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Deconstructing the Cardinals Offseason (with Payroll Updates & Rankings)

A look at update payroll, Mozeliak & DeWitt’s comments from the Winter Warm-Up, and what they say about the Cardinals’ offseason plan.

It was a big week in Cardinals-related news. Let’s not beat around the Busch. (Snicker.) Let’s get right to it.

The action started last Friday with the deadline for teams to negotiate contracts with their arbitration-eligible players before their cases go to the arbitrator. The Cardinals entered the offseason with 10 arb eligibles, a record for my time covering the club. They were able to come to terms with 8 of them.

Surprisingly, it wasn’t Jack Flaherty or Tyler O’Neill who chose to send their cases to the arbitrator. Instead, it was rising relief superstar Ryan Helsley and the once-reliable lefty Genesis Cabrera.

It’s hard to blame Helsley for wanting to maximize his value. Helsley and his agent submitted an arb figure of around $3M. The Cardinals came in $850k below.

A lot of fans have questioned the club’s decision to take Helsley to a hearing over less than a million dollars. Why quibble over such a relatively small amount?

In the context of a payroll that’s going to push $200M by the end of the season, $850k extra for *arguably* the best closer in the game is a foolish thing to fight over. However, this is Bill DeWitt and his ownership group that we’re talking about. That $850k represents about a 40% raise in salary for one player. Accepting Helsley’s proposal because it’s reasonable and Helsley is good and he’s worth the money – all true things – doesn’t even enter into the process for DeWitt.

The Cardinals helped build the financial landscape of baseball. Bill DeWitt was a central if behind-the-scenes influencer in the most recent lockout. He helped make the unwritten “rules” for ownership and he sticks to them come hell or high water.

There are established formulas to estimate arbitration values. He is not going to allow the Cardinals to do anything that pushes the boundaries of fiscal expectations for MLB owners. He is going to make the decision that will continue to keep salaries for players, including the pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players he prefers, within the realms of established expectations. That means he will quibble over $850k for his All-Star closer.

As far as Cabrera goes, I’m sure his thought process is similar to Helsley’s. He wants to maximize his earnings before he loses them completely. Yes, he had a down year. Yes, he got demoted to the minors. But he also has a pretty good history and innings pitched and a few hundred K means a lot to him because he might not get the chance to earn a substantial contract. Who can blame him for trying to go for that money while he has the chance to get it? One arm injury or another dip in velocity and his career could be over.

The rest of the Cardinals arb-eligibles were happy enough with a mid-point extension, and with all of that done, the Cardinals’ payroll for 2023 is nearly set. The only slots remaining are the two arbitration cases and the contracts that will be assigned to the pre-arb players. This up-to-date total, which you’ll see just below, could vary by as much as $1-2M on Opening Day, assuming there are no additional signings or unexpected contract changes (i.e. extensions).

Here’s where they stand according to a variety of online sources and the formula reported by Derrick Goold:

The result is about $200k more than what I had previously estimated following the Willson Contreras signing. They are about $10M below the budget that I set for them when the offseason started. I still feel pretty good about that number. The Cardinals are just short. We’ll get to the why in a minute.

For now, let’s consider where that lands the club relative to the rest of the league, according to Cot’s numbers:

1. New York Mets - $339.4M
2. New York Yankees - $271.2M
3. San Diego Padres - $244.7M
4. Philadelphia Phillies - $237.1M
5. Los Angeles Dodgers - $210.3M
6. Toronto Blue Jays - $207.9M
7. Los Angeles Angels - $201.5M
8. Atlanta Braves - $195.1M
9. Texas Rangers - $188.6M
10. Houston Astros - $187.4
11. San Francisco Giants - $183.2M
12. Chicago White Sox - $176.1M
13. Chicago Cubs - $176.
14. St. Louis Cardinals - $174.7
15. Boston Red Sox - $166.8M

The Cardinals currently rank 14th in baseball in Opening Day payroll with a few months remaining in the offseason. (I.e. these rankings could still shift.) If they had reached my estimated budget of $185M for 2023 the Cardinals would rank 11th.

Both of those figures sit outside of the “top third” of baseball payrolls that the club has frequently cited as their preferred landing point. It’s also their lowest ranking of the last few years. Spotrac had the club ranked 13th in 2022, 11th in 2021, and 10th in 2020.

It’s hard to see that as anything but what it is: a rather intentional effort to slowly lower payroll relative to the rest of the league. While I attributed the drop in relative spending to the team’s attempts to recover lost revenue after the COVID pandemic in previous seasons, that excuse doesn’t hold water for 2023. The Cardinals are coming off a windfall financial season. They raked in cash last year with the farewell tours of Yadi and Pujols and even enjoyed the benefits of a brief home playoff series.

Despite that well-reported financial boon, Bill DeWitt claimed at the Winter Warm-Up that the Cardinals were only 12th in revenue and 12th in payroll in 2022, implying that the club was spending exactly what fans should expect them to spend.

The club just can’t escape persistent questions about payroll spending and their league rank. Mozeliak even opened his forum with the press by defending the direct statements he made early in the offseason that “payroll would be increasing”.

Let’s be clear: payroll is up for 2023.

Yes, relative to their FINAL payroll in 2022 – $174.1M according to Cot’s – they are only showing a negligible increase. But you can’t compare a 26-man Opening Day payroll (see the chart above) to a 40+ man Final Payroll figure. Right now, Cot’s projects the Cardinals’ final payroll at $195M.

Any way you slice this, the Cardinals are spending more for 2023. The total just didn’t increase relative to the spending of the rest of the league. Nor did it increase relative to the lofty expectations of fans.

It probably also didn’t increase as much as John Mozeliak planned. At the Winter Warm-Up, Mozeliak confirmed that the did not spend to their allotted budget. Something went wrong for them — he didn’t specific what — that forced them into a position where saving was more preferrable than spending.

What was that “something” that went wrong?

I think we have the information we need now to deconstruct the Cardinal’s offseason in order to find out where that something happened and even put a few names and faces to it.

Let’s start with Mo’s comments and the excellent reporting of friend-of-the-site Jeff Jones from the Belleville News-Democrat.

From Jones, quoting Mozeliak: “When we reflect back on the offseason, there were certainly some things we were hoping to do that we weren’t able to accomplish,” Mozeliak said in his opening statement to the assembled media. “Our number one goal was to obviously add a catcher; we were fortunate enough to do that. And then a lot of things sort of unfolded or transpired that necessarily didn’t break the way we had hoped.”

Later in the article, Mozeliak notes: “I don’t think we were a very compelling team to come to, because when you look at our roster, there is competition for who that might be,” he conceded. “And I think some people just did not find that all that interesting.”

I think the combination of these quotes helps us deconstruct the Cardinals’ offseason and how they ended up with the roster and payroll that they currently project.

This all starts with the catcher situation, which, despite what they’ll say now, did not go the way the Cardinals desired. Willson Contreras was not the Cardinals’ first choice to fill Yadier Molina’s shoes for the future. Sean Murphy was. I’m not even sure that Contreras was the Cardinals’ second choice. I think that was a “Toronto catcher” and most likely Danny Jansen. It seems like Mozeliak and the front office built their entire offseason plan around the assumption that their catcher of the future would be acquired via trade.

Let’s focus on Murphy. His acquisition would have done two things for the Cardinals:

1. He would have filled their long-term need at the catcher position with quality offense and defense without a high salary commitment in the short term.

Murphy was a Gold Glove winner with 5.1 fWAR value this past season and a 122 wRC+. While he’s not the pure power hitter that Contreras is, he would have provided exceptional all-around production at a position where that is exceptionally rare.

He also would have come with a cheap price tag of around $4M in an estimated arbitration award. He ended up signing a very team-friendly extension with the Braves that will pay him the same $4M and not pay him more than $15M in any season through 2029.

It’s a fabulous deal for the Braves and one the Cardinals have to be sick that they let sneak past them.

And let me be clear: they did let it sneak past them. They can blame the A’s if they want for their demands – and the way the front office has leaked trade demands suggests that’s what they want to do – but it was the Cardinals and not the A’s who backed out of negotiations. Mozeliak and his team shifted away when the deal didn’t go the way they wanted. Had they remained patient it might have worked out for them. (After all, the final version of the trade the Braves made was for significantly less value than what the A’s reported demanded from the Cardinals.) We’ll never know.

If the Cardinals had made the Murphy trade and nothing else changed about their offseason, they would be at $168M in payroll commitments, leaving them with substantial payroll space. What would they have done then?

2. He would have allowed the Cardinals to clear space on their roster to add an impact veteran without forcing them to shift someone who should be in the majors to the minors.

Mozeliak gives us two important tidbits of information in his quotes above. First, he says things didn’t “break the way that we had hoped.” And, second, “I don’t think we were a very compelling team to come to.” In other words, something went wrong in the player acquisition process that didn’t allow roster space to open up for a veteran to sign on without facing significant competition.

If the Cardinals had made a trade for a catcher from either the A’s or the Blue Jays they would have traded from their Major League roster. Some combination of Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman, Alec Burleson, Juan Yepez, Lars Nootbaar, and even Ryan Helsley could have found their way out of StL. Trading any combination of those players would have immediately opened space on the roster for a veteran looking for a starter’s load of playing time.

Who might that veteran have been?

Cody Bellinger was the most talked about option and he seems to fit the scenario Mozeliak is alluding to. Bellinger entered free agency looking for a one-year “prove it” deal to earn his next big contract. The Cubs obliged, paying him $17.5M this season with a mutual option for 2024.

Bellinger needed space to re-work his swing and re-discover his power so he could rebuild his name and reputation. Could he do that with Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Jordan Walker, Lars Nootbaar, Alec Burleson, and Juan Yepez breathing down his neck?

When none of those players exited, St. Louis was simply not a very “compelling team to come to” because things didn’t “break the way [the Cardinals] had hoped.”

I’m not sure that the Cardinals expected Bellinger to land $17.5M this season. But even if that’s what it would have taken, Bellinger at 17.5M + Murphy at $4M = $186M. $1M over my projected budget for the Cardinals this season and 11th in baseball.

If we’re deconstructing the Cardinals’ offseason based on their current spending and our projected budget, I think that was plan A. It was Murphy plus someone like Bellinger (or perhaps the Yankee’s Anthony Rizzo.)

Plan A: Murphy + Bellinger or Rizzo at $186M

Was Contreras “Plan B”? Maybe. I think it’s more likely that Plan B was essentially the same type of trade except substituting Danny Jansen for Sean Murphy. The financial math stays the same since Jansen is set to make just $3.5M this coming season. It’s not as clean as Plan A since a Jansen trade wouldn’t have required as big of a prospect package and Jansen isn’t as good of a player. The Cardinals were trying to deal Yepez, Burleson and at one point even Ryan Helsley in a deal with Toronto. Toronto wanted to upgrade their lineup and settled firmly on Nootbaar. This option never really gained much traction. However, if they had been able to trade Yepez or Burleson, or accepted Toronto’s demands for Nootbaar, they would have again freed up sufficient roster space for either Bellinger or Rizzo.

Plan B: Jansen + Bellinger or Rizzo at $185M

The failure to make either of those work pushed the Cardinals out of the trade market completely and down to Plan C. C for Contreras. C for convenience. C for cPath of cLeast cResistance. (Terrible, I know). There were persistent rumors all offseason that the Cardinals weren’t interested in Contreras because of his declining defense, age, and likely salary demands. There were also persistent rumors that Contreras wanted to be in St Louis.

When the trades just didn’t go the way the Cardinals wanted them to go – again, it’s the Cardinals that weren’t willing to make deals that were available to them – Willson’s intangibles, drive and fire, and home run rate suddenly seemed much more attractive. He was a player who wanted to be here. And that desire to be a Cardinal encourages the club to pursue their favorite negotiating strategy: discounts!

I’m sure they expected Contreras to demand around $17-20M in salary this season. Let’s split the difference at $18.5M and call that Plan C.

Plan C: Contreras + minor league relievers at $183.3M

Again things didn’t go the way the Cardinals planned. This time, however, things broke the club’s way. The Cardinals were able to knock a huge chunk of that ‘23 salary off Contreras’ deal by tacking it onto a 6th year as a $17.5M club option with a very high $5M buyout. That essentially defers a portion of Contreras’ salary for 2023 without actually deferring it and the club even retains the rights to the player for that final season. More of DeWitt’s money saved! It was a shrewd contract move.

The final result of Plan C landed Mozeliak at their current $174.8M salary projection for 2023, significantly below the planned budget, below their expected revenue point, and with all their prospects and young players retained.

I’ve long said that the Cardinals prefer the path of least resistance in roster construction. That’s where they find themselves. The Contreras signing, despite it being something less than their preferred route, is very clean. By signing one player they could upgrade their offense, save a significant amount of money, and let their young players battle it out for limited available playing time. Sure, the result doesn’t look like one of the best rosters in the NL or AL but it’s good enough to challenge in the Central and get to the postseason and that’s DeWitt’s idea of the Cardinals’ Way no matter what Oli Marmol or anyone else says.

What went wrong? Those proposed deals for Murphy and Jansen got messy. The Cardinals simply weren’t willing to give up players they really liked to fill a need and bring in another question mark in someone like Cody Bellinger.

Why didn’t they shift to other alternatives to clear roster space? Why not trade DeJong or Dakota? Why not just move Burleson or Yepez for a veteran hitter or a swing-and-miss pitcher?

I really don’t have an answer for that question. Except that the Cardinals like their players. And I think they also like going cheap when they can.

That doesn’t mean they think the roster is perfect. They know the roster is still messy, with more players than space, question marks in key rosters spots, and significant vulnerability in the pitching staff.

But they’ve shown they can push their way into the playoffs and save money/prospects by kicking those problems to July. Why make a messy deal now when you can let a messy roster play itself out for 4 months/100 games and then fix it on the fly?

That’s what the latest rumors are all about. While the Cardinals are talking about liking their roster and likely being done for the winter, Ken Rosenthal reported that they were checking in on Pablo Lopez of the Marlins.

The Cardinals may make a deal for Lopez before the start of the season. That seems highly unlikely. Instead, consider this the club doing due diligence and perhaps laying the groundwork now for a potential deal during the season. They know their rotation is shaky. They know the injury history it has. They know how tenuous their rotation depth is beyond the top 5. It makes sense to have the framework for something in place for July after things get messy.

That’s the Cardinals’ offseason deconstructed. One notable move. A lot of money saved. Another drop in spending relative to the rest of the league. Prospects the team tried to deal still in-house and fighting for limited plate appearances and innings.

And a team that will be favorites in the NL Central but a piece or two away from being favorites for a championship.

Which plan would you have preferred? Plan A? B? C? Or some other plan altogether?

(For the record, I would have preferred the plan where the Cardinals target and sign an impact starter but Mozeliak made it clear that was never on the table.)

As always, thanks for reading!