I’ve seen people, and I believe I was once one of those people, express optimism about what the Cardinals could do in the 2020-2021 offseason, because they appear to have money. After looking further into the numbers, I couldn’t really see it. I said as much in this post. While I’m trying to express caution about the expectations Cards fans might set for that offseason, I’m struggling to see a need for that the following offseason. They should have quite a bit of money to spend in free agency.
Now to be perfectly fair, people said that about the ‘2019-2020 offseason as well, and something changed that could theoretically also affect the 2021-2022 offseason: extensions. Paul Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas, and Matt Carpenter all got extensions that took a big chunk of the future payroll. At one time, the Cardinals had an unused $61.5 million, and now thanks to those extensions, they do not. (And ill-advised or not, it does make the hand-wringing over not spending money this offseason very misleading. ) So before I get to the post, I’ll have to acknowledge that something like that happening is possible again.
As with last time, I’ll start with the players with guaranteed contracts in 2022. There aren’t many. Dexter Fowler, Andrew Miller (assuming his option vests for 2021), and Kolten Wong (assuming his option is accepted) are all eligible for free agency that offseason. The aforementioned Goldschmidt and Mikolas have guaranteed contracts, and so does Paul DeJong. That’s the list. They are being paid a combined $49.2 million.
There are two players with options for 2022: Carpenter and Carlos Martinez. Carpenter has an extremely easy to avoid vesting option - he needs a combined 1,100 PAs in both 2020 and 2021, plus needs 550 in 2021. If he sucks, he’s not getting that many PAs, and if he gets that many PAs, he probably doesn’t suck and has an option that would be accepted anyway. Let’s, for the sake of discussion, say his option vests just to illustrate how much money the Cards have. Let’s also say the Cardinals accept the $17 million option of Martinez, which is currently in doubt and only comes with a $500,000 buyout. Now we’re at $84.7 million.
This is where we jump into arbitration already. Obviously, this is where the projected salaries have a lot more variance, especially since nearly all of them are currently in pre-arbitration. A very, very general rule of thumb is arb-eligible players get 25-30-40-60, but without the arbitration panel -or even an agreed upon salary to avoid arbitration - we have to guess what the 40% of his open market value is.
For instance, there’s a couple players whose value I don’t expect to change much between now and next year, but could drastically change by their next arbitration hearing. For instance, let’s say Alex Reyes is dominant in the bullpen and then moves to the rotation for 2021. Whatever i project now will surely not be accurate. By that same token, if Jordan Hicks returns in the back half of this year, I don’t expect his value to change much, but a season where he gets 40+ saves in 2021? Yes, I think that would move the needle.
This is still arbitration though, and because of that, their salaries will be severely repressed. We’ll start with players whose value I don’t necessarily expect to change in Jack Flaherty and Harrison Bader. I said Flaherty would get a $5 million salary in 2021 based on Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard, and Luis Severino. Both Syndergaard and deGrom improved upon their seasons after their first arbitration year, which led to a better than average increase in their second year, which I don’t necessarily think you can project for Flaherty when he’s already projected for 4.4 WAR this year. Syndergaard’s two seasons were quite extreme - he went from 7 games started to 25 - and his salary only doubled, so I think that’s Flaherty’s ceiling for his 2nd arb: $10 million.
Harrison Bader, meanwhile, I had projected at $3 million. I also don’t think his salary will double, so I’ll just make this easy and say $5.5 million. I’m going to keep going best cases here and say Jordan Hicks goes from $2 million to $6 million. Edwin Diaz got $5.1 million in his first year coming off a replacement season, which came after a 3.5 WAR season. It might be a little higher than that, but I don’t think by much.
I’m going to combine a few players, because I think it’s too difficult to project salaries for relievers or probable relievers. Out of Alex Reyes, John Brebbia, John Gant, and Giovanny Gallegos, I expect one of them to be DFA’d for sure. I expect one of them to make $5 million, and the other two to combine for $3 million. None are particularly likely - right now - to make $5 million by themselves, but combined I like the odds. Reyes is unlikely due to injuries, but easier to imagine in second year of arb with a year of starting. Gant is unlikely, but will be in his third year and if he lasts that long, he’s probably pretty good. And Gallegos is unlikely because I don’t think he’ll have the saves necessary to make that in first arb year, but if he becomes closer, he’s got a good shot if he keeps it up. So $8 million from this group.
I am once again going to disregard Yairo Munoz, as I seriously doubt he lasts that long. Which leaves two very difficult to guess guys in Tyler O’Neill and Dakota Hudson, both of whom will be in their first year of arbitration. Hudson, even in the best case, is clearly slotted for below $5 million. If O’Neill is good, he’s probably looking at something to similar to Joey Gallo - who was similar to what we hope O’Neill is now the in 2017 and 2018 and then exploded in 2019, but it came in half a season so I think he works - so we’ll give him $4.4 million. I’m not a huge believer in Hudson, so I’m just going to say $2.9 million, while fully acknowledging I’m throwing darts on this one.
Where does that leave us? $121.5 million. I’ll add in $9 million to the players not yet eligible for arbitration, which brings us to $130.5 million. There’s the threat of the Yadier Molina salary to be factored in here - again gut feeling, but I think he’s looking at a two year extension following this season. Let’s say he signs a 2 year, $20 million extension. Okay, now we’re at $140.5 million. That leaves the Cardinals with nearly $35 million until they reach $175 million, which is pretty much what I expect their payroll to be then.
Again though, that’s assuming that Carpenter’s option is vested or accepted, Martinez’s option is accepted, and that Molina’s 2022 salary will be $10 million. Carpenter’s option doesn’t vest, the Cards move on, and there’s another $18.5 million. I could see the Cards trading Martinez before not accepting his option. And again, I may be overestimating Molina’s salary or maybe he goes year-by-year and then retires after 2021. My made up odds say two of these three things are happening, but not all three.
Which leads me to something I think could make up a post by itself, but it’s directly connected to the available payroll. So the infield will be an interesting position going into the 2022 season, because there’s only two certainties: Paul Goldschmidt and Paul DeJong. Kolten Wong is set to be a free agent then, and may not be resigned. Carpenter might not have his option picked up. That’s, as of now, two starters that could be leaving. There are a myriad of ways they could replace those two starters.
Internally, there’s Tommy Edman, who over the next two years, should reveal himself to be a worthy replacement for Wong or a very dependable backup who you’d rather have on the bench, ala a more versatile Jedd Gyorko. My favorite sleeper prospect, Irving Lopez, happens to play 2B, and he’s my Edman pick for this year. Maybe Brendan Donovan, who had a very promising season at A ball in his conversion to 2B, emerges by then. Or you can hope much less and just assume one of the 3B prospects is ready by then. There’s Elehuris Montero, currently in AA ball, who is on track to be ready by Opening Day 2022. There’s Nolan Gorman most obviously, who will be seeing AA ball very soon. Maybe one of these guys becomes a very obvious replacement for Wong or Carpenter by that offseason.
And if not, there’s always that free agent class. Oh that sweet, sweet free agent class. Woo boy that free agent class. For players that Paul DeJong would move to 2B or 3B for, there’s Francisco Lindor (28), Carlos Correa (27) and Corey Seager (28). And if you don’t really want to move DeJong off SS and will just move the 3B prospect to a different position, you have Kris Bryant and maybe Nolan Arenado. None of these guys are particularly likely to sign extensions either. The Indians certainly aren’t keeping Lindor, and Seager and Correa probably have had too many health concerns over the years to commit to them earlier than necessary. (Pitching-wise, there’s Noah Syndergaard, Jon Gray, Lance McCullers, and multiple very old Cy Young in their prime guys in Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, and Corey Kluber)
Anyway, just an early warning to get disappointed by the Cardinals in free agency, because they are in a prime position to spend money on one of those infielders, with departing free agents and a lot of money to spend.