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2021 Payroll Confusion & an Early 2022 Depth Chart

Does the Cardinals’ actual payroll match the current narrative? Where are they heading into the trade deadline and 2022?

MLB: American League at National League Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This article started with a simple concept: Roughly how much payroll space might the Cardinals have to make a major addition at the trade deadline that would help them in both 2021 and 2022? And where on the depth chart should they look for such help?

I didn’t get very far into either question when I started writing this because I immediately ran into a wall of payroll confusion that stopped me in my tracks.

You see, I thought the Cardinals cut payroll this offseason.

In fact, I was sure that they did. After all, I had tracked payroll all offseason and wrote no less than three articles on the subject between October and February. Every step of the way, by my math, their payroll was well below previous seasons.

Imagine my surprise when I, the informed writer that I believed myself to be, hopped over to Fangraphs’ payroll page and saw that the Cardinals had an estimated payroll of $167M this season.

$167M. That’s… that’s their highest ““Opening Day” payroll ever.

In a season where the narrative — one I contributed greatly to — is that the team intentionally cut and capped payroll, how could they possibly end up setting a team record.

Needless to say, I believed Fangraphs had made some kind of mistake.

So, I went over to my old standby for contracts and payroll calculations – Cot’s contracts at Baseball Prospectus. They came in a little less — $164M for “Opening Day” payroll.

Still, that’s what higher than what I expected. About $20M higher.

I knew there had to be something going on and I had my suspicions about what it was. So, I jumped onto Excel and started running the raw numbers myself.

One player in and I had already found the issue. You can probably guess whose salary and contract created the confusion. It all deals with how payroll tracking sites choose to apply Nolan Arenado’s full salary, his deferred money, and the kick-back the club received from the Rockies to active payroll.

Let’s look at the fine print of Arenado’s deal as outlined by Cot’s. I’ve underlined the sections that I find relevant to this discussion:

When I looked back at Cot’s and Fangraphs, both websites list Arenado’s full 2021 salary of $35M on the Cardinals’ payroll page. That makes sense. That is the contracted amount owed to him this season. In a separate line, they note the $14,429,500 in income that the Rockies are sending the Cardinals, presumably to pay for part of Arenado’s deal. Do the math if you want, but that cuts Arenado’s effective 2021 salary down to $20.57M.

If you leave that in there, add in the arbitration-eligible players, Wainwright, Molina, and subtract Wong, Fowler, and the other free agents, you’ll end up with a number in the $165M range, give or take a few league-minimum contracts. Otherwise known as the largest “Opening Day” payroll in club history.

That’s what Cot’s and Fangraphs do. I don’t like it.

Arenado’s contract clearly states that $20M of his 2021 salary is deferred and will be paid out in $2M installments for 10 years started in 2022.

Here we have a choice. We can throw all of that into 2021 – which is what Fangraphs and Cots both do – and we can ignore the deferred payments in future years. Or we can subtract the deferments from our calculations this season and add them into the seasons to come.

Since the money is not being spent by the Cardinals this season but WILL be spent by the Cardinals in future seasons, I prefer to list it as deferred money, part of payroll in the seasons where the payment is made.

I can see why Cot’s and Fangraphs go the other direction but, for our purposes, I think leaving that deferred money in misrepresents the Cardinals’ actual finances in 2021 and through the deferment period. It makes a +$20M difference this year. And a -$2M difference annually from 2022-2031. Both of those are, in my opinion, significant when it comes to planning and budgeting.

In light of that, here’s how I would list the Cardinals’ “Opening Day” payroll in 2021 (with the league minimum contracts as an average):

Jason Hill

$143M just much better reflects the truth of the Cardinals’ 2021 budget.

With the spreadsheet work out of the way, on to the questions at the heart of this article: Roughly how much payroll space might the Cardinals have to make a major addition at the trade deadline that would help them in both 2021 and 2022? And where on the depth chart should they look for such help?

The best answer to the payroll question is probably “enough”. Because of the deferred money, the club has margin based on payroll levels in previous years. They have also been able to increase their ticket availability as the season has progressed, opening up to full capacity now. Sales are slowly climbing, though they remain below pre-COVID levels. Add it up and the Cardinals probably have the budget space to pay just about anyone for 2 months, if they choose to.

Does a deal even make sense?

Though the Cardinals have been playing better, they still have a less than 3% chance of making the playoffs. The Wild Card is likely out of reach, considering the level of play out west. The division is equally unlikely as it would require the Cardinals to play out of their minds AND for the Brewers to tumble. All while kicking the Reds out of the way.

In my opinion, it doesn’t make much sense to use valuable resources – even players like Nick Plummer, Alec Burleson, or Lars Nootbar – to bring in a rental player for a low-odds playoff run.

It might make sense, though, to use those resources to acquire someone who can help now and contribute beyond this season.

That requires 2021 needs to line up with 2022 depth. What’s the status of the depth chart for 2022?

To figure that out, I want to make four assumptions about the 2022 roster:

First, let’s write Molina’s name in already. Yadi and his agent are seeking an extension. It seems likely that the Cardinals are planning on this, with Knizner failing to emerge and Herrera not pushing things yet.

Second, Wainwright is probably going to return to the rotation. I’m not as confident of this as I am with Molina, but there’s space for him, he seems immune to age, and the price is right.

Third, the Cardinals probably want to find space for Matthew Liberatore and Zack Thompson in the rotation or bullpen and Nolan Gorman in the starting lineup for most of next season.

Fourth, there will almost certainly be a DH in the NL. This is not confirmed but it is part of the owners’ plans.

With those four assumptions in mind, here is how I would project the Cardinals’ depth chart for 2022 as of now:

Jason Hill

As suspected, the Cardinals can project a pretty full roster for 2022, assuming that they return some of their core free agents, re-up with their arb eligibles, and promote some of their key prospects. They have a few obvious but small holes at utility infield, outfield depth, and lefty relief.

With that in mind, are there any areas that the club could look at for both the rest of 2021 and 2022 without wrecking their plans? I see three potential areas that they could look at over the next few weeks (in order of priority):

1. Second base. Tommy Edman is a fine defender at second but it’s increasingly clear that he does not have an everyday bat. Gorman would be a possibility here for 2022; better, though, is just finding a quality second baseman as soon as the deadline, letting Gorman force his way onto the lineup anywhere, and moving Edman into a bench role, where his versatility and middle infield defense play.

2. Utility outfield. The Cardinals have proven they can make use of a lefty platoon/bench outfielder. They just haven’t had a player worth using. If they made such a move now, it would guarantee that Edman never sees time in the outfield again (Shildt excepting) and allow the club to mix and match as needed with Bader and O’Neill or maybe give Carlson a day off.

3. High-end bullpen arm. The Cardinals seem serious about moving Reyes to the rotation next season. I am in favor of that, despite his high walk rates. That means the Cards will have to rely on Gallegos and an injured Hicks going into 2022 to fill the ninth, with Helsley and Cabrera getting a bump up in responsibility. The club could use a cost-controlled reliever with late-inning talent both now and in the future.

4. Rotation. As far as the rotation goes, the Cardinals could improve their talent both now and in the offseason. However, it just doesn’t make much sense to do so at the deadline considering player availability and cost. In my opinion, the Cardinals should push a rotation upgrade to the offseason and either pass on Reyes in the rotation or displace Wainwright in favor of an impact starter. What kind of player would make them push Waino into retirement? The list probably begins and ends with Max Scherzer.

None of those suggestions seem likely to happen. The Cardinals prefer to take the path of least resistance. That means keeping their talent this season and trusting that Flaherty and Mikolas will be able to help when they return to action. It also means leaving this roster largely intact for 2022, assuming better play from their current players (especially Edman), and letting their prospects have the space they need to rise.

Sure, there will be an addition or two – especially if the NL adds the DH. Just don’t expect wholesale changes. And don’t expect the Cardinals to jump right back to their former payroll levels. With Arenado’s salary on the books and the club responsible for more of it going forward, payroll will rise in 2022 compared to right now. I still think it will be some time before they are back in the $165M range, especially with continued uncertainty about fan interest, fan safety (COVID is keeping some fans away now), and the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Maybe they make a small bullpen move now. Or snag a bench outfielder that can help next season too. I would recommend low expectations in terms of player acquisition for both July 31 and 2022.