Based on the payroll accounting display at Cots Contracts, the Cardinals aren’t as cheap as many believe … including me.
Do I think Bill Dewitt Jr. and John Mozeliak could crank up the aggressiveness and spend more money?
Sure. Absolutely. But that seems highly unlikely for 2021. Maybe next year. More about that later in the column.
That said, it isn’t as if the Cardinals have set their 2021 payroll to a bottom-third or below-average level.
According to Cots, the Cardinals rank 12th in the majors with a 40-man payroll of $145.6 million.
The 40-man is used in calculating the Competitive Balance Tax threshold, and that’s more relevant than the dollars invested in the 26-man roster.
But even then, looking at the 26-man lists at Cots, the Cardinals rank 13th in MLB at $127.6 million.
There’s still time for management to increase the payroll in a way that matters — but I’m not counting on that. There is no reason to engage in fantasies and delusions.
Just follow the clues, follow the actions, follow the direct testimony from DeWitt and Mozeliak. And all of this leads to the obvious conclusion: the Cardinals are taking a parsimonious approach this winter, and it’s an exercise in torment for fans and media to think a spending binge is coming.
+ The Cardinals declined the $11.5 contract option on second baseman Kolten Wong for 2021. He’s won the Gold Glove at his position for two consecutive seasons, and ranks a close second to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt in total WAR among Cards’ position players since the start of the 2019 season.
+ The Cards didn’t keep effective reliever John Brebbia on the 40-man for 2021 to give him a season to rehab elbow surgery; the Giants quickly signed him for a bargain price of $800,000.
+ As of Friday morning the Cardinals hadn’t signed a single major-league free-agent, or traded for a MLB player.
+ To this point the Cardinals seem more ambivalent than ambitious about new contracts for their own free agents, pitcher Adam Wainwright and catcher Yadier Molina.
In an online interview with the team’s website, DeWitt said he still hoped the Cardinals could sign both Molina and Wainwright. He revealed that offers have been made to both stars, but added that it’s “their decision. Someone may come in and offer them more, and they may choose to take it. We will just have to see.”
I didn’t detect much urgency there. Perhaps DeWitt and Mozeliak are playing it slow — playing the odds — by waiting for a chance to match or exceed any offers made to Molina and/or Waino.
Both players are immensely popular with the fan base and are certain to be inducted into the franchise Hall of Fame one day. But this isn’t just a matter of warm-hearted nostalgia; both guys can help this team win in 2021.
+ In their public statements, DeWitt and Mozeliak have consistently stressed their commitment to giving their younger outfielders extensive playing-time opportunities in ‘21. And if they go forward with that plan — AND keep Dexter Fowler in the lineup — manager Mike Shildt will have to get creative to find a meaningful number of at-bats for Dylan Carlson, Tyler O’Neill, Lane Thomas and Justin Williams.
Unless they have a surprise planned — most likely in the form of a trade — the Cardinals will keep their hot-stove setting turned to the “LOW” position.
As former MLB general manager Jim Bowden recently wrote at The Athletic in dismissively slapping St. Louis a failing report-card grade for the offseason: “The Cardinals haven’t done anything. Nothing. F. They need two more bats.”
The Cardinals have parked in a spot away from the busy streets.
One one hand, this isn’t a Pittsburgh poverty case, or a blatant Cleveland tank job. The Pirates and Indians are among 10 teams that had a 40-man payroll under $97 million as of Thursday morning.
As it looks right now –subject to change, via roster additions — the Cardinals seem likely to do just as well in 2021, or better, than a few teams that have outspent them so far.
And for whatever it’s worth the Cardinals currently have the highest 40-man payroll in the NL Central, according to Cots. Next in order are the Cubs ($136.4 million), Reds ($125.6 m), Brewers ($102.9 m), and Pirates ($59.8 m.)
On the other side of this discussion, the Cardinals don’t build or spend as wisely as the more efficient teams that finesse more value for their dollar. Tampa Bay’s 2021 payroll is at $70.1 million. Atlanta is at $118.4 million. (Again, subject to change.)
Back to the other side: I’ve fielded complaints from Cards fans who point to the Toronto Blue Jays as an example of a team spending money to win. Toronto giving a $150 million contract to free-agent center fielder George Springer was presented as an irritating contrast to the Cardinals’ offseason sloth. Perhaps. But right now the Blue Jays’ 40-man payroll is 16th in the majors, four spots behind the Cardinals. The current St. Louis payroll is nearly $20 million higher than Toronto’s.
With all due respect, critics often make the wrong point — or entirely miss the point — when blasting DeWitt and Mozeliak.
It’s easy to whine about money money money money … but here’s the real point, and the real problem: The Cardinals don’t always put their money into sound investments. And that’s more of an issue than the size of their payroll.
Starting in 2012, the Cardinals have ranked in a range between 7th and 12th in MLB rankings for 40-man payroll costs. True, their 2021 payroll is headed downward compared to recent years. Between 2016 and 2020, the 40-man payroll didn’t go any lower than $175.7 million. But most MLB teams are trending in the same direction, with the industry spending less and less overall. Even at a lower budget, the Cardinals’ payroll has never fallen out of the highest 40 percent in MLB.
For the Cardinals the size of the investment isn’t as harmful as their mistakes in personnel judgment. This includes older, more expensive players — Fowler, Brett Cecil, Mike Leake and the Matt Carpenter extension, just to name a few. And the screwups include assessments on younger players as well (outfielder Randy Arozarena, pitcher Zac Gallen, etc.) Too many errors.
Here’s what I think …
The Cardinals need to just play it straight with fans and media and be 100 percent clear about their intentions for 2021.
If they believe it is smarter to regroup in ‘21 and take a more zealous strategy in making bold roster upgrades for 2022, then tell us. Don’t shilly-shally.
By 2022, the Cardinals should know if baseball is back to normal. In the planning for ‘22, the Cardinals will likely have a more positive outlook on ticket sales, the enhanced probability of a wide-open ballpark, and the vision of Busch Stadium filled with red-clad fans.
In drawing up the roster blueprint for 2022 the Cardinals should know exactly how to proceed after taking a full look at outfielders (and other positions) in 2021.
The Cardinals can spend more now.
Nothing is really holding them back except for their usual cautiousness, a natural habit made worse by the pandemic-related damage to the baseball economy. But every other team is dealing with those anxieties and concerns, and that hasn’t prevented the Mets, Padres, Blue Jays, White Sox, Nationals, Braves and others from adding players and expanding the payroll.
And here’s what frustrates me: the division is up for grabs. It’s weak. As is, the Cardinals can take the NL Central. But why not strengthen their chances? The archrival Cubs are offloading payroll and beginning a rebuild without calling it a rebuild. Can you imagine the embarrassment if the rebuilding Cubs elbow the Cardinals to the turf and win the NL Central? That threat alone should be a call to action for DeWitt and Mozeliak. And I’m not talking about making moves that leave everyone gasping; J.T. Realmuto or Trevor Bauer won’t be signing here.
But if the men running this franchise are convinced that the right thing to do is to keep the roster in neutral and move forward next offseason, then they should go with their instincts. And they should follow their convictions whether fans and media like it or not. To this point management is in the regrouping mode, so why play these silly games with semantics?
I prefer to put it another way, and please pardon my cliche: the Cardinals should go big or not at all … but that refers to 2022. I’m skeptical about the Cardinals going BIG on anything, but if they’re in the mood, they’ll have much better circumstances to make their moves in the run-up to 2022.
As we mentioned, there will be more revenue certainty for 2022.
And more money to play with.
According to Cots, the Cardinals have only $66.58 million guaranteed committed to their $40-man payroll for 2022. And that number is $66.1 million for 2023.
So why throw money around right now? The Cardinals were never in the hunt for big-ticket free agents this winter. They didn’t want to get involved. And that’s still the case with available free agents of note.
Sure, a percentage of fans will be ticked off if DeWitt and Mozeliak mostly stand pat and go with what they have for 2021. It’s still possible for Molina and Wainwright to be included, of course. And they should be. They wouldn’t be offered long-term deals, so the team’s potential liability is limited. And if there’s a DH in the National League this season, the Cardinals have to get a bat. They should get a LH platoon bat, anyway. It wouldn’t break the bank or make it hard to make bolder, larger moves for 2022.
But my pleading for a LH platoon hitter is just a small side issue
There’s a bigger picture and responsibility here..
Being honest with the fans is more honorable — and in my opinion, more intelligent — than leading them on. If you don’t want to add significant payroll, and if you will not add significant payroll … just say it.
If you don’t think taking a half-step here — or a quarter-measure there — to tweak the roster will make much difference in 2021, well, again, then just say so. But please stop with the hemming and hawing. That only serves to frustrate the fans, and they’ll be even more dissatisfied when you don’t do much of anything.
Since DeWitt and partners took over as caretakers of the franchise in 1996, the Cardinals have given the fans and the community a helluva lot of wins, and first-place finishes, and joyful postseason journeys, and sweet October success — plus four pennants and two World Series titles.
If ownership-management feels strongly about the wisdom of using 2021 to regroup, no apologies are necessary. Regroup does not mean “rebuild.” Regroup does not mean “intentionally giving up.”
A lower payroll does not mean an $80 million payroll. In 2021, ballparks may be open at some point, but the crowds will be small as the pandemic (hopefully) begins dying out. So it’s not as if the Cardinals can count on massive ticket revenues in 2021, anyway.
So if you’re going to disappoint fans by holding the line on payroll for ‘21, well, this is probably the right time to do it. That sounds cold, but it’s also true. It’s kind of tough for dissidents to boycott the team and refuse to buy tickets when relatively few tickets will be made available. But if the Cardinals give the base some reasons to get fired up in a good way, then 2022 is the play. And compared to 2021, there will be many more seats sold for home games in advance of ‘22.
The temporary pain could lead to gains. It’s complicated. But 2021 doesn’t have to be a wrecking-ball season for the Cardinals. It can be a step to a better 2022. But the first step is straight talk.
Thanks for reading…
Listen to Bernie’s sports-talk radio show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Listen online and download the podcast at 590thefan.com