I must confess: I’m getting burned out on payroll talk. How much the Cardinals spend to fund their roster is relevant. It matters. But we’ve been having pretty much the same discussion for years now. Criticism from the outside. Spin from the inside by team management And nothing really changes in a profound way.
The Cardinals have invested a respectable amount of payroll dollars since the start of the 2000 season. The smart spending has made the Cardinals No. 3 in the majors in total regular-season victories over that time, and they’ve led the National League in postseason wins (140.)
The consistent success includes participation in 16 postseasons, the winning four NL pennants, and the addition of two more World Series championships.
From that standpoint ownership-management has no reason to apologize. But it’s also fair – and necessary – to point out that their postseason excellence has faded. And that’s undeniable.
Since the start of the 2015 postseason the Cardinals have won five of 19 games for a .263 winning percentage that ranks last among the 17 MLB teams that have competed in at least 10 games over that time. And as we’ve all repeated many times, the Cardinals have lost nine of their last 10 postseason games.
So that brings us to the next part.
The Cardinals have lost ground to the larger-spending teams in the National League and aren’t as capable of winning the World Series.
1. In 2022, the Cardinals had the lowest payroll among the six NL postseason teams. According to Spotrac the Cardinals had a 40-man competitive balance tax payroll of $156 million. Atlanta was at $183 million. The other four NL playoff teams – Dodgers, Mets, Phillies, Padres – all spent $224.5 million or more.
2. Since winning the 2019 NLDS against Atlanta, the Cardinals have lost to Washington in the 2019 NLCS, fell to San Diego in a 2020 first-round series, lost the 2021 single-game wild-card playoff to the LA Dodgers, and lost the best-of-three 2022 NL wild-card series to Philadelphia.
3. The Cardinals had a higher payroll than the 2019 Braves, and a virtually identical payroll to the ‘19 Nationals and ‘20 Padres. The Cardinals didn’t match the spending by the 2021 Dodgers and 2022 Phillies. (Not even close.) So if we look at the teams that have eliminated the Redbirds, all but one of the five opponents spent as much, or more, than St. Louis while winning nine of 10 games.
4. Four of the last five teams to punch the Cardinals out of the postseason – 2015 Cubs, 2019 Nationals, 2021 Dodgers and 2022 Phillies – outspent the Cardinals on starting pitching. The 2020 Padres beat the Cardinals but had a lower payroll investment in starting pitching.
5. From 2018 through 2021 the Cardinals never ranked lower than 10th in the 26-man payroll rankings. But they went down to 13th last season and have a projected 2023 payroll that ranks 14th.
6. In the 40-man competitive balance tax payroll, the Cardinals ranked among the top 11 teams in 2016 through 2021. But they dropped to the No. 13 ranking in 2022, and are currently ranked 15th in the projection for 2023.
So at the beginning of the offseason, when team president of baseball operations John Mozeliak declared that the team would have a higher payroll in 2023, he technically was telling the truth. Factually the Cardinals’ payroll has gone up – but not by a huge amount. And that increase have been offset by the activities of other NL postseason contenders. They’ve spent significantly more than St. Louis this offseason. The gap is growing.
Among the six NL teams that made the postseason in 2022, here are their current 40-man payroll projections, per Cots Contracts:
— Mets, $358 million
— Dodgers, $283 m
— Padres, $267 m
— Phillies, $245 m
— Braves, $234 m
— Cardinals, $195 m
And here are the 26-man payroll projections for 2023:
— Mets, $339 million
— Padres, $244.7 m
— Phillies, $237 m
— Dodgers, $210 m
— Braves, $195 m
— Cardinals, $174.7 m
When your franchise is receding in the payroll rankings, then the claims of spending more than last season are misleading. Or, at best, partially accurate and not accounting for the more complete story. It’s all about the context.
Here’s why that’s so relevant:
Tom Verducci (Sports Illustrated) recently wrote about the correlation between payroll size and reaching the World Series:
— From 2010 through 2016, only three of the 14 World Series spots were filled by top 10 payroll teams. That’s 21.4 percent.
— From 2017 through 2022, 10 of the 12 World Series spots were filled by top 10 payroll teams. That’s 83.3 percent.
— From 2017 through 2022, the average payroll rank for teams that make it to the World Series played out this way: an average payroll rank of 7.3 for the World Series winner, and 8.3 for the loser.
So when we wonder about what it means for the Cardinals to now compete with a payroll that’s decreased to 14th or 15th among the 30 teams, it’s a meaningful change that probably will work against them in 2023.
The Cardinals can add payroll as time goes on, especially if they acquire a No. 1 starter type and another goody or two. If not? Well, a self-imposed salary cap won’t help the STL franchise reach the World Series.
And they’re close to being there – but only if they put a third cornerstone in place. The Cardinals deserve immense credit for placing two massive cornerstones in place: first baseman Paul Goldschmidt and third baseman Nolan Arenado. But the third foundation piece – a true No. 1 starter – isn’t there. For a team that insists the goal is winning a World Series, a middle-pack starting rotation – one filled with injury concerns – is a potential liability.
I’ve never advocated for the Cardinals to throw around money on talent that’s no better than what they already have. Not at all. Roster redundancy won’t move them higher. Put targeted, necessary spending is a must. There’s no reason why this organization should hold back on investing to strengthen a need. A need (starting pitching) that can make the difference between the Cardinals being a good team but with no more than an outside chance of making an extensive postseason run — or being a great team that has the capable horsepower for making that challenging run to a pennant and World Series.
If the plan is to conquer a mediocre division, get to the postseason and then get lucky, well, that’s kind of demoralizing. The better plan is to have two top starters at the head of your rotation to maximize your ability to pitch with postseason power and dominance.
But here the Cardinals are, once again banking on wishing and hoping instead of actually acquiring an ace. And by the way: you can still hope for a successful Jack Flaherty comeback to 2019 form and STILL acquire an ace. That way, if Flaherty comes through in 2023, the Cardinals will have their added ace, to join a No. 1 starter type, Flaherty.
And just remember that the Cardinals can afford any elite starting pitcher that they know would be a major upgrade. But they shy away from the cost, and stick with the same plan — the good-luck roulette spin — to keep the payroll down, even means going into a third straight year with a flimsy rotation.
In his appearance at the team’s Winter Warmup, Mozeliak asked questions and answered them. He was transparent about several things including the (A) failed attempts to add a LH bat, (B) having an allergic reaction to the soaring costs of starting pitching, and (C) not being motivated to pursue the signing of a top-market shortstop.
Mozeliak also acknowledged that the Cardinals are hoping for the best with their rotation, and he realizes that’s a gamble. Especially after the frantic search for starting pitching at the past two trade deadlines. He could be doing it again when July is about to turn to August.
I appreciate the way Mozeliak handled most of this, especially when he said the Cardinals need to reexamine their spending philosophy. But you may notice there was one question he didn’t ask in his address covering this offseason:
Did we do everything that we possibly could do to improve our team in a way that gives us our best shot to win the World Series?
Mozeliak didn’t pose the question because he already knew the answer:
No. Heck, no. Absolutely not.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS-AM. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the show podcast at 590thefan.com or the 590 app.
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All stats used here were sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Savant, Brooks Baseball Net and Spotrac.
For the last 35 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. 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.