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The Low/High Point: Payroll & Offseason Planning

The Cardinals have reached their payroll floor. But the numbers are higher than you’ve seen here at VEB. What now?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Thanksgiving Eve, Cardinals fans!

What better way to prepare ourselves for a holiday centered around gluttonous gorging than talking about tightening the belt?

The non-tender deadline has passed for the Cardinals and the rest of the league, flooding the free-agent market with a cornucopia of new and interesting options. Payrolls are at their low point; teams are ready to push toward what could be new spending highs as they emerge from pandemic economics with a new Collective Bargaining Agreement and lucrative TV deals.

The Cardinals fit this trope.

Their current payroll number, which I’ll post below, is both a low point for the season and a high point.

It’s low because they cut Alex Reyes at the non-tender deadline and re-signed Chris Stratton for less than his expected arbitration amount. They saved about $3.55M from my previous payroll projections through these two moves.

And it’s high. Because of our local payroll superhero, Derrick Goold, the numbers you are going to see below are considerably above the last ones you saw from me.

Let’s start there. To better understand the payroll confusion that’s happened this offseason, just go straight to the source. Here’s Goold’s most recent report on the Cardinals’ payroll and how Arenado’s contract – including the money coming in and out – apply to this year’s team budget. Check it out, if you haven’t already if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of how this all works.

I’ll let Goold’s work stand alone. Because of his reporting, I’ve decided to change the way that I project payroll here at VEB. I have always strived for accuracy in payroll numbers. As a blogger, I’m not bound by the same editorial and professional standards that Goold is at the Post-Dispatch. I am bound, however, by my conscience and my desire to provide you at Viva El Birdos with the most accurate payroll and budget information I can to guide our off-season discussions.

We’ll have a thousand different conversations around here about who the Cards should trade for, sign, or move on from. Some will be realistic. Some will be fantastic. All will involve payroll and budget numbers. If I can get that foundation right and get that information out to you, you are better equipped to have smart, informed, and intuitive conversations. I value that. I value providing you that information and engaging in those conversations.

So the numbers you are going to see from me in this space from here forward will look different than the ones you’ve seen in the past. And in so doing I know I’m going to create confusion for myself and others as we deal with previous and future seasons. In the long run, though, our conversation will be better and that’s what we’re after here.

Above is the new payroll matrix with updated salary information and a new area I’m referring to as “Additional Payroll Considerations”. That number represents the payroll projection I would have offered under my previous method, which intentionally applied money in and out (like the payment from the Rockies and deferred salaries) in the year they were paid/received and not in the year they originated or were accounted for.

Confusing, I know. Regardless, focus on the main section. The Cards have about $165M committed to salaries for the upcoming 2023 season counting arbitration and pre-arbitration estimates. I’m projecting their budget to be about $185M using this method of accounting.

That’s the need-to-knows. Now let’s dig into what might happen next.

Can the Cardinals Create More Payroll Space?

The simple answer is “yes” but it’s not nearly as simple as it was before the non-tender deadline. I originally recommended that the Cardinals non-tender both Alex Reyes and Chris Stratton. They made one of those moves but addressed both situations.

Reyes is now gone. Letting him go saved the club his $2.8M projected arbitration salary while allowing Reyes to rehab and compete on a team that can afford to give him a roster spot.

They lowered Stratton’s salary for 2023 by signing him to a one-year deal ahead of the non-tender deadline. That was both good and bad.

It’s good because Stratton is a reliable reliever and his price point for next season is now a hair less than what the club might have had to pay for a comparable reliever on the market. Value for production, however slight the production and value is, is still value.

It’s also bad because, while Stratton is a reliable reliever, he does occupy a roster spot while not fitting the Cardinals’ own stated needs. “Swing and miss stuff” is the refrain we’ve been hearing from the Front Office and MLB coaching regarding pitching acquisitions since mid-season. Stratton’s K-rate has been falling and, at this point in his career, probably fits better in the “can limit damage” camp than the “can generate whiffs”.

While the image above is more payroll than roster projection, I got to 13 pitchers on my 26-man payroll roster without breaking a sweat. That doesn’t even include Andre Pallante and Jake Woodford, two arms who should probably be in there.

Neither of those two is a swing-and-miss arm.

In other words, the Cardinals already have an overflow of MLB-caliber pitchers. With Quintana exiting and with Wainwright returning, Hudson tendered a contract, and Stratton locked up, the Cardinals have taken a small step backward in the “swing and miss” category than was their primary stated need for pitching.

Something will have to give on the roster if they are to make some needed progress here.

That’s where Dakota Hudson should come into play. I did not expect the Cardinals to non-tender Hudson; that would have been a waste of a commodity that still could have value to the club and would certainly have value on the market.

You and I might not be too excited about Hudson as a contender for the rotation. The team might not have real space (or desire) to try him out in the bullpen. But there are probably 20 other MLB teams who would be happy to get 170 innings out of him at $2.70M and one more year of control.

The Cardinals could save that money against their payroll and free up a roster spot for a different kind of pitcher by trading him. Maybe as part of a deal for a starting catcher. Or for a reliever with that swing-and-miss stuff I’m talking about.

Flip over to the offensive side of the roster and the financial savings are more obvious. The team has committed to giving Paul DeJong and his 55 wRC+ a total of $9.17M in 2023.

Goold at the Post-Dispatch recently reported that Oliver Marmol and the coaching staff are taking a more “hands-on” approach to offseason training and development. While the club has always given players to-do lists in the offseason, it’s great to see that they will have more direct engagement with players this winter.

DeJong received more than passing mention in that article, as the new hitting coach, Turner Ward, plans to gather with DeJong in Jupiter to “rework” his scuffling swing. Something needs to change and change immediately. DeJong’s offensive performance peaked as a rookie and has been in a steady downhill slide. He has 6 seasons in the league. He has 5 consecutive years of decline in wRC+.

That’s a lot of time working with hitting coaches. Good ones. Including Turner Ward, who might be in a new role but is not new to the organization.

I wish them the best of luck. I’m just not very optimistic that this time will make a difference.

I’m also not willing to read much into this report. Even if he ticks back up from last year, it’s doubtful that DeJong could displace either Edman at shortstop – who might be the league’s best defender – or Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman at second. The Cardinals would be stuck paying DeJong $9.17M to compete for the 26th-man utility spot.

If there was ever a candidate for a “change of scenery” trade, it’s Paul DeJong. The Cardinals might even be able to get a (very) little cash out of a deal. There might maybe be a team out there willing to take a chance on a former All-Star in their infield while the Cardinals carry most of his salary. After all, a team took Dexter Fowler, a much older corner outfielder, from the Cardinals. Even saving $2-3M off the deal would give Mozeliak just a bit more space to find that impact left-handed bat at DH or in the outfield that he covets.

Trading DeJong would also create a new problem. The club would probably want to go get a middle infielder who could at least provide defensive security at SS. At minimum, such a player would cost just under $1M. If they wanted a player who could also give them more than the 60-85 wRC+ DeJong is likely to provide, that salary point could easily push above the $2-3M they might maybe convince another team to pay from DeJong’s salary.

That’s the long way to break the news to you: DeJong could easily remain a Cardinal in 2023. I entered this offseason 99% convinced he would be exiting. Now, after considering all the elements of his exit, I would lean 60/40 that he stays in StL. Process that as you will.

What Will the Cardinals Do Next?

Next up for the Cardinals are the Winter Meetings in San Deigo from Dec. 4-7.

While we’ve focused on the club’s payroll figure and complex calculations, don’t forget the bigger picture. The team has talked openly about their payroll increasing and have made their offseason priorities widely known.

The club plans to pursue a significant offensive bat who can fill the role that Albert Pujols filled in the lineup. When they say that, they’re not talking about finding another Corey Dickerson-type role player. Think a bit above that. Such a player could slide in at DH or into the outfield mix. The club prefers that player to be left-handed. Several options recently left the board with Joc Pederson accepting his Qualifying Offer from the Giants and Anthony Rizzo returning to the Yankees. There are probably a few other interesting names out there in free agency – I kind of like the idea of Michael Brantley. Trades, though, have always been the club’s preferred method of player acquisition.

The club also plans to acquire a starting catcher. We’ve covered the range of available players here at the site. If they don’t go dealing for Sean Murphy or paying for Willson Contreras (who I don’t like on the Cardinals), I lean toward nabbing Danny Jansen on a pay-for-upside trade. A deal for Jansen could include Dakota Hudson going the other way, along with probably one bigger part, but I think Jansen’s injury history could keep the price palatable. Christian Vazquez still seems like the most obvious and easy move; the Cardinals prefer the path of least resistance.

As mentioned above, the club has not stopped talking about adding a swing and miss arm. That talk has been exclusively relegated to the bullpen so far. I know that you and I and everyone else still want the Cardinals to add upside to their rotation, but I have not seen anyone report that they are actively seeking a starter. I’ve seen some speculation and “maybes” and “should” but no one has said, “the Cardinals are actively seeking to improve the top of their rotation.” The club normally telegraphs its intentions. This year is no different. Talk about starters all you want, VEB, but the Cardinals’ rotation is probably set. There is still space for them to tweak in the bullpen if they so choose and I could see them signing a reliever with K upside. (Expect such a player to also come with a notable flaw. Like walks. They won’t fish at the top of the reliever stream.)

I expect the Cardinals to be active between now and Christmas. I would be surprised if the team left the Winter Meetings without having a catcher locked up. It wouldn’t surprise me if they brought a hitter in at the same time, especially if they’re serious about the “significant” part.

Regardless, the Cardinals’ budget is pretty much set. $20M. Give or take a few million.

That’s enough to finish out their shopping list with names you’ll be ok with even if they don’t overly excite you. Look more toward trades than free agency where they can get more value for their buck and use the assets of a roster that’s already bulging its seams.

And don’t count out an unexpected big move via trade. I don’t expect one and I’m not willing to throw names out there, but it would not surprise me.

Lastly, to all of you from us here at Viva El Birdos, have a very happy Thanksgiving!