For the first time since April 23, the Cardinals are under .500. They have lost 11 of their last 13 games. They also just got swept by the Cubs. While I can’t say this is the nadir of the season with any degree of certainty, they have certainly made it difficult to go lower. Challenge accepted, Cardinals might say. Not a challenge, please do not take that as a challenge.
There is hope at the end of the tunnel, sort of. Their upcoming schedule is relatively kind. They face the 29-36 Miami Marlins, whom the Cardinals previously swept, for three games starting tonight. In the midst of this easy stretch, they do have a 4-game series with the Braves, who also have a losing record, but who certainly aren’t bad. Next week, they have a two-game series with the Detroit Tigers and four games with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Then three with Arizona, four with Colorado. They finish the first half with the Giants and Cubs, but if the Cards want to make up ground, the next three weeks are it.
Now granted, the current iteration of the Cardinals - the one without Jack Flaherty and Miles Mikolas (and Kim, but he should be back for most of this stretch I think?) - is maybe not a whole lot better than these bad teams. Their pitching is that thin right now. Go back to the past 13 games, and while it’s not like the offense is consistent, there are some games where the pitching just doesn’t give the offense a chance. In 9 of the 11 losses, the opponent scored at least 5 runs, including 7 games where they scored at least 8 runs. I mean... no offense can overcome that.
And as you’d expect, the fanbase has become vocal about doing something, anything to help fix the pitching. The Cardinals are in a bad division with nothing but mediocre teams and feature the prime seasons of Nolan Arenado and... well that’s it really. I mean other players are in their prime I guess, but nobody whose prime is in danger of ending soon. Paul Goldschmidt certainly isn’t in his prime.
But I think you just got to let this team sink or swim, at least right now. Anybody who would make a difference would cost serious prospect capital. I’m not sure this is the team you want to lose your great prospects over to be honest. Anybody who doesn’t require losing a prospect you might regret losing... probably isn’t moving the needle. I mean I’m not sure whether this is a good team or bad team, but imagine losing Nolan Gorman over a sinking ship that ends up below .500 even with Max Scherzer (not that he’s available at the moment, just an example.)
This is not a one player away fix-all situation. The Cardinals own players are going to have to play better, and specifically pitch better. And this is true whether they make a move or not. And I’m not saying it won’t always make sense to not make a move, but we don’t actually know what this team is yet. Now if we hit the All-Star break, having swept the Cubs and coming off an 18-8 stretch, well then yeah take advantage of it. But for all we know, the Cards are going to fall flat on their face in this bad stretch and we can just call this a lost season.
It’s okay though. Think of this as a transitional year. The Cardinals are very well set up for the future and specifically next year. Every position player starter is coming back and expected to be at least average. They are arguably only missing a fourth outfielder and a Matt Carpenter type player in the infield (grins devilishly). Sosa is probably fine as the sixth infielder/SS replacement and I’m fine with an internal option for the 5th OF spot. (And hell, the fourth OF could emerge this year from inside the organization too.)
Also, can I just say it is downright bizarre to be the one who argued Sosa should make the team at the end of spring training to being the guy who is saying “yeah he’s not a starter guys, it’s fine if he’s buried on the bench.” Dude has the triple threat of having zero power, not walking, and not having a particularly good K rate. While he has shown a propensity for getting hit by a pitch, his current 103 wRC+ is heavily driven by eight HBPs in 107 PAs. I don’t think we can count on him getting hit at a rate of 45 times per 600 PAs, much as that would entertain me. He’s probably an MLB player, but I’m not seeing a guy anywhere close to Paul DeJong’s level myself.
Where was I? Oh yes, how well set up the Cardinals are. I’ve already written that I’m pretty excited for how the Cardinals will approach the 2022 rotation, which has a lot of unknowns but a lot of pitchers very close to the majors in their minor league system. Zack Thompson, Matt Liberatore, Angel Rondon, Alex Reyes, Johan Oviedo (who should be refining his craft in AAA were he not forced in the majors), Andre Pallante, Domingo Robles. That group of pitchers will be mixed into a cauldron and added to Jack Flaherty, (maybe) Miles Mikolas, (maybe) Dakota Hudson, and (maybe) Adam Wainwright.
And then there’s free agency. There’s an interesting list of free agent starters, which yes does include Max Scherzer. Also includes Justin Verlander, Noah Syndergaard, Lance Lynn, Marcus Stroman, Corey Kluber, James Paxton, Robbie Ray, Eduardo Rodriguez. Some decent options with this group. You can go the old man route, the injury prone route, or boy get that guy out of Fenway route. His stats will improve or his advanced stats will get worse, but Eduardo Rodriguez is sure looking like a good buy low move from my perspective. Kind of hoping his ERA stays looking bad, not that teams aren’t aware his advanced stats are amazing, but it’s going to affect his market if it is.
And the reason to be optimistic about all this and the reason why this is kind of a transitional year: expiring contracts! Some money is coming off the books, enough for a free agent signing or two. Now, there are reasons to be skeptical of the Cardinals spending money, but so much money is leaving, I just can’t see a situation where the Cardinals don’t spend some of it.
Let’s get through the list. There’s Matt Carpenter, who the Cardinals will have to buy out for $2 million and lose the rest of his $18.5 million salary. There’s Carlos Martinez, who the Cardinals will have to buy out for $500,000 and lose the rest of his $17 million salary. There’s Andrew Miller, who simply becomes a free agent and sees his $12 million salary vanish from the books. Kwang-Hyun Kim’s $4 million salary goes away and as of now, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina have a combined $17 million that is in doubt.
Let’s say they re-sign Wainwright and Molina to identical deals and sign Matt Carpenter to a 1 year, $2.5 million deal. And let’s say Kim gets re-signed to an average annual value of $10 million, whatever the years that would bring. Martinez and Miller, they’re both gone so I don’t have to imagine that scenario. That brings their 2022 payroll to.... $119.5 million. Their 2020 payroll is I believe $145 million. Roster Resource says $166 million, but they also have the Cards paying $21 million of Arenado’s contract this year, which I don’t think is right. And this is pandemic influenced. Their payroll in 2020 was $167 million and in 2019 was $173 million.
Do I think the payroll will be $170 million in 2022? No, no I do not. Do I think it will be $145 million? Also no. Somewhere above $145 million, but below $170 million seems likely. And to be fair, I’m not including arbitration here. Jack Flaherty, John Gant, Harrison Bader, Alex Reyes, Dakota Hudson, Giovanny Gallegos, Jordan Hicks, and Tyler O’Neill. Of that group, Flaherty and Bader seem likely to be hurt by their injuries, no matter how well they finish the year. Hudson and Hicks won’t get much because of theirs. Gallegos won’t be too crazy because no saves. Reyes will probably be higher than it should because of saves though and a low ERA. O’Neill... he might get a pretty penny but is still just arb 1. There’s like $25 million in this group. Now we’re at $145 million.
But of course, I’m assuming they sign literally everybody here. I’ve got $29.5 million dedicated to Carpenter, Kim, Molina, and Wainwright. I’m going to take the way under on that group. But even if you accept that at face value, I think you can safely assume room for a semi-expensive free agent in there. You can easily sign a starting pitcher, a versatile infielder, and a fourth outfielder and fall under the $170 million mark. The Arenado acquisition took a hit on the available payroll that we thought we were getting, but there’s still a hefty amount of space there, if they return back to previous payrolls, or even close to it.
Which leaves the one big downside of just letting this season play out: they suck and Arenado opts out. I happen to think, no matter how badly they do this season, there’s very little chance Arenado opts out after this season. He will probably give them another year, not to mention I don’t think he would do better on the free agent market. I could hypothetically see a scenario where a bad 2021 and a bad 2022 could drive him away, but just a bad 2021? I just don’t see it. Not with the expiring CBA uncertainty hanging over him.
And here’s the dirty little secret: it’s kind of a good thing if he opts out. I mean his contract is basically underwater, and this will be especially true after 2022. The Rockies paying some of it helps a lot, but it doesn’t change the fact that paying players in their mid-30s doesn’t usually work. Look no further than the first baseman across the diamond, who isn’t really bad, but whose contract is looking pretty stupid and we have three more years of it.
This doesn’t change the fact that I don’t want him to opt out and that he will probably not opt-out, but playing the odds, it’s no question a good thing. And yeah the fact that the Cards have not one, but two kick-ass 3B prospects in the minors.... The Cardinals have pretty much set themselves up with the most ideal situation if he opts out actually. I mean in this upcoming offseason, they can spend his money on a younger, better free agent shortstop if he opted out. There’s three of them to choose from. The free agent market is much less favorable in in the next offseason (does have Trea Turner though), but it also happens to perfectly align with Nolan Gorman’s timeline.
So yeah, I think playing this year out makes sense. Until it doesn’t. If the Cardinals record improves, then you can maybe make a move. For now, assess the players you do have, and you’ll have a good idea of what you want to do next free agency with some money freeing up. It will be rough going, especially until Flaherty returns (Mikolas had to go to his home planet unfortunately), but if they can survive during this weak schedule, then we’ll talk trades. Until then, let’s hope for the best.