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2020 Payroll Update & Budget Space for Future Improvements

The Cardinals kicked the proverbial can of improvement down the road. What does that road look like?

Maybe it’s just me, but there seems to be a sense of resigned acceptance growing among the Cardinals faithful. Marcell Ozuna has signed with the Braves. The smoke surrounding Nolan Arenado seems to have signaled the possibility of trade in the future, perhaps at the trade deadline. If the Cardinals are to be involved, its clear the Rockies will have to eat significant cash in a deal.

Pitchers and catchers report in a few weeks, and it looks like the Cardinals are heading to camp with their current payroll. The front office limited its spending to securing margins of the roster with marginal talent. When it comes to seeking significant improvements, Mozeliak and Girsch have kicked that proverbial can down the road.

The club seems determined to get a long look at their young talent before making any decisions on future spending or player acquisition. This could happen at the deadline, where the current amount of remaining budget space becomes a consideration. It could come after the season, where existing contracts and pending arbitration cases must be carefully weighed.

How did the 2020 budget shake out? How does 2020 compare with historical trends? How much is left for a mid-season acquisition? This article serves as a companion to a December piece that addressed current and historical payroll. I’ve updated the original database with the contract values at Cot’s Contracts to reflect the roster moves the Cardinals have made this offseason. I’ve included estimated tendered salaries for pre-arbitration players this season. I’ve also expanded the database with contracts and arbitration eligible players for 2021.

Cardinals 2020-21 Payroll

Player Length / Total Value 2020 Salaries 2021 Salaries
Player Length / Total Value 2020 Salaries 2021 Salaries
Goldschmidt, Paul 5 y/$130M (20-24) $26,000,000 $26,000,000
Molina, Yadier 3 yr/$60M (18-20) $20,000,000 FA
Carpenter, Matt 2 y/$39M (20-21)+22 opt $18,500,000 $18,500,000
Mikolas, Miles 4 yr/$68M (20-23) $17,000,000 $17,000,000
Fowler, Dexter 5 yr/$82.5M (17-21) $16,500,000 $16,500,000
Martinez, Carlos 5 yr/$51M (17-21)+22-23 opts $11,700,000 $11,700,000
Miller, Andrew 2 yr/$25M (19-20)+21 cl opt $11,500,000 $2,500,000
Wong, Kolten 5 yr/$25.5M (16-20) $10,250,000 $1,000,000
Cecil, Brett 4 yr/$30.5M (17-20) $7,250,000 FA
Wainwright, Adam 1 yr/$5M (20) $5,000,000 FA
Kim, Kwang-hyun 2 yr/$8M (20-21) $4,000,000 $4,000,000
Wieters, Matt 1 yr/$2M (20) $2,000,000 FA
Gant, John Arbitration 1 $1,300,000 ARB 2
DeJong, Paul 6 yr/$26M (18-23)+24-25 opts $1,666,667 $4,167,000
Leake, Mike paid to Seattle in 8/17 trade $4,000,000
Bader, Harrison ARB 1
Brebbia, John ARB 1
Reyes, Alex ARB 1
Flaherty, Jack ARB 1
Munoz, Yairo ARB 1
Hicks, Jordan ARB 1
Pre-Arb $6,900,000 $5,750,000
---- ---- ---- ----
PAYROLL ESTIMATED $163,566,667 $107,117,000

As of today, Cardinals sit at $163.6M in projected “Opening Day” — a full 26-man roster — payroll. The Cardinals spent $15M on free agents in total this offseason, but just $12.3M in added contracts (including arbitration) for this season.

I like to view payroll in terms of historical trends. The next chart has Opening Day payroll trends for the last ten seasons:

Cardinals 10-year Payroll

2020 $163,566,667 $946,400 0.5%
2019 $162,620,267 $2,921,600 2%
2018 $159,698,667 $11,545,734 8%
2017 $148,152,933 $2,599,433 2%
2016 $145,553,500 $23,487,000 19%
2015 $122,066,500 $10,816,500 10%
2014 $111,250,000 ($5,540,787) -5%
2013 $116,790,787 $4,932,287 4%
2012 $111,858,500 $2,810,500 3%
2011 $109,048,000 $14,827,500 16%

Spending has slowed down for the Cardinals, holding within 2.5% from 2018. This comes despite significant investments. Since 2018, the Cardinals have awarded Paul Goldschmidt the richest contract in club history. They have secured significant raises for Matt Carpenter and Miles Mikolas. They have weathered scheduled increases for Carlos Martinez and Kolten Wong.

The Cardinals have been able to maintain a static payroll by replacing many of their departing free agents internally. Notable free agents Marcell Ozuna, Michael Wacha, and Lance Lynn were allowed to seek their fortunes elsewhere, while the Cardinals have looked to players like Jack Flaherty, Dakota Hudson, and a host of outfielders to replace them for the league minimum.

The Cardinals operating philosophy has been primarily motivated by draft and development in the Mozeliak era. The club has done this well, always seeming to have the next arm or bat ready just when needed.

This is playing out again with the Cardinals 2020 outfield. Instead of raising payroll and investing in certain production for the departing Ozuna, the Cardinals believe that they can find enough offense from cheap players like Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas, Dylan Carlson and perhaps even Tommy Edman.

If that proves wrong, or if other needs develop, the Cardinals do have some flexibility to address them during the season. The Cardinals have been surprisingly direct about their desire to hold to a $170M budget. At $163.6M today, the Cardinals have just over $6M in budget space to add players in trade. The trade deadline sits at about the 2/3 mark of the season. The Cardinals have saved enough to, theoretically, add players whose 2020 contracts total $18M (+/- few million either way) at the end of July.

I know that’s probably a trigger for some of you. The Cardinals have talked in the past about keeping “dry powder” for a deadline addition, and they have failed to do so. Discounting the legendary Adalberto Mejía and future trivia answer Tony Cingrani, the Cardinals have looked more like sellers at recent deadlines than willing buyers. What good is retaining budget space for deadline deals, if the club only balks at the price in prospects?

I digress. The space is there. I don’t know if the Cardinals will use it. I’ve been hurt in the past. I’m trying to move on.

Looking forward, the Cardinals appear to be in fine payroll shape for 2021, but appearances can be deceiving. With few long-term contracts on the books, the club has only committed to $107,117,000 in payroll for 2021. I’ve even included in that amount the tendered salaries for pre-arb players to fill out a 26-man roster.

What I have not included are the player options for Kolten Wong and Andrew Miller. For the purposes of planning, lets assume the Cardinals pick up those options:
Andrew Miller - $12M (replaces $2.5M buyout)
Kolten Wong - $12.5M (replaces $1M buyout)

Those two add another $21M to the above payroll, taking the Cardinals to $128.1M in estimated payroll for 2021. $40M+ in available 2021 payroll would be great! Except, we’re not done adding yet.

That total does not include arbitration estimates for a host of eligible players and these escalate very quickly. Here’s one final table, this time with estimated arbitration contracts for the Cardinals 2021 arb eligible players:

Cardinals 2021 Arbitration Estimates

Player Arb Year Arb Estimate
Player Arb Year Arb Estimate
Gant, John ARB 2 $2.5M
Bader, Harrison ARB 1 $2.0M
Brebbia, John ARB 1 $1.5M
Reyes, Alex ARB 1 $2.0M
Flaherty, Jack ARB 1 $4.2M
Munoz, Yairo ARB 1 $1.0M
Hicks, Jordan ARB 1 $2.5M
---- ---- ----
TOTAL $15.7M

My methodology here is simple. I looked at arbitration eligible players from this season and tried to find comparable players. Contracts awarded varied quite a bit, particularly among the relief pitchers and swing starters (like Gant and Reyes), so try to think of the numbers provided as a possible range.

Also, keep in mind that this probably won’t play out the way that I am presenting it. The Cardinals have aggressively locked up young players to avoid arbitration in the past. Jack Flaherty seems like a candidate for an arbitration buy-out deal that spreads the escalations in his pay out over 3-5 seasons. Fringe arbitration players, like Jon Gant or even Harrison Bader, could be candidates for non-tender if their arbitration salaries start to exceed their projected on-the-field value.

By my math, though, the Cardinals have to account for around $15.7M in arbitration salaries for 2021. It would probably be wise to round that up to an even $17M, since arbitration awards increase over time.

So, here we are. We’ve not made a single addition to the 2021 roster or replaced exiting free agents, and future payroll is already sitting at around $145M.

It’s amazing how quickly payroll adds up. Even as a draft and development team, with a strong farm system and relatively few long-term contracts, the budget already looks disappointingly thin. Assuming the club continues to stay in the $170M range, there might be space for a mid-level addition or two in 2021, but filling in the margins of the roster will probably eat a significant chunk.

If the Cardinals want to make significant upgrades to their roster externally, they’re either going to have to raise payroll or find a way to trade depth for cost-controlled young players. Same story. Different year.

Take from that what you will. My goal here was to arm fans with the payroll information they need to have smart discussions this season about the club’s future plans. Look toward the trade deadline and plan for the future. Dream! Spend! Trade! Sign! But, for sanity’s sake, plan to do all of that within a limited budget structure.