The St. Louis Cardinals are uncharacteristically the most active team in baseball so far this offseason, and it feels like almost every day there are more reports about their offseason plans.
Last night, Jon Becker of FanGraphs drew attention to the Associate Press's report on Sonny Gray's deal, showing that his contract had actually been backloaded. Gray will receive $10 million in 2024, $25 million in 2025, and $35 million in 2026 with a $30 million club option for 2027, rather than the initial thought that the deal was a flat $25 million salary during those three guaranteed years.
Why does this matter? Well, instead of the Cardinals having around $15 million to play with before moving any salaries through trades, they should have somewhere around $30 million to spend. Should they move on from any of Tyler O'Neill ($5.5 million), Steven Matz ($12.5 million), and/or Dylan Carlson ($1.8 million), that number could rise even more.
We've been wondering since the Gray signing what they can truly accomplish the rest of the offseason. They plan on adding some bullpen arms still, but in order to be aggressive and add another starting pitcher, it was going to require getting creative with moving one or more of those aforementioned salaries, or ponying up in terms of trading the young bats or prospects to get a cost-controlled, top-end arm.
Instead, the Cardinals got creative in how they structured Gray's contract, and now have created a situation where they can truly be aggressive without us having to identify multiple hoops they need to jump through to accomplish those tasks.
Here are six different ways I think the Cardinals can approach the rest of this offseason based on the newly reported flexibliy they have.
6. Added finacial flexibility at the trade deadline
The first scenario is the least exciting of all, and it's not the one I think they'll go with, but it's certainly possible. The Cardinals could use the extra flexibility they have to make those bullpen acquisitions and save the rest of the money for potential moves at the 2024 trade deadline.
Becker, who first noticed the Gray contract breakdown, noted this himself on Twitter/X, but I don't fully agree with his take on that scenario.
John Mozeliak already stated at the GM Meetings that the Cardinals plan on being around the $200 million payroll mark, as that was where the club was tracking to be at the 2023 trade deadline if they had been buyers instead of sellers. So sticking around a $180 million payroll goes against what Mozeliak has already publically stated their goals were this offseason.
Now, his point about them not spending a ton more could be true still. They may explore the trade market and free agency for another starting pitcher, not be in love with any of the deals they could make, and just make a few small bullpen moves and hold onto that cash flow for July instead. It's something the Cardinals actually did last offseason, as before the 2023 season began, Mozeliak referred to how they had more money to spend as the season went along.
Instead, the season was a disaster, so they did removed salary from their books while selling pieces, rather than adding that salary on to make a playoff push. The moves the Cardinals have made so far this offseason have raised their floor significantly, and even without any more major moves, they should be in a position in July to buy, which is when we could see their next "big move".
Again, I don't think this is the route they'll go, but it's certainly possible. I just have a hard time believing the Cardinals are choosing to pay Gray $35 million in 2026 and not be aggressive with that flexibility this offseason. I'd turn my attention to these other five scenarios in light of the news about Gray's contract.
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