Since missing out on David Price and Jason Heyward in free agency more than a year ago, the Cardinals seem to be spending piecemeal. The recent signings of Yadier Molina continue a trend of mid-tier signings that either provide marginal improvements or speculative surpluses down the line.
After coming up short for big free agents, the Cardinals have signed seven players to contracts for at least $25 million, but less than $90 million. First, there was Mike Leake, whose $80 million guarantee netted the Cardinals an average starting pitcher to provide depth for the rotation. The team followed that signing with a $25 million guarantee to Kolten Wong, providing some cost certainty and potentially gaining some savings on a few free agent seasons.
Then this offseason, we saw Brett Cecil, a solid reliever, get $30 million, and Dexter Fowler, an above average-player, get over $80 million in free agency. They followed that up with a Carlos Martinez contract extension, a Yadier Molina contract extension and now a Stephen Piscotty contract extension. One could even argue that the trade for Jedd Gyorko followed this mold as he was owed about $25 million when the team traded for him.
Of the deals above, the only slam dunk move was the Carlos Martinez contract extension. The free agents help, but none are transformative. The savings on Kolten Wong and Stephen Piscotty are more likely to be good than great, and the signing of Yadier Molina for three years and $60 million isn’t likely to hurt the club, but from a financial standpoint, could have waited until the offseason.
That’s over $300 million in guarantees for moves that mostly provide marginal upgrades over their alternatives. That doesn’t mean the team shouldn’t have made these moves or that this fallback plan wasn’t an acceptable Plan B, but these are moves made with continuity and a high floor in mind. For the most part, they don’t do much to close the current gap in talent between the Cardinals and the Cubs in the NL Central or make them prohibitive favorites in the Wild Card race.
Ultimately, the Cardinals are going to need their pipeline of pitching to continue to produce at a high level, and they need to come up with a star on the position player side. Whether through trade, free agency or development, a 5+ win player on the position side is probably the most efficient way to significantly improve the team.
Such improvements are not easy, but the Cardinals commitment to international spending in the last cycle is a positive development, as were taking a chance on Aledmys Diaz and Seung-Hwan Oh. Drafting Delving Perez could prove to be a major help. If Luis Robert were to be made a free agent before June 15, his signing might help in the long run. In the short term, taking advantage of a potentially volatile trade market this season could be an option.
Payroll-wise, the Cardinals have beefed up their investments in the long-term and provided considerable cost-certainty for the future. The last time we looked at the Cardinals payroll, it was December and the major free agent signings had concluded.
When we compare that to today, the payroll for this season is essentially unchanged, but next season and the years that follow have seen quite a bit of change, to the point where I had to add a few extra years to the chart.
Of the Cardinals expected significant contributors this season, the Cardinals have nine players signed to contracts through 2020, including options and two more in Randal Grichuk and Aledmys Diaz who will still be under team control in the arbitration process. The team now has more money committed to 2020 than they did to 2018 just a few months ago.
You’ve probably heard about the Cardinals new television contract and how it will begin to provide more revenue next season and potentially boost payroll. It will need to. The Cardinals saw a significant increase in payroll from 2015 to 2016, but it has remained static this season, although international spending has been significant over the last year.
For both Martinez and Piscotty, the team has front-loaded the costs a bit in order to save more money in the future. Both players will make more money in the early years of arbitration than they likely would have in order to take a fairly significant break in latter seasons. This should provide the team with more flexibility down the line.
With raises to players signed long terms and potential arbitration increases, payroll for 2018 is already within about $10 million of this year’s figure and that’s with losing both Lance Lynn and Jhonny Peralta to free agency. With so many roster spots already secure and average to slightly above average production attained, the Cardinals are set up to be good this year and next, continuing a remarkable period of competitiveness.
If the Cardinals want to compete for the division title, they are going to need a bit more help, and either in players through trade or cost in money, it isn’t going to be cheap. The search for another cornerstone player continues to elude them, but they’ve been able to remain competitive despite that deficiency.