Postseason baseball games are still being played but it’s time for us Cards fans to start preparing for the offseason. That begins with taking a critical look at payroll. Doing this helps us both see the gaps in the Cards’ current roster and begin to anticipate how they will fill those gaps.
Calculating payroll and guessing on potential budgets for the next year used to be a simple affair. Fangraphs, Cot’s, and Spotrac (among other sites) have all that information readily available.
However, the trade for Nolan Arenado threw a giant wrench into the Cardinals’ financial situation. The contract itself is complicated with multiple opt-outs. The trade from the Rockies further complicated it, adding in multiple allotments of deferred money over different time frames and cash coming in allocations from Colorado over multiple years.
Because of these complications, sites like Fangraphs are consistently over-representing the amount that the Cardinals are paying in payroll. This is particularly true of 2021. These sites rolled a lump sum of salary into Arenado’s 2021 payroll number, even though that portion of his salary was deferred over several years.
Fangraphs, for example, said that the Cardinals spent $167.9M in “Opening Day” payroll last season. That would be their highest payroll in team history.
In a season where the Cardinals actively cut payroll, how in the world did they end up with their highest payroll ever?
The answer, of course, is that they didn’t. The entire reason they re-negotiated Arenado’s contract was to get out of paying that money in 2021.
To better represent what actually happened last year and how much the Cards will actually pay in 2022, I feel those deferments should be applied in the year they are paid and not in the year they were negotiated. Feel free to disagree. I’m not an accountant.
Still, that’s the logic I’ll use for this article and all future payroll articles. You can read about my process more here, where I proposed a revised 2021 “Opening Day” payroll of $142.83M, a difference from Fangraphs roughly the size of Paul Goldschmidt. Here’s the revised payroll info that I put together in that article earlier this summer:
Again, I’m not trying to make the numbers work out the way I want them to. I’m just trying to give us fans a firm budgetary foundation to work from for offseason planning.
This is particularly important because I’m already seeing this narrative on the internet: “the Cards have a ton of money coming off the books! They’ll have tons to spend!”
It’s true. They do. Carpenter, Martinez, and Andrew Miller all made a lot of money and they’re all exiting. Since all those guys are off the books, log-ic-al-ly the club should have all of that money to spend, plus a bump in payroll to counter for cutting salaries in 2021!
I’ve heard some fans I respect talking about $60M in budget space to spend. Woohoo! Spending spree!
Let’s just go ahead and put all of that to bed with its binky right now.
The following image lists my take on the Cardinals’ payroll heading into the start of the offseason, using the same logic presented above. This is “Opening Day” payroll, meaning it is all the guaranteed salaries, plus arbitration estimates, and enough major league minimum contracts to fill out a 26-man roster with 13 offensive players and 13 pitchers. (Don’t get caught up with the names of those players; it’s the contract values that matter for this discussion.)
I have the Cardinals’ payroll currently at $133.8M.
Fangraphs currently has the Cardinals’ payroll at $137.2M.
The difference here is because of the way Fangraphs is applying the deferred payments in Arenado’s salary plus some variation in pre-arb minimum calculations.
Ok, enough technical stuff. Let’s start by putting that $133.8M number into context.
Pre-COVID, the Cardinals had “Opening Day” payrolls – when calculated the same as above – at or above $160M from 2018 on. It’s probably safe to assume, considering the way the team was tracking, that had COVID not happened, the Cardinals would have pushed up to $170M by now.
In 2021, using the same system, the Cardinals were at $142.8M in their first post-COVID season. That’s a decrease of $25M give or take from expectations pre-COVID. That’s our new salary floor. The Cardinals are working up from there.
To get to some of those huge numbers in available payroll space that I’ve seen floating around the internet for 2022 — $60M or so in available spending — fans have to make some very critical assumptions that I don’t find particularly rational.
First, those numbers didn’t include Wainwright and Molina. If you cut those two from the picture, yes, the Cardinals’ payroll would drop to $106.3M today. 106.3 minus 170 = $63.7M to spend! The reality is that the two Cardinals legends ate up half that number before the team even got into the offseason. Molina parlayed his worst statistical season since 2006 (by WAR) into a small raise and is set to make $10M this year. Wainwright more than doubled his salary from 2020 and will earn $17.5M to return as the club’s ace. That’s $27.5M on two players alone.
Second, those numbers assumed that the Cardinals would return to their previous spending highs — $170M. That’s an unlikely assumption for at least three reasons:
1. The Cardinals’ financial situation remains cloudy at best. The Cardinals did not have full stands at Busch until mid-season. Even then attendance remained way down for most of the summer. The club finished the year barely surpassing 2M in ticket sales, one-third less than normal. That’s lost revenue after a year of lost revenue. That will almost certainly affect how much the club spends.
2. There is massive uncertainty surrounding the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement. The old CBA runs through the end of this year and, presumably, negotiations will start on a new CBA sometime after the World Series. What will happen is anyone’s guess. The only certainty I have regarding is that it will cause DeWallet to sphincter up as tight as possible, at least until a deal is reached and the club has some idea of how arbitration, option years, free agent compensation, draft picks, years of club control before free agency, luxury tax, and revenue sharing will go.
3. The Cardinals don’t believe they need to spend. The Cardinals today can project a full roster. They have a returning starter at every offensive position, plus some intriguing depth to challenge in areas of need (including SS and 2b) and the DH, if it’s implemented. They have at least four proven starters plus depth to fill out the rotation and the bullpen: Wainwright, Flaherty, Mikolas, Hudson… and then Woodford, Oviedo, Reyes, Liberatore, Rondon, Hicks, Thompson, and others with AAA experience.
The Cardinals have a draft and development philosophy. Yes, the team would absolutely be better if they signed Max Scherzer instead of giving a rotation spot to Alex Reyes, but they’re going to give their kids a shot, so long as the team stays in playoff range.
The point? Yes, the Cardinals had huge money coming off the books heading into 2022 but they don’t seem likely to this writer to splurge big with superstar acquisitions.
Now to my predications. Where will payroll land in 2022?
My prediction: $155M.
That’s a substantial raise over 2021 – +$13M – but still lands $15M below club projections for 2022 pre-COVID. It would give the Cardinals about $22M to work with during the offseason .(or $49.5M in total added payroll if you count Molina and Wainwright.)
That $22M number will disappoint many readers but it is enough for the Cards to explore some interesting options in free agency and fill out the depth this roster needs.
Now, let’s get out ahead of some of your likely questions:
1. Can the Cardinals cut anyone to gain more salary room?
Last year the Cardinals declined Kolten Wong’s option, freeing up salary space during the heart of COVID to get to DeWitt’s mandated payroll floor. This year the situation with options is simpler. The club has options for Carpenter and Martinez and both will be denied with the buyout amounts listed above. Andrew Miller’s option did not vest, so he automatically became a free agent.
What about non-tenders? The Cardinals have quite the collection of arb-eligible players, with core players like O’Neill, Gallegos, and Hudson entering the process for the first time. They join Flaherty, Bader, and Reyes in second year arbs who are starting to see their salaries jump. I don’t see any of these players getting the ax.
The lone non-tender option is Justin Miller who is in his mid-30s and set to get a small raise to about $900k. I don’t see why the Cards would keep him. Miller’s salary isn’t an issue, but the value of his roster spot far outweighs his performance. Mozeliak will cut him to create space for a younger player.
Any other salary relief would have to come from moving guaranteed contracts. The only realistically movable contract belongs to Paul DeJong, who is coming off a terrible season. DeJong is under contract on a team-friendly arb-buyout deal through at least 2023, with option years to follow. It would be like the Cardinals to sell low, especially if they see Tommy Edman’s future at SS instead of 2b. (Gorman would play second in this scenario). At just $6M owed this season, though, the Cards could hang on to DeJong and let him compete as a utility player and potential starter.
2. $22M??? Are you saying the Cardinals won’t make any significant moves?
Of course not. $22M is more than you think, especially when we factor in trades and backloaded contracts. I do think that fans should set their sights a little lower than what I’m hearing. Instead of Carlos Correa, maybe Trevor Story is a possibility at short if the club moves DeJong to clear more space. Instead of Max Scherzer, maybe they would blow the budget on Marcus Stroman. More likely, though, is that they’ll ignore SS altogether and go sign this year’s version of KK or Mikolas as the 5th starter/swingman. With the DH likely coming, I also think the club will target a left-handed power bat in that role. Forget the normal names and look down the FA lists to find a Brad Miller-type who could compete with Yepez and be pushed by Gorman.
3. Will the Cardinals be aggressive in the market and make their move early?
Almost certainly not. If I’m right about their expected budgets and plans, I anticipate the club will wait the market out and try to pick off talent later in the winter. Even if they want to go after Story or Stroman. The last few seasons mid- and low-level free agents have remained on the market into mid-January. I’m very skeptical that the CBA will be resolved by then, which should further cool the market for all but the elite talent. Fans grew frustrated with the Cardinals and the rest of the NL Central sat idle until late in the offseason. Expect your patience to be tested again.
4. Make a prediction, J.P.! Who should they go get?
Notice the “should” at the front of that sentence. I don’t think the Cardinals will do this, but they should go after a proven starting pitcher. I mentioned Marcus Stroman. He’s perfectly designed to pitch at Busch Stadium in front of this defense. There will be competition for his services, but I don’t think he’ll command a huge deal in terms of annual salary or years. He would eat up most of the budget. Find a marginal lefty reliever and a left-handed UT and call it an offseason. Those additions, plus some improvement from Carlson and a bounce back from Flaherty, should put the club in position to contend for the division. I think they would be ahead of the Brewers, who might take a step back this season. Assuming nothing bad happens – like Goldy getting hurt or O’Neill collapsing – that would be the best roster the Cardinals have fielded since 2015.