just $4M and with other trade candidates, it makes sense to keep Bader around.

WILL THE CARDINALS SPEND AT ALL?

Keep in mind that the reason the Cardinals might make these cuts is to gain financial flexibility. Shedding some payroll could lead to them adding payroll back once some of the uncertainty surrounding the 2021 season is settled. Don’t look for the club to be active early in the offseason. Come January or February, however, when discount free agent deals are still available and the team can better project its revenue, the club will likely begin to add. Patience! And expect more cuts soon.

Want more? You can follow the details of my research on this topic here.