John Mozeliak made it abundantly clear that he intended to go to the 2022 Winter Meetings and come home with a starting catcher. They did that.
Willson Contreras is a Cardinal, and he was introduced to the media and fans at a press conference at Busch Stadium Friday morning.
Willson fills a vital spot in the Opening Day roster and budget. We’ll get into that in a bit.
First, let’s talk about what might have been, as that has important implications for what might yet be.
It’s clear that the team’s first choice at the catcher position was acquiring Sean Murphy from the A’s. Such a deal was close to consummation early in the meetings. It was so close that the Cardinals had started to work on their next steps.
From Monday evening into Tuesday morning rumors began to circulate that the Cardinals were suddenly very interested in the shortstop market. Dansby Swanson was the name they were most connected to. While we, Belleville News-Democrat writer Jeff Jones and the VEB writers on the Podcast, chalked that up to agent-fed rumormongering, it now appears to have been legitimate interest from the Cardinals.
The A’s had utility man and presumptive second base platoon starter Brendan Donovan in their sights. Including Donovan (or perhaps Gorman in some alternative iteration of a deal) in a trade for Murphy would have opened a hole in the middle infield. Pairing the free agent SS Swanson and Edman, two potential elite defenders, would have made sense.
How would you feel about their offseason if Mozeliak had completed the deal for Murphy and then turned around and locked in Dansby Swanson? While losing either Nootbaar or Donovan or maybe even both?
We’ll never know exactly what that scenario might have been or how it might have turned out. At some point, the A’s lost their sanity, increasing their demands from the Cardinals and pushing Mozeliak and Girsch well past their #pukepoint.
Enter Willson Contreras. You probably know that story by now.
If a Murphy deal opened holes in the roster and budget for additional moves, the Contreras signing potentially closes both.
While the year-by-year terms of Contreras’ deal were not available in time for this article, it’s safe to assume that his salary this season will be within a few million of the total money due him divided by 5 years. That comes out to $17.5M this season, give or take a little on either side.
Throw that into the pre-existing payroll document we’re rolling with here on the site, and this is where the team is sitting in mid-December:
As of today, the Cardinals have an approximate 2023 Opening Day 26-man payroll figure of $182M. That number includes $143.5M in guaranteed contracts, another $33.5M in estimated arbitration figures, and at least $5M in league minimum deals to bring the roster to 26 men.
Yes, the club still has ways to trim that payroll number. Paul DeJong’s $9.17M salary is a deadweight. With Edman locked into the starting role, the club could move him and gain a little in salary relief. I’ve estimated that as no more than $1-3M. Recent comments from John Mozeliak, however, confirm what I’ve been trying to tell you all. DeJong is staying. It’s at best a break-even cost investment to keep DeJong vs. trading him and signing a comparable replacement backup.
They could also trade Dakota Hudson. As of now, Hudson is a starter without a starting spot. He would be attractive on the trade market as the cost and annual commitment required to land even flawed arms continue to soar. That’s also the argument to keep him.
Lastly, with only one starting pitcher locked up beyond this season, the Cardinals could try to work an extension with Jordan Montgomery. Doing so could bring his $10.1M estimated salary down a bit and give them valuable security going forward. This is a deal I strongly believe the Cardinals should make.
Unless those moves are made, though, the Cardinals appear to be right up against their projected budget estimates. At $182.01M and a projected Opening Day budget of $185M, the Cardinals have just enough space to sit on until the trade deadline.
Back to how I started this article. Mission accomplished? Are the Cardinals done?
Maybe not. Even though the Swanson rumors never materialized, they do present a possibility that we shouldn’t ignore. No math would have allowed the Cardinals to add Sean Murphy’s arbitration salary (around $3M) and Swanson’s estimated free agent salary ($22M annually over 7 years according to MLB Trade Rumors) and stay within range of their projected budget.
Such a scenario would have cost the Cardinals around $25M compared to Willson Contreras’ $17.5M.
“Plan A” might have landed the Cardinals with a current projected payroll of $190M.
It would be a mistake to read too much into hypotheticals, but this number with the confirmed reports surrounding it is probably enough for us to speculate that the Cardinals might be willing to add payroll above their projected budget in the right scenario for the right players.
While the Cardinals are bumping up against their budget number, we don’t have to assume that the team is done adding payroll. Especially if there were roster needs that demanded pushing past these conservative estimates.
Do such roster needs exist?
Now is as good a time as any to break out my first projected 26-man roster for the season.
It is not difficult at all to fill out a 26-man roster with 13 offensive players and 13 pitchers.
The offensive side is very straightforward. Let’s look at position groups:
Catcher was the focus of the offseason. Let’s start there. With Contreras in-house, Knizner slides into the backup role with Ivan Herrera continuing to work at AAA. Considering Contreras’ flaws as a backstop, I would rather replace Knizner with an excellent defensive player. The club, though, seems unlikely to commit any more resources here.
1b and 3b are locked in with the team’s dueling MVP candidates, who will hopefully continue their elite production. Goldy will be entering his age-35 season. That is the kind of age where even MVP-caliber bats slow down. The same might be said of Arenado, who plays the more demanding defensive position, but there’s been no sign of that in any of his stats. If either of them goes down for any length of time, the team has several alternatives to turn to, including Juan Yepez and Nolan Gorman at 1b & 3b and Alec Burleson at 1b.
The middle infield is more in flux but easily filled with names. John Mozeliak continues to assert that Tommy Edman is firmly entrenched as the starter at short. He also lists Brendan Donovan and Nolan Gorman as dual starters at 2b. Hitting, other roster needs, matchups, and Gorman’s advancement defensively will probably decide that position on any given day. In addition to working on refining his broken swing, Paul DeJong would be wise to start working out at 2b, too, as defensive versatility is probably just as vital to him making the club as showing the ability to hit breaking balls.
The outfield is both set and not at all set. Mozeliak recently claimed that Lars Nootbaar would “play every day”. With solid splits against both righties and lefties last season, that makes a lot of sense. Then there’s the switch-hitter Carlson who needs a bounce-back season after two hand injuries robbed him of his power. And Tyler O’Neill who lost time to injury and production to slumps. If healthy and producing, that could be a very good outfield. It’s not without risk, though. Who plays where? Mozeliak has been noncommittal about a starting center fielder. All three of them could be in line for time in CF, but Dylan Carlson probably has the edge based on his performance last season.
Behind them, the Cardinals have some options, all of them capable of hitting and less-than-ideal defensively. Alec Burleson can play a corner outfield position. His peripheral stats and repeated bounce-back performances in the minor leagues suggest he could push for serious playing time. Juan Yepez can’t play a corner outfield position but the club has played him there anyway. With a very solid rookie season behind him and a strong Steamer projection (122 wRC+) the team is going to want to get his bat in the lineup.
I wouldn’t rule out Nolan Gorman seeing time in the outfield, either, as banning the shift makes it that much more difficult to imagine him surviving at second as a full-time starter. Brendan Donovan will likely also see time in the outfield.
All of these players are in line for some time in the DH spot, which will almost certainly be used as a revolving door to give players rest and needed time in the lineup.
Does that leave any holes?
The Cardinals have said that they would like to replace the loss of Albert Pujols with a “significant” bat who preferably hits left-handed. Willson Contreras might qualify as the “significant” bat they desired. But he’s a righty.
If the Cardinals have one gap, it’s probably a lefty-hitting outfielder who could also team up with Juan Yepez in a DH platoon. It’s not a necessary addition, but it’s one the Cardinals could make to lengthen their depth and versatility.
Jeff Jones was thinking the same thing and suggested in this article that someone like David Peralta or Tyler Naquin could be in play. Both players have heavy platoon splits. Both also fit much better as replacements for Corey Dickerson than Albert Pujols. Neither would stretch the team’s remaining budget very far.
If those names don’t interest you that much, be comforted with the knowledge that John Mozeliak probably agrees with you. During Friday’s press conference, he said this about any OF/DH additions:
Mozeliak says he’s “open minded” about external additions to the outfield, but, “as I stand here today, I don’t feel like that’s something I have to do.” Said opportunity is clear for O’Neill and Carlson, and Jordan Walker is “maybe on the way.”— Jeff Jones (@jmjones) December 9, 2022
I could also see the Cardinals making a trade for such a player using their substantial pitching depth.
While the adage “you can never have enough pitching” proves true year after year, the Cardinals are pushing that into the levels of near absurdity. The club currently has 23 pitchers on their 40-man roster. With a maximum of 13 pitchers on the 26-man active roster at a time, that gives them a huge surplus. It also pushes players that would seem to be locks for the roster into AAA roles.
As of now, I have the rotation listed in a pick ‘em order. The club would like for Flaherty to resume his spot atop the rotation. The rest of the list is completely interchangeable, with Wainwright listed last here because his last name starts with a W.
The top part of the bullpen is largely secure, with Helsley, Gio, Stratton, and Hicks all guaranteed spots.
Behind those 9 players, things are very much up in the air. How we assign those roles might depend on how we interpret this line from a team official in Jeff Jones’ latest article, linked above: “some of those guys think they’re starters.”
I chatted with Jones about this cryptic quote and he indicated that it likely referenced Dakota Hudson, Jake Woodford, and Drew VerHagen. All three of those pitchers were in line for starts last season but now seem pegged for the bullpen, depending on health and player availability.
Those aren’t the only “starters” who Jones believes are heading to the bullpen. I asked him specifically about Andre Pallante and Zach Thompson, and he indicated that while they might come to Spring Training stretched out to start, the team expects them to be in the bullpen.
The roster I’ve presented above reflects that information. Pallante and Hudson slide into the MLB bullpen on the right side. Thompson joins Cabrera on the left side. Woodford is the first man up from AAA with Liberatore as the presumptive 6th starter.
All of that makes me even more nervous about starter depth than I was before, but just because the team is aligning these players for the bullpen to start the season doesn’t mean that’s where they will end up. When the inevitable injury happens in March, I would expect Hudson, Pallante, or Thompson to get shifted back to a starting role immediately.
Off my active roster but on the 40-man roster, the Cardinals can claim 4 lefties – 3 of which have MLB experience – and 6 righties – 3 of which have MLB experience. That includes new additions in Wilking Rodriguez and Guillermo Zuninga, two minor league arms with strikeout stuff, and 2022 additions to the 40-man roster in Jake Walsh and Freddy Pacheco. Both of those last two names have the talent to push their way into high-leverage innings by the end of the season.
While the Cardinals entered the offseason looking to add strikeout stuff to their bullpen, that task looks complete. They are more likely to subtract from their glut of relievers and AAAA-caliber starters than add to them at this point.
In all, it seems like the Cardinals are close to finished, with the possible exception of adding an uninteresting lefty outfielder who wouldn’t push the budget or cleaning up the pitching logjam with a minor trade or two. Either of those moves could get pushed back to late winter and possibly even into Spring Training as hypothetical needs become real needs for the Cardinals or other teams.
Happy Saturday, Viva El Birdos!