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Opening Day Projections: Payroll & Roster

An update on the Cardinals payroll and roster as Spring Training opens.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals-Workouts Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball is back from its extended lockout and so is transaction season! There was a flurry of roster moves across baseball this past week as GMs picked through the remaining free agents like snowbirds at a Florida swap meet. The trade market was lively.

The Cardinals prefer to play on the margins of such events, searching the corner booths for discounted treasures from peregrine lands – like Japan (via Detroit) and Cleveland.

Combined with their early-season blue-light rotation special, Steven Matz, the Cardinals are likely done shopping for pitchers.

On the other side of the diamond, there might be a little more work to do.

Today’s rumor (Monday) has the Cardinals checking in on former Rockies’ shortstop Trevor Story. This seems more like fan-fancy than real rumor. John Mozeliak’s office whiteboard can project two returning cost-controlled shortstops, both under contract for at least a few seasons. Below them, they have a Gold Glove-winning second baseman with a contact bat who is being pushed by one of the club’s best power prospects this decade. Trevor Story fascinates those who can’t do in-your-head park factor conversions between Colorado and St. Louis. The bargain-basement salary point for DeJong, Sosa, and Edman fascinates the Clark Avenue accountants.

I’m sure Mo will do due diligence on Story. Probably Correa, too. If either or both players are hanging around the market in a few weeks, maybe they’ll decide to settle for a one-year deal to get them through to a more player-friendly free agent market. At that point, maybe the Cardinals will jump into the fray. But if such an unlikely scenario plays out, so will a half dozen other mid-market teams who could use a short-term bump at shortstop.

Plus, I’m not convinced the Cardinals’ front office has any real money to spend. The Cardinals – more so than almost any other team in baseball – are heavily dependent on ticket sales as a revenue source. They received no such income in the COVID-lost 2020 season. Last year their final attendance was 2.1 million. That’s down 1.3 million from 2019.

That’s a lot of missing jack and it’s a mistake by fans to assume the club won’t try to make up the margins.

That’s why, back in October, I projected a $155M payroll for the upcoming 2022 season. That represented about an $11M increase over 2020, but still far less than what fans desired.

The narrative among fans – and many in the media – was that the Cardinals would have upwards of $60M to spend this winter with the exit of pricey veterans like Andrew Miller, Matt Carpenter, and Carlos Martinez.

That number was somewhat accurate. But also heavily misleading.

Before the offseason even began, the Cardinals had already carved a huge chunk out of that available change by offering contract extensions with raises to their franchise stalwart battery. Adam Wainwright more than doubled his 2021 salary, landing a one-year $17.5M deal. Yadier Molina earned a cost of living increase in the age of inflation – from $9M to $10M. Just like that, in a wave of fan euphoria over one more season of the dynamic duo, half the Cardinals’ winter allowance was gone.

That left them with just enough space for the kind of shopping they prefer – pitching bargains. And maybe some offensive platoon depth. Here’s where they stand:

--- Beginning of the boring but mandatory technical section ---

First, let me offer the mandatory disclaimer about the Cardinals’ payroll and how it’s calculated. If you saunter over to Fangraphs or Spotract you might immediately notice that their number is not my number. I have the Cardinals at $146.2M in commitments for 2022 after adding in the recent free agent additions and updating the pre-arb players to the new league minimum contracts. Fangraphs has the club just a hair below $155M. Why the difference?

The first difference is that I’m talking strictly about “Opening Day” payroll – the amount of money the Cardinals will pay in committed contracts on Opening Day. Fangraphs (and most other sites) are projecting toward final payroll. That’s why they have $10.5M in pre-arb salaries compared to my $6.3M. That’s enough to add 6 more pre-arb players to the roster.

Will the Cardinals open 2022 with a 32-man roster? No.

Will they finish 2022 with at least 32 players earning money? Yes.

My rule of thumb is to compare apples to apples. Don’t compare “Final Payroll” projections to “Opening Day Payroll” projections. They’re never going to be the same thing because teams always use more than 26 players. Plus there are trades, signings, incentive bonuses, and other riders attached contracts that only kick in after the season is over.

When it comes to projecting offseason budget and potential moves, Opening Day payroll is significantly more informative than final payroll.

The second difference is in how you apply deferred money. Arenado’s contract includes money coming from Colorado (which both Fangraphs and I apply) and multiple deferments. The Cardinals are paying Arenado $2M of his deferred 2021 salary starting this season. They are then deferring an additional $6M in present salary to future seasons.

Fangraphs ignores those deferrals. Why? Beats me! Why would the club defer the money and then budget for its expenditure this season? That completely defeats the purpose of deferring the money.

I have always applied deferred money when it is paid and not when it was contracted.

So, Fangraphs and I differ. I’m right. (Love you, Fangraphs writers! Don’t be mad at me!)

--- End of the boring but mandatory technical section ---

Back to pitching bargains… With $146.7M committed as of this article and a projected budget of $155M (by my estimates), maybe you can see why Steven Matz is a Cardinals and not Marcus Stroman. Why bust the budget paying Stroman $25M when you can get similar production for only $8.5M? What a steal!

Ok, you couldn’t read that with a straight face. I couldn’t write it with a straight face. The Cardinals aren’t that delusional. They recognize the talent gap between those two pitchers. But a budget is a budget and Matz fits. Stroman doesn’t.

Even so, the rotation should be fine. There are some health concerns, but it seems like (some) fans are overstating the recommended level of anxiety. Tommy John is a major surgery but players come back from that every year just fine. Dakota Hudson should be ok. He has had a lot of extra recovery time. Jack Flaherty had some concerning shoulder issues but he was held out for an extended recovery largely because the Cardinals desired to move cautiously with him. I fully expect him to resume his place as the staff ace.

(Update: Flaherty’s shoulder is barking early in camp and he’s having tests run. We’ll have to see what the results are, but if Jack projects to miss a few months, look for the club to circle back to someone like Wade LeBlanc. If this ends up being a major problem and he’s out for the season, there are several veteran starters that the club could look at. Don’t panic yet.)

Matz is healthy but will need long relief support – a plan I endorse. Wainwright’s only injury concern is age. And Mikolas is the #5 starter. I’m pretty confident in his production, but it’s right to worry about his health. There is notable depth behind him, though. Liberatore should get 15-20 starts this season filling in for injured starters. He’s a perfect fit for that role.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals pitching depth is such that I can project a 26-man roster while still having to cut players with significant major league experience, even with an early spring injury. Here are the same names as above, listed this time in a roster depth chart rather than a payroll projection:

Let’s start with the offense, where there’s a bit more intrigue. Sosa, Noot, and Yepez are locks for the roster. Notice, though, that I’m listing a TBD in the MLB utility spot. It seems extremely likely that the Cardinals will add someone to fill the LH DH/UT role. Brendan Donovan is likely the heir apparent for the spot, but he has never faced an MLB pitcher in any setting and the 40-man depth below him in both the infield and outfield is non-existent. He’s the perfect player to ride the I-55 shuttle with a bag full of gloves to cover for injuries. Still, they need a proven depth player and that player needs to be left-handed. (I.e. not Albert Pujols. Sorry fans.)

By my budget math, they’ve got quite a bit of money to play with. Sitting at $146M right now, they could add a player making up to $9M to stay under budget. That’s probably the going rate for a platoon starter DH/UT that we want to see on the field.

My gut feeling is that they will come in well short of that mark. I’ve frequently said the Cardinals should target “someone like Brad Miller” for the role. Well, Miller made just $2M in his lone season with the Cards in ’20. Colin Moran (who continues to be mentioned in connection with the Cards) was set to make about $4M in arbitration before he was non-tendered. I think he would cost around $3M now.

Those are the kinds of players that fill out depth, but we don’t really want to see too much of them on the field. That’s probably the right kind of balance. Committing to a “has to play everyday” kind of player – the $9M kind – pushes against developmental talent the Cardinals want to devote significant playing time to. Like Juan Yepez and Lars Nootbaar. There’s also Nolan Gorman, who will be the first choice to fill in if a starter goes down for a significant amount of time after mid-May. He could start and survive at any of 5 positions – 2b, 3b, 1b, RF, and LF. Alec Burleson and Luken Baker could also be in consideration for MLB playing time after the All-Star break.

The pitching, meanwhile, is pleasantly deep.

With rosters set at 13/13 offense/pitching in the new CBA, there are some tough choices that Mozeliak and Marmol will need to make. Those choices probably center around 6 players, where I have three spots available now that Reyes looks like he’ll be delayed with his shoulder issue. Those six players are Whitley, Hicks, Woodford, Helsley, Oviedo, and Fernandez.

Right now, I have Whitley, Hicks, and Helsley making the final cut. I’m probably wrong about Woodford – the staff seems to trust him – but I’m sending him to Memphis so he can remain stretched out as a starter. Oviedo, too. Fernandez is last in line.

Beyond them, there are several interesting arms at AAA and I’m sure we’ll see them all as the season progresses.

(Update: If Flaherty’s medicals move him to an IL stint, just start adding back in. Woodford would go into a competition with Liberatore. He would win that if only to delay Liberatore’s arrival. The Cardinals have not played games with pitcher service time in the past, but with Woodford around, they might push Lib back a month or two so they have him for the end of the season. A 60-day IL stint for either Reyes or Flaherty opens up a roster spot and that’s where you would look at someone like LeBlanc or higher. It just depends on the severity of the injury which we won’t know for a few days.)