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Winter Warm-Up: Update and Reactions

This weekend’s virtual Winter Warm-Up provided some possible answers to critical questions about the season, including offers to Yadi and Waino, how many fans will be in the stands, and a look at current payroll.

This past weekend the Cardinals hosted their annual Winter Warm-Up event. It was held online in a series of panels that fans could attend through Zoom. It lacked some of the face-to-face interaction that has been a highlight of previous Warm-Ups, but the Cardinals did attempt to address many of the questions that fans have had this offseason.

I’m going to hit a few of the key reports from the event to try to give a big-picture update.

1. Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright have both received offers from the Cardinals.

Molina and Wainwright, since they aren’t currently members of the Cardinals, did not attend the Winter Warm-Up. Instead, Molina found himself pitching for his brothers’ Winter League team in Puerto Rico.

Despite their absence, the Warm-Up still centered around the two Cardinals icons. Derrick Goold did a great job in this piece detailing the attention and conversation that swirled around them. There has been some question about if the Cardinals had made offers to their two legends, but Goold did confirm that the club has done so. The details of these offers are still a mystery. Goold writes that Molina “received at least one offer to re-sign as far back as spring training.” Wainwright has received an offer this offseason. The Cardinals remain in communication with the players’ agents and are “hopeful” that they will be able to make progress toward deals in the coming weeks. Manager Mike Shildt reiterated his desire for the two to return, but did note that the “economics are real.”

What does all of this mean? Despite all the good vibes coming from the team and its officials toward Wainwright and Molina this weekend, I don’t find this news particularly encouraging.

So, Molina received an offer back in spring training. Has he received one since? Was that offer pulled? With Molina, I still think Mozeliak and his crew are wary of bidding against themselves. While Molina bragged about having a significant market early in the season, none of that has materialized. The number of suitors for his services has dwindled significantly. The Cardinals likely (and rightly) believe that if Molina wants to play this season, he’ll have few attractive choices. Molina is likely choosing between playing for the Cardinals at a salary that he believes is disrespectful or leaving the games on his terms. I wonder if the Cardinals, internally and quietly, would be happy either way. I think the club wants him back on their terms but they are also comfortable giving Knizner a chance if that doesn’t happen.

Wainwright has signed very quickly in previous offseasons, essentially taking whatever contract the Cardinals were willing to offer. Why has that changed now? There has been some talk that the front office might delay a deal with Wainwright until after the season starts. At age 39/40, the club should have concerns about his ability to hold up for 162 games. Ownership will have a better idea of their financial situation and Mozeliak will know more about their pitching needs in May or June rather than January or February. Wainwright could come in late, fill gaps in case of injury, and give the club his all for 3-4 months, with little need to pace himself. This is 100% speculation, but it could be a reason why Wainwright’s negotiations have stalled.

2. The Cardinals are expected to have 28% capacity in Busch.

28% capacity translates to around 8,000 and 12,000 tickets available per game. These tickets will be offered to season ticket holders, but individual seats could also be made available to the general public. The Cardinals are subject to local guidelines and Goold reported that team officials are in conversation with the mayor’s office and local and state health officials to determine how they will proceed. There is no indication at this time that the club will require some kind of proof of vaccination to attend games. Nor will they attempt to jump the line to get players vaccinated ahead of the state’s distribution schedule.

Reports from MLB indicate that the league plans to play a full 162-game schedule that will start on time. At 28% capacity, the Cardinals are looking at a significant shortfall in income again this season. While they might be able to raise prices on the tickets they do sell due to increased demand, it is unlikely they would come close to making up the gap.

There is no mystery as to why the Cardinals have been quiet this season. There’s no mystery why the Cardinals have subtracted from their major league roster without yet adding to it. The club just exited a season with income significantly lower than expected. They are entering a season where income will be significantly lower than expected.

The Cardinals are a conservative organization that generally lacks creativity and aggressiveness. The “smart money” play for them is to try to bring back their legacy players to team-friendly deals to secure fan interest; maybe they could even splurge to sign a DH late in the offseason if one can be found on the cheap (if the DH returns to the NL in 2021).

Is the “smart play” the right play? I don’t think it is. With some teams selling, discounts are likely to be available ahead of or during Spring Training. With a weakened division, this is the right time to buy. If they choose not to do that, the alternative is to accept the reality that the team is rebuilding and to give as much time to young players as possible. Yes, that would mean passing on Wainwright and Molina and it could potentially result in weaker-than-normal ticket sales (I really don’t think this will be an issue at 28% capacity) but it would set the club up to make better decisions when payroll opens significantly in 2022.

3. What is the Cardinals’ current payroll.

Speaking of spending, let me refresh the Cardinals’ current payroll commitments for 2021. Last week the club reached arbitration agreements with all of their arb-eligible players except Jack Flaherty. That leaves the club with the following projected “Opening Day” salaries:

While experts predicted a weak market for both free agents and arbitration players, that hasn’t proven entirely true. Final arbitration totals for the Cardinals players were consistently higher than predictions from MLB Trade Rumors and Cot’s contracts. That has led to about a $2M increase in payroll commitments between my Dec. projections and today. At $127M, the Cardinals are currently about $40M below their 2019 pre-COVID Opening Day payroll commitments and $45-50M below projected 2021 payroll. Just think what this team would look like in this market if it actually spent $50M this winter… (Sigh…)

4. Some Cardinals have already started their workouts.

This past week Carlos Martinez returned after a personal absence from his winter league squad. He’s made at least three starts that I’m aware of in the Dominican, including a playoff game for Aguila Cibaenas. On Wednesday, Martinez received permission from the Cardinals to continue throwing with the club. He should be able to come into Spring Training ready to fight for a spot in the rotation. Likewise, Jordan Hicks and Miles Mikolas, who are both rehabbing from injuries/surgeries, have begun working out in Jupiter to get a head start on camp. Mikolas reports that his arm feels “bouncy”. I guess that’s good? Regardless, the Cardinals need all three arms to not only be healthy but playing up to their peak potential. If that doesn’t happen, it’s likely the team will get bounced from contention.