Let’s talk about the Cardinals and their payroll.
It’s a thankless topic for this particular writer. There’s a lot of outrage out there – fake or otherwise – over the team’s current 2024 payroll projection. As of now it isn’t much different than the 2023 St. Louis payroll.
The Cardinals will likely close the offseason with a relatively small payroll increase over last year. And they’ll likely establish a franchise record for the highest 40-man payroll funding. But this is not enough to boost public relations or alter the inveterate perceptions out there.
Those perceptions and criticisms would include (A) the Cardinals aren’t appropriately committed to winning, (B) ownership is cheap and (C) those in charge are content to settle for the minimum number of wins to qualify for the postseason. (I’ve personally dabbled in the “C” theory but haven’t taken it to the extreme.) All of these themes have variations. And some are exaggerated. And it’s also dishonest to ignore the overall high-level of success since the Cardinals came out on the other side of an ownership change in 1996.
I’m interested in payroll size, yes. But I don’t obsess over it. I mention payroll on a frequent basis, but it’s more about checking the Cardinals’ annual investment – up or down? – and their ranking among the 30 major-league franchises.
Rather than fixate on their bottom-line payroll number, I care a lot more about what they’re spending on. Or what they’re overlooking in the others areas of the organization that require attention. Should I just ignore those concerns and spend all of my hours writing and talking about payroll, payroll and more payroll?
Spending just to spend doesn’t have much appeal to me. I’ve seen the failure in the approach. The Cardinals have been a top-five franchise in the majors for more than a quarter century despite never being in the top-five in payroll. In general, their on-field success has exceeded their payroll size. If you’re a fan of a team – or a pandering media type – why would you want the Cardinals to waste money on talent that doesn’t deliver the desired results?
The Cardinals have shown — repeatedly — that a team can spend less and win more. And they’ve had more sustained success than hyperactive franchises that spend more and win less. The misery of 2023 wasn’t any fun, but it was also an exception to the club’s enduring pattern of winning.
If you want to talk about why the Cardinals fell down — boom! — in 2023, then we have to widen the view to include other faulty factors.
* There’s the outfield shuffle and the decisions that led to Adolis Garcia and Randy Arozarena becoming heralded All-Star players for other teams.
* There’s the decline in the organization’s skill to evaluate, draft and develop young pitching. This failure led to high-anxiety, trade-deadline scrambling to patch the rotation in 2021 and again in 2022. But 2023 was nothing short of a horrific collapse in 2023.
* The Cardinals haven’t kept pace with the advancement of pitching programs that have benefited many organizations. They’ve been short on staffing, technology and innovation. Here we are in 2024, and the Cardinals still haven’t formulated a pitching lab. All of this is a significant factor in the acute organizational downturn in pitching success and stability. This essential project requires considerable investment. It is more important than signing some name-brand reliever at a price-tag cost that would appease howlers and performance-artist poseurs on social media. The inherent weakness in the system is critical and far reaching than any mid-level free-agent transaction.
* The Cardinals haven’t won a World Series since manager Tony La Russa retired after winning a second WS title for the team in 2011. The view of the manager’s job has changed in St. Louis and other places. I think I’ll leave it at that except to point out that Bruce Bochy came out of retirement to lead the Texas Rangers to the 2023 World Series championship.
* The St. Louis ownership-management and field staff has a bad habit of overrating its talent. The personnel misjudgments are much worse than any payroll pinching.
* In 2023 the Cardinals (71-91) suffered a terrible deterioration of fundamentals – defense and baserunning – that never should have happened. It should have been prevented. Who is making the decisions? And what are they looking at? Here’s an example, and I’ll repeat something I’ve said numerous times over the last six months. In ‘23, the Cardinals led the majors with 34 runs saved when implementing defensive shifts.
When the Cardinals didn’t use shifts, they were below-average defensively according to Baseball Info Solutions. And the Redbirds had a below-average metric in their outfield positioning. Their defense eventually improved – after the necessary adjustments were made. But what took so long? And why would the organization be so slow to fix an issue that clearly was undermining a shaky pitching staff? By the time the Cardinals adapted it was too late.
* The front office signed catcher Willson Contreras to a five-year $87.5 million contract and then was shocked – and angered – to discover he wasn’t adept at pitch calling and game planning. I’ll never understand that. The Cardinals played against Contreras many times during his years with the Cubs and should have known about his flaws. The Cardinals spent plenty of dollars on Contreras, right? What did the Contreras debacle have to do with payroll commitment?
Player payroll didn’t have a damn thing to do with negligence in areas the Cardinals could have controlled and improved on. What did payroll have to do with choosing the wrong outfielders or letting a longtime organizational asset – pitching development – turn so hazardously thin? And what about making trades? That’s a way to enhance your roster — as long as the trades work out. But you can’t stop making them just because of some past deals that went bad.
But mostly all that we hear about is payroll, payroll, payroll.
I’ll use a term borrowed from politics: I am not a single-issue voter.
And there are many other issues, other than payroll, that must be addressed to get the Cardinals corrected, sharpened and up to speed.
Since Bill DeWitt Jr. and partners purchased control of the Cardinals in advance of the 1996 season, the Cardinals have won four NL pennants and two World Series. The two World Series champs each ranked 11th in payroll. The two other pennant winners ranked ninth and 11th.
Only one of DeWitt’s four pennant-winning St. Louis teams ranked in the Top 10 of payroll. But four of the St. Louis teams that missed the playoffs ranked among the top 10 teams in spending. More proof that spending isn’t everything.
Over the last 28 seasons under DeWitt the Cardinals have ranked as high as sixth in the payroll rankings, and as low as 17th. They’ve been a top 10 payroll team in 12 of the 28 seasons. The St. Louis payroll most often ranges from sixth overall to 13th overall. That’s been the case in 23 of the 28 seasons. DeWitt has been consistent in his spending policies.
And despite the crash in 2023, this has worked well for the franchise. In the last 28 seasons, the Cardinals rank fourth in the majors in regular-season wins and third in postseason victories. They’ve qualified for the postseason 17 times – third overall in the majors, and topped by only Atlanta among NL teams.
Last season the Cardinals – according to Cot’s Contracts – finished 2023 with the 16th-ranked payroll in the 40-man roster accounting. But they were 14th in the 40-man payroll – at $200 million – until offloading salary at the ’23 trading deadline. The trades were necessary for an obvious reason; the Cardinals had to restock their short supply of pitching prospects. That was a direct result of the Cardinals losing their way with pitching.
Was it about spending? To some extent, sure.
And as I’ve said and written many times, I wish DeWitt would go all-in every now and then on a starting pitcher that can change the team’s outlook — as long as that pitcher can stay healthy, which is hardly a sure thing. It’s anything but a sure thing. But I also accept that this is how DeWitt is wired. There’s a long of history that tells us how he goes about things.
And I don’t expect him to change — no matter how much I complain. I also appreciate the chairman’s success over a vast period of time. DeWitt’s Cardinals have won through a timeline that includes five U.S. presidents that have served a combined eight terms in office. And none of that is erased by 2023’s stink bomb of a season.
Last season 10 teams with bigger payrolls than the Cardinals had something in common with the Cardinals: those 10 teams higher-spending clubs also failed to make the playoffs. And five teams that had smaller payrolls than St. Louis made it to the postseason. Again, spending isn’t everything.
What about 2024? Per Cot’s Contracts, the Cardinals ranked 10th among the 30 franchises with a 40-man payroll of $205.8 million. If the projection proves accurate, it would be their highest 40-man payroll investment in a season.
Depending on your source of choice for the information, the current 26-man payroll would be slightly lower, the same, or slightly higher than ’23. But I expect the team to secure more relief help in the coming weeks. If they don’t, then boo on ’em.
The Cardinals’ streak of four consecutive playoff appearances ended in 2023. And as we know, postseason success has been elusive in recent years, with the Cardinals losing nine of their last 10 playoff games. Ugh. The Cards didn’t do much in October after winning the NL Central title in 2019 and 2022, going a combined 3-7 in the two postseasons that followed the division title.
That puts St. Louis in a group with a bunch of teams.
For 2022, MLB expanded the postseason to six qualifiers in each league for a total of 12. Six division winners, and six wild cards.
How’s that working out so far?
I have answers:
— In the first two years of the expanded playoff format, the division-winning teams are 30-38 in the postseason. But it’s worse than that. Division-winner Houston has been successful in the last two postseasons, winning 17 of 24 games with an AL pennant and World Series championship in 2022.
— In the last two postseasons the non-Houston division winners have won only 13 of 44 games for a winning percentage of .295.
— Isn’t it crucial to secure a first-round bye? Isn’t this a lesson for DeWitt and president of baseball operations John Mozeliak? Well, not really. Not from what we’ve seen in the first two postseasons in the new setup.
— Division-winning teams that earned first-round byes collectively have a losing 23-28 record. But much of the success belongs to Houston. The other non-Astros clubs that received a bye were a combined 6-21. Their records: Dodgers 1-6, Braves 2-6, Yankees 3-6 and Orioles 0-3. At least the 2022 Yankees won a division round before getting bounced by the Astros in the ALCS. Perhaps this trend will change going forward. Who knows? The postseason is random and usually filled with surprises.
— The wild cards have gone wild! In the revised format wild-card entries were collectively 51-43 in the first two postseasons for a .542 winning percentage. Three of the four spots in the last two World Series were taken by wild-card teams: Philadelphia in 2022, and Texas and Arizona in 2023.
— Division winners have reached the LCS only three times in the last two postseasons: Astros (2022, 2023) and the Yankees (2022.) But five wild-card teams have competed in the LCS over the last two years: Philadelphia in 2022 and 2023, San Diego in 2022, and Arizona and Texas in ‘23. And as I’ve mentioned a few times, the last two NL pennant winners averaged 85.5 wins in the regular season.
There are many avenues available for teams to travel far in the postseason as long as they do enough to get there. But advancing to a World Series and winning it all isn’t solely dependent on financial muscle and the willingness to flex it. Over the past 10 seasons (2014-23) only three teams — Astros, Dodgers and Royals — have played in more than one World Series. And the expanded postseason has only increased the unpredictable nature of October competition.
With three starting-pitching signings – Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn – the Cardinals have solidified a flimsy area. And Mozeliak deserves praise for being aggressive and having all three right-handers signed by Nov. 27.
That said, the Cardinals have to do more. I would like to see DeWitt stretch the payroll to give Mozeliak a more realistic shot of adding an established quality free-agent reliever (two?) to a largely unproven bullpen. The investment won’t cause financial distress.
For an in-progress report, I checked the 30-team WAR projections for 2024 at FanGraphs. I was surprised to see how the Cardinals are fitting in. I also know that other teams will be adding talent to improve, and we should expect the division-rival Cubs to make a series of power moves to rise up.
With that said …
Right now the Cardinals rank 7th overall in the majors with 42.4 projected Wins Above Replacement level. (That’s for position players and pitchers, combined.) I’d expect the Cardinals to drop in the rankings, but that depends on their plans for the roster over the next couple of months. And other franchises could move up or down depending on the magnitude of additional roster shaping.
I don’t believe the Cardinals are as good as they think they are.
But I also don’t think the Cards are as bad as many fans believe.
We’ll know soon enough – when it’s finally time to start counting wins and losses instead of having convulsions while counting up payroll dollars
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb
All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Sports Info Solutions and Cot’s Contracts unless otherwise noted.
For the last 36 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.
While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.
Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.