The phrase "Payroll Muscle" has been used often over the past few months as the Cardinals have tried and mostly failed to bring in major free agents. When the team did sign a free agent, it was the durable, but average Mike Leake. The Cardinals missed out on a franchise-player-type signing when David Price and Jason Heyward signed elsewhere. It is not clear whether the Cardinals are finished with their major offseason moves or if an outfielder, either by free agency or trade is still an option. Even if the Cardinals make no more moves, payroll on Opening Day would be a franchise-high $138 million.
A decade ago, the Cardinals Opening Day payroll was around $88 million, per Cots Contracts. At the end of the season, they had paid around $96 million good for 10th among MLB payrolls. That 2006 end-of-season payroll was about $9 million higher than 2005, but was in line with the four-year average of $94.5 million and their placement among teams dropped from seventh in 2005 to 10th the next year.
Last season, the Cardinals payroll ended at roughly $132 million and in 12th for total payroll. We can look at those two figures and note that $36 million is a decent number and that jumping up 38% in salary is a high number, but when viewed over time and in context with the rest of baseball, the Cardinals numbers have not completely kept pace in the payroll department.
Moving up $36 million and 38% in payroll looks pretty good, but year over year, that increase is just 3.6% per season. Even the seasonal number might not seem so bad objectively, but when compared with the rest of baseball, the Cardinals have not spent at the same rate. In fairness to them, they have not needed to spend to field a competitive team, instead employing young, talented players supplemented with players withe reasonable long-term contracts or near-term free agent deals. That has been successful and it would be foolish to argue that the Cardinals should have spent more.
The Cardinals increase of 38% over ten years and 3.6% per year over that time are less than MLB's 60% salary increases and 5.4% annual increase. If the Cardinals had increased payroll by 5.4% per year over the last decade, their payroll last season would have been $154 million and next season they would have been at over $162 million. Over the last five seasons, payrolls have taken their biggest jumps, increasing by almost 8% annually. While they did not need to spend to keep pace in the standings, it appears they are trying to make up somewhat for lost time. With the addition of Mike Leake, the team's Opening Day payroll is $16 million above last year's $122 million.
The chart below shows a potential 25-man roster for Opening Day with a 26th player substituting for Lance Lynn, who will earn $7.5 million on the season, but unfortunately will not be able to contribute for the Cardinals. The totals for next season include arbitration salaries and minimum salaried players, while years beyond 2016 only count guaranteed salaries. Most data below is from Cot's Contracts. I used their estimate of Jedd Gyorko's $7.5 million paid by the San Diego Padres of $2 million in 2017, $2.5 million in 2018 and $3 million in 2019.
Even if the Cardinals add no more salaries this season, they will likely need another increase in payroll for the 2017 season. If the team picks up the options of Matt Holliday and Jaime Garcia and offer arbitration to eligible players, they are likely to be at or exceed this season's numbers without adding a single player. That the Cardinals appear to have a ready-made team that can compete in 2017 is a good thing, but all of those good, young players will receive salary increases in the coming years.
The Cardinals' salary relief will come in 2018, just as the new billion-dollar television deal kicks in. Arbitration and extensions for a young core will cover some of that money, but unless the Cardinals receive surprisingly good results from players currently on the farm, the Cardinals are likely to have to spend money on players outside the organization to continue competing for the playoffs on an annual basis.