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It’s All Up From Here

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The Cardinals have probably hit their low point for payroll and projected wins.

Wild Card Round - St Louis Cardinals v San Diego Padres - Game Two Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

There’s one question I have consistently asked in my analysis of the Cardinals this offseason: how low is the Cardinals’ floor?

I meant this in two interconnected ways. The first relates to payroll. With the massive loss of revenue from last season and significant uncertainty about income in 2021, it was obvious that the Cardinals – and much of baseball – were going to cut payroll this offseason. The question was: how low will they go?

That’s where talent enters the equation. Since the Cardinals can’t just pay their players less, every payroll subtraction had to be a player subtraction through free agency, trades, non-tenders, and declined options. Who gets cut to get the financials straightened out?

The club did allow their free agents to walk. They shockingly declined Kolten Wong’s option. That left the arbitration-eligibles and some unlikely trades as the only way for the club to save more money. Heading into this week, there were whispered fears that the club would choose to non-tender talented players to shave as much payroll as possible.

Surely, though, the club wouldn’t let Alex Reyes, Harrison Bader, John Gant, or even Jack Flaherty go over a few million dollars, would they? WOULD THEY??!?

Take a deep breath, Cardinals fans. This week’s non-tender deadline and the immediate aftermath helped bring some clarity to these questions – from both a financial and a talent perspective. It looks like the club has found its floor, in terms of both payroll and talent.

What is the Payroll Floor for 2021?

The Cardinals entered the week with guaranteed contracts that equalled $110.17M in payroll to eight players (plus Kolten Wong’s option buyout).

The club had six additional players due for raises through arbitration. While the $110.17M is guaranteed, Mozeliak and company could have saved more money by non-tendering the arbitration-eligibles and promoting minor leaguers to their major league roster. How much they could have saved is subject to debate. In October, arbitration projections totaled $17.3M, based on a pre-COVID understanding of baseball operations. A few weeks later Cot’s and MLB Trade Rumors revised their arbitration totals to reflect the changing financial landscape of the game. Heading into the contract tender deadline on Thursday, Cot’s projected arbitration awards totaled a little over $9M.

That gives a rough value of the arbitration players to the Caridnals: between $9 and $17.3M, with the lower end more likely. Replacing the arbitration eligible with league-minimum minor leaguers would have saved the club at least $5.7M at an extreme cost of talent.

Heading into Wednesday’s deadline, there was some scuttlebutt that Cardinals could do that. Harrison Bader, John Gant, and even Alex Reyes were mentioned as potential non-tenders for strictly financial reasons.

Thankfully, it didn’t happen.

Instead, the club cut Brebbia and Rangel Ravelo and did so primarily to gain needed roster space. Brebbia’s exit saves the club approximately $200-300k. Ravelo saves them $0. Their exit, though, immediately opened 2 more spots on the 40-man roster, which now sits at 37, with Dakota Hudson certain to be added to the 60-day IL.

The point? The Cardinals had an opportunity to cut a significant chunk of payroll this week, further lowering their guaranteed financial output. They didn’t take it.

Instead, immediately after non-tendering Brebbia and Ravelo, the club spent money for the first time in the offseason. Bob Nightengale reported that the Cardinals signed John Gant to a $2.1M salary. That’s about $400K higher than Cot’s current arbitration estimate.

All of that is a fair indication that the financial gutting is over.

The Cardinals didn’t cut when they could and spent more than might have been needed in an arbitration hearing. That’s a fair indication that the club is comfortable with their current payroll levels. The Cardinals have likely found their payroll floor.

Here’s where payroll stands today, with Gant’s arbitration buy-out salary included:

Cardinals Payroll Projections as of Dec. 2020. Numbers come from Cot’s Contracts.

What is the Talent Floor for 2021?

With the cutting over, where does that leave the team in terms of talent? The answer is not particularly pretty.

While several reliable projection systems are still in process, Fangraphs does have preliminary projected standings available. They currently have the Cardinals with just 26.6 fWAR total, which translates to a .479 win % or 77.5 wins.

It’s probably best to view that as the midpoint of a range. Today, at the first week of December, the Cardinals have the upside of a .500 team and a downside roughly equal to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Cardinals have a significant talent issue.

Depth Charts has only Paul DeJong projected for more than 3.0 fWAR for the Cardinals in 2021. Only five players – DeJong, Flaherty, Goldschmidt, Bader, and Kwang-Hyun Kim – are projected to have over 2.0 WAR. (Dylan Carlson is next at 1.9.)

There are issues with these projections and the corresponding win total. Some of them are in the Cardinals’ favor. They have Carlos Martinez providing 166 innings, for example. They think 35-year-old Matt Carpenter can provide 595 above replacement-level plate appearances at third base. Those seem optimistic, to say the least.

Likewise, a projected cumulative -.2 WAR from the DH position seems a bit pessimistic.

These ups and downs even out. The point remains. With Fangraphs digging deep into the Cardinals’ system depth and not finding much talent anywhere, the only thing the Cards can do to change their on-paper outlook is to add players.

The club has reached its talent floor. It’s all up from here.

If the Cardinals are going to improve to the point of contending for the division and stretch toward a deep playoff run, they need an influx of significant talent. That means they probably can’t afford to devote resources to lateral acquisitions.

Take Yadier Molina as an example. The Cardinals have an obvious hole at catcher. It makes sense to bring him back, right? Yadi does project for 1.4 fWAR next season in 478 PAs. So, if the Cardinals sign Yadi, that 77.5 win total becomes 79 rounding up! Money spent, wins added!

That’s not how it works. That 77.5 total already includes 1.1 fWAR from Andrew Knizner in 435 PAs. It includes .5 fWAR from Tyler Heineman in 205 PAs. If we allot those 640 PAs to the catcher position in 2021, give 478 of them to Yadi at 1.4 fWAR, and 162 to Knizner at a prorated .4 fWAR, the total projected production from the catcher position becomes 1.8.

1.8 fWAR with Molina vs. 1.6 fWAR without him.

A similar thing happens with Adam Wainwright. Sliding his 1.3 fWAR projection into the rotation at 150 IPs likely just cuts into the innings for Austin Gomber and his 1.1 projected fWAR. The net gain to the rotation and bullpen is, again, less than one win.

This is why I’m talking about the Cardinals roster in terms of a talent floor. Adding more players at approximately the same talent level doesn’t change much. It just raises the cost-to-production ratio. Yadi and Wainwright might cost $20M combined in added payroll. They might add a total of 1 win. Yes, Shildt might need the depth and consistency those players can provide, but the club needs actual talent if it’s going to soar past current projections.

In his Friday post, John LaRue sagely pointed toward Jurickson Profar as the kind of player the Cardinals should target. Because Profar can play everywhere, his presence would cut PAs from players with replacement level projections, like Austin Dean, Lane Thomas, and Edmundo Sosa. His projected 1.7 fWAR isn’t that inspiring, but it’s almost a solid net gain for the Cardinals.

A utility player like Profar is just the beginning. If the Cardinals want to make significant gains toward fielding an 85-90 win club, they have to find ways to add high production players and subtract low production players. That would mean avoiding lateral, sentimental moves and targeting real value at positions of real need.

Or they need to admit that they are rebuilding and commit as much of their resources as possible toward the future.

The Cardinals have publicly bristled at that suggestion. They’ve also publicly declined to outline a potential budget or a strategic plan for player acquisition.

That’s where we now rest. The relative excitement of non-tender week is over. With no Winter Meetings coming, we’re left waiting out an ice-cold free agent and trade market.

We’ve found the club’s payroll and talent floor. Where’s their ceiling? It depends entirely on the Cardinals’ ability to evaluate their own talent and their desire to spend to get more of it.