The St. Louis Cardinals expect to be at a similar payroll in 2020. To make any upgrades, they are going to need to take a big contract off the books.
The way that the St. Louis Cardinals run their financials can be really frustrating from a fan’s perspective. It seems so simple to us. There are Cy Young and MVP candidates on the free-agent market at positions the Cardinals need to upgrade, so go and sign them! Instead of a gameplan to do that, the team has said, as usual, that they want to keep their 2020 payroll near the $160M spot they were at in 2019.
According to spotrac.com, the total payroll for active and injured players at the MLB level was ~$157M. The bulk of that went to Yadier Molina, Paul Goldschmidt, Dexter Fowler, and Matt Carpenter. Those four had a combined 6.8 fWAR at a price of $66.750M. Not great. Anytime people refer to the bad contracts the Cardinals have, three of those four are exactly who they are talking about.
Molina gets a slight pass because of who he is and the team is happy to take care of him, but between Fowler and Carpenter, that’s a lot of money for not a lot of production.
Looking at spotrac.com for 2020, the Cardinals already sit at ~$150M. This is weighed down by $18.5M going to Carpenter and a bump in Miles Mikolas‘s salary as his extension kicks in. That means that currently, the Cardinals have about $10M to spend in free agency. Who do we think that could get you?
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Consider the fact that the Cardinals offered Marcell Ozuna the $17.8M qualifying offer and he denied it, the answer is probably a mid-level reliever on the wrong side of 30…
Now I know that sounds like a typical John Mozeliak offseason deal, think about what Mo has actually done the last two offseasons. Before 2018, he traded for Marcell Ozuna who was coming off of an almost MVP-caliber season. Last offseason, Mo traded for the biggest bat on the market in Paul Goldschmidt who is also a perennial MVP candidate and also signed the biggest free-agent reliever in Andrew Miller.
The “#FIREMO” and “Mo sucks!” storylines try to blur all that from memory, but Mo has been creative and aggressive the last two winters and there’s the possibility that he gets creative again before the 2020 season.
All that being said, the only way that Mo is going to be able to do much this winter is to get rid of one of the big contracts.
Paul Goldschmidt and Yadier Molina get passes from this discussion given who they are, but in looking at Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler, and Miles Mikolas, it wouldn’t surprise me to see one of them traded. If one of the three is moved without too much in salary being returned, that frees up about another $15M to play with. $25M a year can net a big fish on the free agent marketplace.
The other option is trading one bad contract for an even worse one. The Cardinals may not want to take on more payroll, but if the move is to get a player like Giancarlo Stanton to play left field, why not take on some contract and send a bad contract back the other way.
If I was John Mozeliak, Dexter Fowler would be the name I would look to try and move. It wouldn’t be easy to move the $33M over two years with a full no-trade clause, but his value is certainly higher than it was this time last year. Some fans may still be mad at him after his atrocious 2018 season, but with a 1.7 bWAR in 2019, he proved he can still be an above-average player in the MLB.
Taking his $16.5M off the books would be big for the Cardinals both in freeing up capital but also in creating an opportunity for the wealth of young Cardinal outfielders to get a chance to play in right field.
Matt Carpenter is going to get another shot to prove that he can still hit and his value has never been lower. The team may regret the extension they handed to the 34-year-old last spring, but now that they have, they have to give him a chance to produce and bring his value back up.
I wouldn’t expect Mikolas to be traded either even though he does have an extension the Cardinals may regret too. He is just an expensive number three starter at the moment.
While it could happen, the one outcome I wouldn’t expect is for the team to just straight up eat one of the contracts. They have never been fond of doing it and the team has sunk with players until they were a huge liability until they cut them in the past. Unless Carpenter comes out and looks exactly like he did for the 2019 season for half the 2020 season, he won’t be cut.
There are lots of things that the Cardinals can do to manipulate their current payroll without adding much payroll, they are just going to have to get creative.
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For all the hate that John Mozeliak gets, you can’t deny that he traded for two big bats two offseasons in a row. Neither hit like the team was expecting, but that cannot be on Mozeliak. He has been creative and I would be surprised if he doesn’t come up with a creative way to improve the team this winter. To do that though, he is going to have to figure out a way to cut at least one big contract.