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Cardinals’ Payroll Confusion (An Open Thread)

We have new information on how the Cardinals calculate payroll. It affects the budget for 2022.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Greetings Cardinals fans! I’m on the road up over to Kansas City where I will be partaking of the local fare (Joe’s BBQ) and cheering on the Chiefs before a week of meetings.

That means you get an Open Thread.

But I’m not leaving you without fodder for conversation.

This week, the Cardinals’ payroll became a whole huge thing and I can’t help but feel a little responsible for it. (Emphasis on a little.)

As many of you know, I’ve been tracking payroll around here for years. Before I was a writer at VEB I did the same at various other sites around the internet. It wasn’t a big deal. It was just something that I did to help guide reasonable offseason discussions and head off the “sign Machado AND Harper AND trade for Max Scherzer AND Mike Trout” proposals we occasionally see from fans.

Post-COVID these payroll conversations started to matter more and others started to do the same thing, including Derrick Goold over at the Post-Dispatch and Jeff Jones at the Belleville News-Democrat. I had my method. They had theirs. I was glad to have feedback in certain areas and confirmation in others.

This year the whole tone of the payroll conversation changed. I put out an initial report. Jeff and Derrick – among others – quickly pointed out some things to me and I adjusted in accordance, raising my spending expectations a little to better align with what they, as beat writers, were hearing from the organization itself.

Since then, though, Derrick Goold has really taken the payroll ball and run with it. Largely, I think, because it has started to become a real news story and not just a framework for conversation.

That sparked a long conversation on the internet about how the Cardinals calculate payroll and how certain contract oddities fit into payroll.

Like the money coming from the Rockies in the Arenado trade.

And the money being deferred by both Arenado and Adam Wainwright this season.

Here is the result. This article from Derrick Goold is a brilliant piece of research. In it, Derrick does what I could never have done. He gets actual sources in the front office to detail for him exactly how the organization is going to handle those funds. As I said on Twitter, this was the payroll article I’ve wanted to write for 10 years but never had the access I needed to write it.

If this interests you at all, please go read the post. Don’t just take my word for it. This is Derrick’s work. He deserves the credit and the clicks for it.

To circle to the point, how the Cardinals factor in things like deferred money and money from other clubs matters a great deal in how much budget space they have available. They have said, quite explicitly, that payroll will go up this year.

There is no doubt that’s true. Right now, the Cards have payroll commitments including arbitration estimates of $165M for 2023. Their highest Opening Day payroll by my calculation method (which I now know to be somewhat wrong) was right around that same total, +/- maybe $2 million.

That $165M drops all the way down to $137M if you factor in the money coming from the Rockies in the Arenado trade and the club’s multiple deferred contracts.

Let me ask you this rhetorical question, then.

Here we are just a few days into free agency, would you rather the Cardinals were sitting at $137M today in estimated payroll expenses? Or $165M?

The answer is obvious.

The problem is that the club has made it very clear, through Goold, that the club does factor the money from their deferred contracts into their payroll budget in the year that the contract originates. They will not be factoring in the money from the Rockies into their payroll budget as that money was intended to cover Arenado’s salary in 2021.

So, my version of accounting that subtracts deferred money and income from other teams? Forget it.

The Cardinals payroll obligations, as reported by Goold and confirmed by the club (and confirmed as accurate by my own math), sit at $165M.


When this came out, Cardinals’ social media kind of lost their minds. It wasn’t just the fans out there doing it, it became a huge discussion between Cards media members, with me jumping in occasionally like the timid little rabbit that I am, mostly just to confirm Derrick’s math and approach.

The result? Payroll is increasing. The club isn’t lying about that.

But it’s starting at such a high place that the club might not have as much to spend on free agents or trades as many hoped.

THAT SAID, while my numbers are not accurate based on how the Cardinals will calculate their payroll this season, I’m not sure that the final verdict I’ve offered to you all here is that far off.

I estimated about an 8% increase in payroll this season over 2021. That represents an increase over what I planned to suggest based on the early reporting of Goold and Jones. I ended up settling on an Opening Day payroll of $165M for 2023 based on my method of accounting, which factors in those deferrals and the Rockies’ money.

That left the Cardinals with about $28M to spend in the offseason as of today. I probably should have stuck with my original instincts, which would have been about $5M less than that.

If I am reading him correctly now, Derrick is proposing that the Cardinals will raise payroll from their current $165M to about $185, give or take a little. And they have ways to save more through non-tenders and trades.

That would leave the Cardinals with about $20M to go and that number is likely to climb a bit.

Maybe you should think of that as the offseason spending range? $20M-$28M in budget space, with more possible depending on how they handle their current contracts.

That might not be good news to you if you were planning on the Cardinals adding Trea Turner AND Carlos Rodon AND Willson Contreras. But I’ve been trying to temper those kinds of expectations all offseason.

It’s probably enough for the team to meet their stated goals of finding a significant left-handed bat, a starting catcher, and a swing-and-miss reliever. It might not be enough for everyone to be ecstatic about the names they bring in fill those roles.

I’ll finish this by saying the same thing here that I said on Twitter. Don’t worry too much about the actual number and how it’s calculated. Goold has figured that out. I’ll give you the relevant information when I have time to sit down and calculate it all, which will be after the non-tender deadline.

The Cardinals don’t have some hard-and-fast budget number that they are beholden to. They recouped their pandemic losses. They’re flush with cash from a very good 2022 at the turnstiles. They’ll do what they need to do in their normal very reasonable, path of least resistance, underwhelming way.

And they’ll enter spring as the favorites to win the Central. But not win the World Series.

So, I’m sorry if Goold’s article and this payroll news is a disappointment. And feel free to rant and rave in the comments. I’ll suggest a starting point: “Why defer money if it’s not going to give you payroll relief in the year you defer it????”

That’s just a suggestion. That’s why this is an open thread. The floor is now yours.

Post like a champion today, Viva El Birdos.