I’ve been asked the question: what do all of the big-money signings by the Los Angeles Dodgers mean for the St. Louis Cardinals?
The answer: not much.
The Cardinals were never going to be a factor in the high-end section of free agency. The good-hearted but happily delusional people who desperately inhaled wishes of a Yamamoto signing with St. Louis were left feeling ill. I hope they had a successful detox in time for Christmas.
The Dodgers have invested a record-setting amount of money on Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow. The Dodgers strengthened their starting pitching, and added the best DH in existence. That would be Ohtani, who likely will return to pitching in 2025, after he heals from elbow surgery. LA may dish out more Dodger dollars before the first pitch of the regular season.
The sky is still above us and hasn’t landed on our baseball bobbleheads. The industry isn’t wrecked. But fans-and-media overreactions to enormous contracts is a longstanding baseball tradition. As a high-school senior, I was angry and nauseous when outfielder Reggie Jackson left the Orioles to sign a free-agent deal with the Yankees after the 1976 season.
This wasn’t fair! How would the Orioles keep up? Baseball would be ruined, and these ridiculous contracts were to blame. Let the record show: the evil, baseball-wrecking Yankees gave Jackson a five-year contract for $3.5 million. Outrageous! During the same winter Cleveland lured Orioles’ free-agent starting pitcher Wayne Garland away from Baltimore by enticing him with a 10-year contract worth $2.3 million.
If we combine the free-agent deals, Jackson and Garland collectively committed to 15 years of contracts and received a combined $5.8 million. Amazingly, no major-league baseball franchises declared bankruptcy and went out of business.
Though the Yankees won consecutive World Series with Jackson in 1977-78 and the American League pennant in 1981, the small-budget Orioles somehow managed to survive. The walls of the old Memorial Stadium did not collapse.
From 1977 through 1983, the Orioles led the majors with a .597 winning percentage. They won 94 or more games in five of seven seasons during the stretch including two 100-win campaigns. The success was capped by two American League pennants and the World Series triumph in 1983.
The young Bernie was convinced the Orioles would perish after losing Jackson and Garland. Our brainpower still works thee same way when teams go LARGE in free agency. Out of control! We curse the destruction of competitive balance, and do the Chicken Little squawking … but major-league baseball endures.
Since MLB added an additional wild-card team for the 2012 postseason, all 30 franchises have competed in at least one postseason, 16 have played in a World Series, and seven have won the World Series. Truth is, MLB has more parity than the NFL, the NBA and the NHL.
During this 12-season timeline that began in 2012, the Kansas City Royals have played in more World Series (two) than the mighty Yankees. The Royals have won as many World Series (1) as the lavish-spending Dodgers, Braves and Cubs.
Since 2012 two teams that have ranked near the bottom of the majors in home attendance, revenue and payroll – Oakland and Tampa Bay – have competed in as many combined postseasons (11) as the Yankees and Mets (11).
But what about all of these bully-boy teams that jack up payroll and pile up 100-win seasons? If an organization spends wisely – not wildly – a high payroll can be an advantage for the wealthiest teams in taking the first step to qualify for the postseason.
The Dodgers are an example of that, having played in 11 consecutive postseasons from 2013 through 2023. But it isn’t just the financial clout; the Dodgers excel and drafting and developing players.
Even if the richest teams generally get into the October tournament more often than the smaller payroll outfits, postseason success can be elusive. Spend all you want, mister. But in the dizzying sprint of the postseason you’re on your own. You don’t win a World Series by waving your top-five payroll ranking around. You must earn the prize on the field.
MLB teams have had 22 seasons of 100 or more wins since 2012 – and only four of the 22 won the World Series. Huge spending does not guarantee a damn thing.
OK, let’s bring the Cardinals back into the discussion.
The Cardinals require impactful bullpen assistance and another starting pitcher. As I’ve written a couple of times, I’d be surprised if the front office took a pass on the populated reliever market. But my expectations are stuck in neutral, and it’s foolish to make predictions. All that matters is what the Cardinals decide to do for the remainder of the offseason: a lot, a little, or nothing.
The Cardinals were busy early on in free agency, signing starting pitchers Sonny Gray, Kyle Gibson and Lance Lynn in a matter of days. But president of baseball operations John Mozeliak has been quiet since then, and anxious fans are wondering if the Cardinals have receded into the shutdown mode.
Even if the franchise recruits a reliever or two, it doesn’t change my operating theory. And my theory is pretty basic: the Cardinals haven’t adjusted their model. Many of us thought management would be more daring and looser with the spending, but as we count down to 2024, that hasn’t happened. But if you want to light a candle for Jordan Montgomery, go right ahead. And please put in a call to the Vatican to report a miracle if the Cardinals pursue him, out-bid the crazed spenders, and sign Monty.
Or we can acknowledge the reality: your St. Louis Cardinals are still going about their business in a similar, familiar way. They spend enough to compete at a playoff-entry level, a philosophy that’s resulted in frequent postseason appearances.
Since the start of the 2011 season the Cardinals have appeared in nine postseasons. Only one major-league team – the Dodgers with 11 – have advanced to the playoffs more often than St. Louis. The Yankees lead AL teams with nine postseasons since 2011.
The Cardinals haven’t given up on their “just get into the playoffs and anything can happen,” belief system. This notion still resonates because of their unexpected escapades to World Series titles in 2006 and 2011. And while it’s true that St. Louis hasn’t competed in a World Series since 2013, the Cardinals have still managed to do better over that time than the five to 10 franchises that routinely outspend them.
The Cardinals had a horrible plunge to a 71-91 record last season. That was a failure, for sure. But in the current baseball economy failure is relative.
What about the more generous-spending teams that flunked out and missed the 2023 postseason?
Using the 40-man competitive-balance tax payroll as the standard, I’m referring to these teams:
Mets, $374 million
Yankees, $296 million
Padres, $291 million
Angels, $233 million
Cubs, $225 million
Red Sox, $225 million
Giants, $218 million
Those also-rans spent more money on players than St. Louis last season. The Cardinals – with a final 40-man payroll of $186.4 million – ranked 16th. Before the 2023 trading deadline the Cardinals had hit $200 million for the 40-man accounting, but the offloading of salaries brought that total down. Right now Cots Contracts has the Cardinals projected to spend $204 million on the 40-man payroll, which would put them in their same range as 2023. What about the opening-day 26-man payroll? Last season the Cardinals entered the season with a payroll of $176.5 million, which ranked 14th. As it stands today — subject to change — Cots lists them at $163.8 million.
Eight MLB exceeded the Competitive Balance Tax threshold in 2023 and will pay a combined total of $209.8 million in penalties. That’s a record. Three of the eight teams missed the playoffs – Mets, Padres, Yankees. And three others – Dodgers, Blue Jays and Braves – combined to go 1-8 in the playoffs. From that group only the Phillies and Rangers fared well in the ’23 postseason, combining for 21 wins. And the Rangers won the World Series.
Not that anyone who cares about the Cardinals is deriving joy from seeing extravagant-spending clubs fizzle out. The Cards had a brutal 2023, and that’s what we’re focused on.
I’m not here to defend the St. Louis approach. But I do understand it, and I’m just trying to reinforce what we already know about the way chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and POBO Mozeliak guide the franchise from a payroll assessment.
The St. Louis organization has gotten plenty of value for the payroll dollar since DeWitt became the owner-chairman in 1996. That’s positive. But this isn’t a spendthrift franchise, and DeWitt-Mozeliak are consistent in that regard. I’m not sure why we always expect them to change what they think, what they do.
MLB Trade Rumors recently published an online list of the largest contract ever handed out by all 30 franchises. This was about new contracts rather than inheriting a player’s contract through a trade, as was the case when the Cards acquired Nolan Arenado from the Rockies.
The biggest contract in Cardinals history went to first baseman Paul Goldschmidt at five years, $130 million. Among the other 29 MLB teams, only four had a lesser total on their largest contract:
* Oakland: six years, $66 million to Eric Chavez.
* Chicago WS: five years, $72 million to Andrew Benintendi.
* Kansas City: four years $82 million to Salvador Perez.
* Pittsburgh: seven years, $100 million to Bryan Reynolds.
This is what we need to remember, even if we adamantly disagree with the philosophy: the Cardinals don’t do big contracts, and that’s especially true with starting pitchers. Their largest investment in a starting pitcher went to Adam Wainwright before the 2013 season: five years, $97.5 million. The Cardinals tried to recruit free-agent lefty starter David Price before the 2016 season and thought they had him – only to have Boston swoop in late in the contract talks and give Price a four-year, $121 million deal.
This offseason I had doubts about the Cardinals’ willingness to financially compete in the bidding for top-rotation caliber starting pitchers. With DeWitt and Mozeliak’s payroll history, why would we expect them to discard their established identity and engage in a frantic auction against the gambling, risk-taking, deep-pocket owners to secure an elite starting pitcher?
It isn’t in the DeWitt ownership DNA.
Gray received a three-year deal for $75 million but deferred a large portion of that and will pitch for $10 million in 2024. Gibson ($12 million) and Lynn ($10 million) each signed a one-year contract with the Cardinals holding the option on them for a second season. Miles Mikolas will be paid $17.6 million in 2024, and Steven Matz is on the books for a $12.5 million salary.
If you add it up, the planned St. Louis five-man rotation will be paid $62.2 million in 2024 dollars. There is room for payroll growth, and the Cardinals need to get after it. As of Thursday morning the reliever market was still pretty cold, and Mozeliak may be waiting it out because he expects prices to drop. We’ll see.
Meanwhile, the thin rotation depth is an ongoing concern. The Cardinals have five 30-something starting pitchers and there is a question of durability. Gray missed time in 2021 and 2022. Matz has gone out with multiple breakdowns in his two seasons as a Cardinal. After rebounding from arm surgery, Mikolas has been durable over the last two seasons and covers plenty of innings. Gibson has held up well since the start of the 2017 season. Lynn missed 71 days with a knee condition in 2022, but the real concern with him is performance to have a bounce-back season from ‘23.
I really did like the three signings. And still do. But I’m also a realist. We can expect chaos because that’s how it goes in baseball now.
In a 10-year stretch that ended in 2018, an average of 300 pitchers started games per season. And the 30 teams used an average of 10 starting pitchers per season.
In the four full regular seasons since 2019, an average of 378 pitchers made starts each year. That’s an average of 12.6 starting pitchers per team.
(Yes, some of that has to do with the use of “openers” with teams beginning a game with a reliever to pitch one or two innings. But in many instances, teams use an “opener” because they don’t have the starting-pitching supply to meet the demand.)
Pitchers are increasingly volatile and vulnerable. The Cardinals learned that in 2021 and 2022. But even though the STL front office did a good job of signing three new starters for 2024, the Cardinals don’t have proven commodities in line to fill starting-pitching voids if necessary.
If everything falls into place – we’re talking best-case scenario stuff here – the Cardinals will have a solid (or better) rotation in 2024. The FanGraphs projections rank the St. Louis rotation at No. 14 in the majors, and that would be a major upgrade over 2023.
When healthy Gray, Mikolas, Lynn and Gibson will chew up plenty of innings, and that’s important. But what happens if starting-pitcher injuries bite them again next season? Adding another starter – one with a legit resume – would provide more stability and reassurance. And Matz can always be deployed as a reliever.
More than anything the Cardinals must restore their ability to identify, draft and develop starting pitching. They’ve lost ground in this crucial area, and the failure puts sustained consistency in jeopardy.
The Cardinals are fortunate (so far) this offseason. The Cubs – surprisingly – haven’t increased their payroll. The Brewers are offloading salary. The Reds have been reluctant to part with elite prospects to improve their starting rotation. The Pirates are content to take nominal steps of progress. But the offseason isn’t over. The Cubs could start throwing money around. The Reds could swap coveted prospects for a top-end starting pitcher.
As for now – and until we have new and direct evidence of a change in philosophy – the Cardinals have put themselves in position to compete for the playoffs by winning anywhere from, say, 87 to 93 games. And surely DeWitt and Mozeliak have made note of recent trends.
– In the last four full seasons, the NL Central champion has averaged 92.75 wins.
– Since the postseason expanded to include three wild-card teams in 2022, the NL’s six wild-card qualifiers have averaged 89.1 wins. But that’s misleading because one of those wild-card teams, the 2022 Mets, won 101 games.
– Those ’22 Mets excluded, other five wild-card qualifiers averaged only 86.8 victories. And none of the five won more than 90 regular-season games.
– Two NL teams, Miami and Arizona, needed only 84 wins to claim a wild-card ticket last season. And the Diamondbacks won the NL pennant before losing to 90-win Texas in the 2023 World Series.
– In 2022, the NLCS pitted 87-win Philadelphia against 89-win San Diego. The Phillies won the pennant and had a 2-1 lead over Houston in the ‘22 World Series before losing three in a row.
That’s correct: in the enlarged postseason format, the last two teams to win the NL pennant and make it to the World Series stage averaged 85.5 victories in the regular season.
And in that context the Cardinals’ goal – just get into the tournament, and go on a hot streak – isn’t bird-brained. This also applies to winning the NL Central; based on recent trends, 92, 93 wins should do it.
Ideally, the Cardinals would be more motivated to win as many regular-season games as possible. They would make sure to go into 2024 with more roster strength to fight off the Cubs and Reds and other NL Central rivals. That would mean suspending their usual calibrations to hit the projected minimum standard for making the NL playoffs.
The Cardinals are sticking with their style because they know it’s worked for them. Since the start of the 2000 season, St. Louis leads the National League with 69 postseason wins. But that doesn’t tell the entire story. Of those 69 postseason victories, 87 percent were attained from 2000 through 2013. Since 2014 the Cardinals rank 16th in the majors in postseason wins, with only nine.
The October-surprise strategy blows up when the Cardinals can’t win in October. Beginning with their loss to the Red Sox in the 2013 World Series, the Cardinals have gone 11-23 in the postseason. After defeating the Dodgers in the 2014 NLCS, the Cardinals have lost 18 out of 24 postseason games. After beating Atlanta in the 2019 NLDS, the Redbirds are a sad 1-9 in their last 10 postseason contests.
That wasn’t part of the plan.
Thanks for reading.
I appreciate your support.
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, Bill James Online or Sports Info Solutions 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.