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Saturday SOC: When will the Cardinals Raise Payroll?

Some Stream of Consciousness on the Cardinals’ spending habits now and going forward.

St. Louis Cardinals Photo Day Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Greetings from the train to Chicago! My family I left VERY early Friday morning for a weekend trip to the Windy City.

Isn’t Chicago everyone’s preferred spring break destination? My weather app says it will be a balmy 37 degrees when we arrive with a chance of snow. Good thing I brought my swim trunks.

Normally I would skip out on an article on a weekend like this but 5 hours on a train through central Illinois is just as boring as you image it to be. So, you get some content on this basketball Saturday, “stream of consciousness” style.

On Twitter this week I posted my updated payroll matrix after the Cards inked arbitration deals with most of their arb eligibles. Flaherty, Reyes, Gallegos, Hudson, and Hicks all signed deals for slightly less than originally projected. The two outfielders Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill are heading toward arbitration hearings.

The realities of the arbitration system sunk in for the Cardinals’ Gold Glove left fielder and potential MVP candidate. O’Neill believed the Cards would be anxious to reach an agreement with him – possibly locking him for multiple years. The club, though, continued their recent pattern of not giving players arb buy outs. It was their preferred business practice as recently as the Paul DeJong/Stephen Piscotty era. Times have changed. Fast.

O’Neill – still just 26 – seems like the ideal candidate for such a deal, based on the club’s previous logic. He’s productive, young, has a diverse skillset, and is generally the kind of player that a team wants around through their prime seasons.

However, several of their arb buy out deals haven’t worked out as planned due to injury, stalled development and/or unforeseen circumstances. DeJong and Piscotty fit that mold. So, O’Neill has to wait. As does Bader and Flaherty, who are both rapidly approaching free agency.

The club’s lacking desire to lock up their young players is creating significant uncertainty in the future of the roster.

After the season core players Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina will almost certainly be retiring. Roll players Corey Dickerson, T.J. McFarland and Nick Wittgren are also free agents.

After 2023, add Miles Mikolas, Paul DeJong (who has two club options), and Drew VerHagen to the list of those with expiring contracts. Flaherty, Alex Reyes, Jordan Hicks, and Harrison Bader will all hit free agency for the first time.

Yes, Arenado and Goldschmidt will still be around. And aging. As will Dylan Carlson, O’Neill and Hudson (both through 2024), and Tommy Edman from their current starting lineup and rotation.

That’s a ton of talent that the Cardinals will either have to find a way to retain or replace.

That brings me to a question that a friend, Chris, asked me on Twitter a few days ago: “Do you predict a jump for payroll in 2023? It seems to me that the pandemic effect should be shaken off by then.”

It’s a good question and one I think deserves more than a 240-character response on that bird app.

First, let’s look at the payroll as of now for 2022:

The Cardinals are sitting at $149.12M for Opening Day including arb estimates for Bader and O’Neill and adding in prorated salaries for the 27 & 28 roster spots. I post that with my usual caveat – not all the websites count payroll the same way I do, so you might see some variance if you go to Fangraphs, Cot’s or Spotrac.

That payroll number represents about a $7M payroll increase over Opening Day payroll – calculated using the same methodology – in 2021, give or take a few million when arbitration cases are settled.

Here’s the kicker, though. Go back to 2020. That season, before COVID (and the owners) wiped out a chunk of player pay, the Cards were set to spend $169M in Opening Day payroll. 2019? $165M.

We have to go all the way back to 2017 to find a payroll comparable to this season. That year payroll was $148M.

The team has regressed 5 years in spending budget.

Now start with 2017 and go back 5 years before that. What was the Cardinals’ budget in the 2012 season? Just $111.8M.

The Cardinals show a consistent historical trend. The club broke through the $100M barrier in 2011 and steadily climbed to within a league minimum contract of $170M heading into the pandemic.

If we forget COVID ever existed (can we do that, please?), there’s every reason to believe that trend would have continued. 2021 payroll likely would have been in the $175M range. This season the team would be $180M or higher, assuming normal trends. We could have projected the club to push toward $200M by the time that talent listed above started to hit the free agent market.

To the implications of Chris’ question: With the pandemic and its effects largely subsiding, can we expect the Cardinals to get back onto their previous payroll track? Or is this the new normal?

It’s easy to believe that the Cards will spend and spend big as soon as next season. After this year’s swansong tour, Mo and Girsch will have to replace Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina’s production and status to drive fans to the box office. Together, they are making $27.5M.

The problem is that neither of those players are all that productive anymore. Oh sure, Wainwright had a very good season for a 40-year-old last season, but few expect him to repeat his 3.8 fWAR and perfect health. Molina is barely hanging on as an above-replacement-level player.

The pandemic played a huge role in last season’s drop in attendance to just over 2M fans but even when the turnstiles opened fully, the stadium did not fill up. It took a historic 17-game win streak – and a whole lot of $4-6 flash ticket sales – to bring the energy back to Busch.

In other words, Wainwright and Molina, while certainly popular, aren’t the draw fans believe them to be. They’re also not the massive producers they were in their prime.

Their $27.5M combined expiring contracts would give the Cardinals the space to invest in at least one superstar replacement who would provide elite production and ticket draw.

Or…

They could pocket that money and promote (and market) from within.

Can rising prospect Ivan Herrera provide above-replacement-level production from the catcher spot next season? He has the prospect profile to believe it’s likely. He’ll have a full season at AAA and likely some time in the majors (assuming Molina or Knizner suffer an injury or two). He’ll make the league minimum.

Can Matthew Liberatore take Wainwright’s spot in the rotation? Liberatore has a league average projection this season in terms of FIP and he’s just 22. It’s a tall order to ask him to provide nearly 4.0 fWAR next season but, again, no one really expects that out of Wainwright now. He’ll also make the league minimum.

We can play the same game with the team’s other exiting free agents. The Cardinals are clearing a bunch of money from their payroll after 2022. And they have cheap, in-house replacements ready to go.

That doesn’t mean payroll will tank next season. All those arbitration players will be due raises. Still, the club is only committed to $84M in payroll for 2023. (I say that while acknowledging I haven’t done the math on Arenado’s deferred salary and the money from Colorado yet.)

I don’t see any way that the Cards stay consistent with their franchise goals and raise payroll back to the $170M range. Considering the money coming off the books, their rising talent, and stated philosophy, it is very difficult for me to even project an increase next year. Sometime when I’m not on a train in the middle of Illinois with no wifi signal, I’ll sit down and do the real math.

Gut feeling? It’s more likely that the Cardinals will stay even or drop in payroll in 2023 than raising it. Barring unforeseen injury issues that forces their hand somewhere that they are currently counting on.

That conclusion will upset a lot of fans who are anxious to see the Cardinals spend up to their franchise value. With a devoted fan base and a strong crop of developing talent, they see the Cards as a potential copycat of the Dodgers. Or even the Braves or Mets. Spend, spend, spend to put the club in real World Series contention!

The Cardinals though, enjoy their profits. They enjoy their devoted fan base and scouted that strong crop of developing talent. They see the team as a potential copycat of the Rays or even the Guardians. Go year-to-year, don’t lock into too many pricey long-term contracts, draft, draft, draft to keep the team in playoff contention in the small-market NL Central.

Until the Cubs cycle back around, the Cardinals can probably do that with a payroll in the $150M range, plus or minus.

That sure looks like the plan.

But, hey, remember… I could be wrong! And I probably am.

Enjoy your Saturday!