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How a Lost Season might impact the Cardinals roster

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If there is no baseball in 2020, the team that takes the field in 2021 could look very different.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody knows if or how there might be a Major League Baseball season in 2020. A few weeks back, word leaked that MLB was considering The Arizona Plan, then came word of a potential Arizona and Florida plan, and just this week the idea of games in Arizona, Florida and Texas.

I wrote about the idea of baseball in a bubble a couple weeks ago, and I still believe that 1) some permutation of that is the only way for a season in 2020 and 2) Owners and Players will do everything they can to salvage any kind of season, if at all possible. The fact that games are underway in Taiwan and soon Korea under similar circumstances is, while far too early to be definitive, at least encouraging that this is possible.

It’s also very, very possible that there is simply no MLB season at all in 2020. So I thought I’d look at some of the ways that might impact what the Cardinals look like in 2021 (assuming there is a season then). StlCardsFan4 took a look at how every team could be impacted a few weeks back, but I wanted to drill down a little more specifically on the Cardinals.

A huge asterisk to this entire exercise: In the event of a completely lost season, I expect vigorous negotiations over how that impacts existing contracts. Service time, the triggers for vesting options, and pretty much everything else could conceivably be modified. So some of these parameters could change.

Adam Wainwright & Yadier Molina

This is the big one for Cardinals fans. Waino has already reached the year-to-year contract, who-the-hell-knows phase of his career. So any kind of a dip in performance or injury in 2020 was likely to signal the end of the road.

As for Yadi, Mark Saxon reported just a few days before they shut it all down that his reps and the team were working on an extension through 2021 and likely 2022. But as things sit today, he would also be a free agent at the end of a 2020 non-season.

On one hand, it would be a damn shame to see either of these franchise icons go out with a whimper during a lost season. And I’m sure that’s not how ownership would like to see this play out, either.

For Wainwright, however, he’s been riding the cusp of his value being eclipsed by the opportunity cost of keeping him on the roster for a few seasons now. If we fast-forward to 2021, another contract for him means one less spot for an even more advanced Genesis Cabrera or Alex Reyes or Junior Fernandez or... the list goes on.

That said, Waino did just post his best season since 2016, throwing 170+ innings and ranking 3rd on the team among pitchers in terms of WAR. If you believe he’s got another year like that in him, regardless of what the year on his drivers license says, he’s absolutely worth bringing back.

Yadi caught 113 games in 2019 and posted a 1.3 WAR, which still represents a lot of value. So it makes sense the Cardinals were talking about an extension. But if you’re considering a 3-year-extension that would cover the age 37, 38 and 39 seasons, and you’re going to lose the age 37 season... the value of that extension collapses.

Now, given the fact that the team was already considering paying for Yadi’s age 38 and 39 seasons, I think it’s likely that they still do. But the total value of that contract probably drops considerably.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong’s guaranteed contract ends in 2020 as well, so it’s technically possible that a lost 2020 season means the end of his time as a Cardinal as well. But with a club option for 2021 at only $12.5 million, I think it’s very likely that the Cardinals pick that up. So I’m pretty confident we would see Wong in 2021, and as a strong extension candidate, into the future as well.

Andrew Miller

Miller’s guarantee likewise ends after 2020, with a 2021 option vesting should he hit 110 combined appearances between 2019 and 2020. With 71 appearances in 2019, he was well on the way to hitting that mark.

If, however, there are no games in 2020, that $12 million option would not vest and the Cardinals would only be on the hook for a $2.5 million buyout, which they would surely take. But of all the contract issues likely to be contested in the wake of a lost season, I imagine these vesting options could be among the hottest. It seems plausible that the union might negotiate some kind of framework for these that leaves the Cardinals stuck with Miller for 2021.

The other Free Agents

Matt Wieters, Brett Cecil, Brad Miller: We hardly knew Ye.

Harrison Bader and Alex Reyes

The other category of players that’s particularly interesting are those who will be entering arbitration for the first time. A team can easily part ways with a player in any of their three arbitration years if they aren’t posting something like market value, but it’s at the point where they jump from the League Minimum to their first year of arbitration that we most often see teams say “I like you, but I don’t like you like you.”

Jack Flaherty will be in his first year of Arbitration in 2021, and the Cardinals will 100% be holding onto Jack Flaherty. Jordan Hicks seems like a pretty easy choice to hold onto as well.

Harrison Bader and Alex Reyes seem like they could be more edge cases. Bader is the classic example of a player who debuted well, but then dropped off or plateaued. That threatens to set a fairly high arbitration value for a player who simply is not worth that anymore.

A similar case might be Billy Hamilton. Hamilton made it through two years of arbitration with the Reds, but before the 3rd year the club decided he was simply not worth the expected salary bump and released him.

Alex Reyes has all the potential in the world, but when his salary jumps above league minimum, it may very well be the time the Cardinals stop paying for potential alone. On the one hand, it’s hard to imagine Reyes commanding a very big number in arbitration, given his actual MLB production. But a decision point has been looming between the club and its former top prospect, and arbitration day could very well be it.