Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak fomented anxiety at the annual GM meetings when discussing the team’s payroll plans for 2024. His comments had some fans freaking out, especially on the always predictable performance-art stage of social media.
“I think we have to be prudent on how we think through some of this,” Mozeliak told Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch and John Denton of MLB.com. “But, I definitely think the type of payroll we were going to have last year (before the trade deadline) will look very similar this year.”
Was Mozeliak talking and walking backwards?
Mozeliak has canvassed player agents to determine the cost of signing upper-end starting pitchers. And Mozeliak is preparing for the upcoming feeding attack – well aware that a huge number of teams are circling the water in pursuit of the top free-agent starting pitchers in this offseason market.
The process will likely swirl into craziness as soon as the bidding begins. Budgets will be blown. Minds will be blown. The Looney Tunes theme song will play in the background. Front-office operatives could put their careers in jeopardy by offering wild overpays for the most coveted arms.
In the competition for pitching talent, Mozeliak is familiar with the terms of engagement … which isn’t the same as the terms of endearment.
If you’re running a pitching-impoverished, last-place baseball team that just had its fourth-worst winning percentage in a season since 1947 – and you see the sharks everywhere, looking for the same thing that you are – then welcome to hell.
Was Mozeliak lowering expectations after stressing “pitching, pitching, pitching” before the offseason got underway?
Mozeliak has zig-zagged on this a little. Based on when he speaks and who he is speaking with, he’s after three starting pitchers or two starting pitchers. A need for relief has been cited, which complicates our attempts to do the math on what exactly the Cardinals are looking for. Mozeliak appears to be doing some editing of his first-draft offseason script, and the BFIB are restless.
I think we can call timeout and calm down for a while. As I mentioned, this will be an insane offseason for the St. Louis baseball Cardinals. Don’t melt your smart phones by having daily meltdowns on Twitter or X or whatever the tweeter machine is called these days.
In his money talk, Mozeliak reviewed where the Cardinals were last season, before several players were traded in moves that added prospects and lowered the in-season payroll. He never said the Cardinals were going to raise the payroll in 2024. At least not in a significant way. We assumed the payroll would rise – perhaps by a lot – simply because this isn’t a buyer’s market or an advantageous time for a team that’s desperate for pitching. There’s too much demand for good pitching. And not enough good pitching in the marketplace.
Mozeliak used “similar” to compare the probable size of the 2024 payroll to the 2023 payroll. And I agree that it’s a little confusing. But he wasn’t reneging on anything.
According to the respected Cots Contracts the Cardinals had an opening-day 26-man payroll of $176.587 million last season.
That was 15th in the majors. In the Cots accounting, STL’s 40-man competitive–balance tax payroll, 16th in MLB, reached $200 million. That decreased to $192.5 million by season’s end. Had the Cardinals been in contention last summer and added trade pieces for the stretch drive, their CBT 40-man payroll would have easily surpassed $200 million. And the franchise has never been above $200 million in the CB Tax 40-man roster.
As of now, Cots lists the Cardinals with a $143 million 26-man payroll for 2024. And a $166.6 million for the 40-man CB Tax payroll. There is plenty of space for payroll growth. And contracts are routinely structured in a way that backloads a portion of the yearly salary to keep the real-time payroll count lower. The Cardinals will be able to make this work for 2024.
Assuming that at least one major trade will be made this winter – one that won’t raise payroll and could lessen it – the Cardinals should have $50 million or so to play with in free agency. And they can fill their most urgent needs with a combination of moves. It won’t be easy.
I’ll hold off on the hypotheticals for now and revisit this important topic later. There is no reason whatsoever to jump to conclusions. But I do expect the Cardinals will come up with one top-end starter via free agency, and another really good (and cost-controlled) starter through a trade.
If management fails to accomplish its obvious offseason goals, then we can come flying off the turnbuckle with hard-contact criticism.
But I don’t really care about Mozeliak’s choice of words. His verbiage is meaningless. Action matters. Results matter. The only thing that matters is looking at this roster before spring training to see if Mozeliak and chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. have done enough to turn the Cardinals around.
If y’all want to drive yourselves goofy in your head wiring by parsing Mozeliak’s words, then go for it. Seems like a waste of energy and time, at least to me.
I’m not obsessed with the payroll as others are. There’s a helluva lot more to this than spending money. To me, it’s more about management’s attitude and ambition and the hunger to win. (Which does include spending money.)
It’s about staying moored to reality instead of assuming that everything is fine when the opposite is true. It’s about proceeding with a more realistic analysis of your team’s talent – instead of overrating your players, overestimating their potential and underestimating their flaws.
It’s about catching up to the industry leaders in key areas – pitcher development being a big one – after inexplicably falling behind.
The Cardinals put themselves in this extreme predicament and now they have to find their way out of it. This is their responsibility – alone.
I’ve been very critical of Mozeliak and DeWitt. But at this point, it’s time to move into a different phase. What’s next? What will management do to move this franchise back to elite level and a shot to resume winning championships?
Many of you won’t like me saying this, but DeWitt and Mozeliak will receive the benefit of the doubt from me – at least until their offseason work is completed and we can conduct a full review. Mozeliak knows the Cardinals have screwed up, and he doesn’t duck from it. DeWitt knows it’s ultimately up to him to lead the way and bring the Cardinals back.
Before the Cardinals can make a comeback, DeWitt and Mozeliak must make a comeback of their own. Is it irrational for me to give them a vote of confidence?
There’s been a decline, but I know how good they can be. Since the start of the 2000 season, DeWitt’s guidance has produced this list of achievements: the third-best winning percentage in the majors (regular season) and 69 postseason wins that lead the National League. Competing in more postseasons (16) than any NL franchise. Four NL pennants, tied for the most in the NL. Two World Series titles, topped by only the Giants and Red Sox.
I don’t live in the past – but I don’t forget about history and all of the successful seasons, either. I know what the Cardinals can do when they’re committed to being the best. The 2023 failure was alarming, but how do Mozeliak and DeWitt wish to be judged? Do they want to be defined by the team’s extraordinary success over a long period of time — or be redefined by the franchise bad turn and sudden demise? Both men have an excellent opportunity to prove they still have a fastball. I want to see them make a comeback.
Thanks for reading …
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 access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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All stats used in my baseball columns are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, StatHead, Baseball Savant, Fielding Bible. Baseball Prospectus, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions unless otherwise noted.
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.