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Saturday SOC: Fowler, Mozeliak’s Budget Wizardry, & Jake Odorizzi

Some Stream-of-Consciousness analysis of the Cardinals’ recent moves, including Dexter Fowler, an update on the budget, and why the Cardinals are serious about pursuing Jake Odorizzi.

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox Photo by Quinn Harris/Getty Images

What a crazy couple of weeks, Cardinals fans! John Mozeliak and his crew finally awoke from their winter hibernation with a flurry of moves. Let’s recap what’s happened.

1. Adam Wainwright is back. The Cardinals inked him on Jan. 29th to a one-year deal worth a guaranteed $8M. Wainwright’s return, while anticipated, was never certain. His presence should help solidify a rotation that needed back-end consistency and someone to give them innings. I don’t expect Waino to be as good as he was last year, but with the defense nearing all-time great potential and a curveball that won’t quit, he should be better than fine even at age 40.

2. The Rockies are paying Nolan Arenado to be a Cardinal. I’m still kind of in shock over this deal. We’ll talk payroll numbers below, but the Cards made out like a bandit, dramatically improving their roster with no immediate dollar cost. They did so with as little prospect pain as possible, though the club will miss Austin Gomber whose pitch repertoire/location were perfect for Busch Stadium. Yes, Arenado’s offense will slide heading down from the thin air of Denver, but he’s miles higher than Carpenter in total production at third. This Cardinals team went from being a division contender in the terrible NL Central to a legitimate threat for the NL pennant. (They’re not better than the Dodgers or Padres, but they do have a chance now if everything goes as planned.)

3. The Cardinals are paying Dexter Fowler to be an Angel. In some ways, this deal is the opposite of the Arenado trade, though not nearly to the same extreme. The Cardinals are paying the Angels all but $1.75M of Fowler’s salary + signing bonus. Why make this move? I have three reasons.

First, it does save them a little money, and I do think the Cardinals are making moves while still counting pennies. The payroll charts I’ll show below will help prove that point.

Second and probably more importantly, the club has wanted to create space for its young outfielders. It is increasingly likely that the DH will not return in 2021. Without it, the Cardinals could not keep Fowler without taking PAs away from a young player. If Dex started in right, then O’Neill was likely heading to the bench. Even if he was used as a 4th outfielder, Dean or Thomas were probably off the roster entirely. Fowler’s presence limited the rest of the roster without providing the benefit of improved production.

That’s the basis of this deal: At WORST, the Cardinals can dramatically improve their overall defense by starting O’Neill, Bader, and Carlson every day. If that’s true (and it is), all O’Neill has to do is be as good as Fowler with the bat and suddenly the team is much improved. Can O’Neill do that? Without a doubt, yes. ZiPS believes that O’Neill will provide a below-average 91 OPS+ next season. That’s not encouraging but it is 3 points higher than Fowler’s projected 88.

I still have quite a bit of confidence in O’Neill’s hitting ability. Yes, he has problems to work through, including a disconcerting drop in hard hit% and exit velocity last year. At the same time, he also improved his BB and K rates. Somehow, his ISO still jumped in 2020, despite not hitting the ball as hard. His BABIP was below .200. Some of that was small sample size luck.

I also trust my eyes. During spring and for the first few weeks of the season, I saw a better hitter in O’Neill than in his previous seasons. What happened? Extreme pitch-type splits for a short stretch sparked a slump. Then the extreme playing environment started to take its toll, as it did for almost everyone else on the Cards’ roster. I demonstrated this earlier in the offseason. With a normal offseason and a larger sample size, I’m very confident that the extremes of O’Neill’s statistical profile will even out and he’ll be a good-enough left-fielder with an elite glove for his position.

If I’m wrong, the Cards will still get their defense and they can fall back on Thomas, Dean, and Williams while looking to make a trade. That’s a good plan for this team!

Third, the Cardinals continued their trend of treating their players well. Fowler knew he was not going to get much playing time with the club committing to Carlson and O’Neill. Maybe he asked to be traded? Maybe the Cardinals asked him if he wanted to go somewhere he could play regularly? I don’t have those details, but he did waive his no-trade clause to go to the West Coast and he is in a more favorable situation.

I hope Fowler does well for the Angels. He’s a great guy. I have nothing against him at all. He didn’t produce at the level that the Cardinals hoped, but he’s worth remembering fondly.

4. What do all of those moves mean for the Cardinals’ payroll?

Here’s my updated 26-man Opening Day payroll chart. This includes all the players currently under contract, the money the Cardinals are giving and receiving from off-roster players and organizations, a mid-point arbitration estimate for Jack Flaherty, and a balanced 13/13 roster of league minimum players.

If you’ve been following along this offseason, you might have noticed that the Cardinals projected Opening Day payroll hasn’t moved much at all. Somehow the Cardinals have traded for Nolan Arenado, signed Wainwright, paid Fowler to play for Anaheim, and their projected payroll is now lower than it was when I projected the roster with no additions at all at the end of the season. Here’s the same payroll chart from late October:

The Cardinals payroll is now $1.5M below what I projected at the end of the season and they’ve added one of the best pitchers of his generation and a future Hall of Famer.

All hail John Mozeliak and the Clark Street Accountants.

Someone should send him some flowers… Oh wait, @QuinnSTLCards already did!

That was one of the best things to happen on Cardinals Twitter in years. Great work, Quinn!

I think these two payroll charts viewed together give us some insight into the Cardinals’ current financial prognosis and their offseason process. They’ve said all along that they are looking for “payroll-neutral” upgrades. Consider what the Cardinals did in light of what they have now done: (That’s… a sentence.)

1) They moved Kolten Wong to gain “financial flexibility”. Lowering their base commitments early gave them the confidence to pursue Nolan Arenado, not knowing in November what the fan situation would be in 2021 or that they would be able to convince the Rockies to pay the entirety of his salary for the season. I believe they entered the offseason believing Arenado was going to be a Cardinal. They just did not yet know the specifics of how it would happen and wanted to give themselves every chance to make it work.

2) Why was Wainwright’s contract and Yadi’s pending deal delayed for so long? Because the front office (rightly) prioritized Arenado. Wainwright’s $8M guaranteed could have been an obstacle if the club had to take on the majority of Arenado’s $35M salary for the season. As the Cardinals waited the Rockies out, it became increasingly clear that wasn’t going to be the case. So, Waino got his deal. Yadi’s is coming when he’s done in the Caribbean series. Arenado is on the books. The Cards are right where they hoped to be from a budget perspective.

Everything the Cardinals have done this offseason makes the most sense when filtered through their belief that they would eventually land Arenado.

Mo and his staff have been brilliant.

5. How much do the Cardinals have left?

Who knows. But with some fans certain to be in the stands at the beginning of the year, rumors suggest the Cardinals aren’t done.

Odorizzi would be a nice buy-low, middle-of-the-rotation option for the Cardinals. He’s a consistently solid arm, who is a lock to provide 25-32 starts. In ’18 and ’19, Odorizzi started to show an improved K-rate combined with a dropping HR rate. In ’19 he cut his walks too, though I am less confident that will hold up.

That improvement translated into a 4.3 WAR 2019 season, with a 3.51 ERA and a 3.36 FIP.

With that kind of production in his recent past, Odorizzi is the kind of guy the club should consider if they want to further secure their rotation. Odorizzi is probably a better bet to provide consistently good innings than anyone except Flaherty.

Mikolas would be higher if he didn’t have injury concerns. I like Kim but there are danger signs with his peripheral stats. Wainwright is solid but he’s also 40. Martinez has been good in the Caribbean but it seems highly unlikely that he could provide 140 or more innings. Then there’s the unproven Reyes, who can’t provide a whole season in the rotation anyway, and guys like Rondon or Genesis Cabrera.

If the club thinks they can afford him, they should try to sign him. If Odorizzi was smart – and I’m sure he is – he would sign with the Cardinals to work with Maddux and pitch in Busch. That’s a brilliant move for any pitcher, but Odorizzi’s profile would fit well in this park with this defense.

Plus, he’ll get to play for a certain contender.

At this point, considering the market and the roster, I think I would rather see the Cardinals add Odorizzi than any of the remaining outfielders (assuming no DH). I really like the idea of doubling down on defense and securing the pitching staff.

Baseball – GOOD baseball – is coming soon. One more Saturday and we’ll be talking about pitchers and catchers reporting. Enjoy your weekend!

Oh, and go Chiefs!