Can the Cardinals compete with high payroll clubs moving forward?
By Josh Jacobs
The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the most winningest franchises in baseball history, only behind the New York Yankees in total World Series titles and ranking among the top clubs in all major categories. They have maintained that success in the last two decades as well, ranking third in wins, tied for 3rd in World Series titles, second in playoff appearances, and tied for second in playoff series wins since 2000.
But baseball is changing. Clubs like the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians continue to field legit contenders with extremely low payrolls, but have not been able to get over the hump and win it all. The teams that are dominating the winning landscape today are teams like the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Atlanta Braves, who combine elite player development and large payrolls to field incredible teams.
Now teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets, and San Diego Padres are showing just how far you can stretch a payroll in today's game. The Phillies already had multiple nine figure deals on their books with one of the best lineups in baseball, and then went out and signed Trea Turner to an 11-year, $300 million deal. The Padres traded for Juan Soto to add to their superstar core mid-season and then added Xander Bogaerts to a mega deal.
Then there is the Mets, who have spent over $800 million this offseason on Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Brandon Nimmo, Kodai Senga, Edwin Diaz, Mar Narvaez, Jose Quintana, and David Robertson. Their payroll is not north of $500 million for 2023, $192 million more than the Yankees in second place and double the payroll of the third place Padres.
Then there are the Cardinals, who now rank 16th in baseball in payroll ($178 million) and are behind teams like the Red Sox, Cubs, Rangers, White Sox, Giants, and even the Rockies in spending. For a club that has had massive success over the years and continues to be one of the most profitable franchises in baseball, it is really concerning that they are not trying to spend remotely close to the top teams in baseball.
I don't think any fans realistically expect them to spend with the likes of the New York teams, but it is fair to wonder why the Cardinals remain $55 million short of the luxury tax threshold, and $22 million way from the $200 million mark.
When you're a team that has Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado at the peak of their powers, and a flood of young talent on the roster or on the way, now seems like the perfect time to go out and spend money if you are ever going to. The model is certainly being tested this year.
So, do the Cardinals have a path toward contending in a loaded and heavy spending National League. Yes. Their mix of superstar talent and controllable talent that is on the rise will keep them in the hunt. What 2023 may reveal to Cardinals ownership is just how difficult it will be to be true contenders without stretching the budget more.
A lot of blame seems to be thrown at John Mozeliak for this issue, and I just don't think he's the guy fans should be complaining about. If Mozeliak really has a budget in the $185 million range, how is he supposed to go out and spend on a bigger name? It's time for Bill Dewitt Jr. and company to open up the pocket books and allow Mozeliak to continue to build a sustainable organization while adding to that homegrown talent with legit pieces in free agency.
All Cardinals fans hope the club can compete at a high level in 2023. What needs to be addressed to in the process is the Dewitt's willingness to spend more. The Cardinals have positioned themselves to have a high ceiling regardless of their low payroll. If even just a few of Lars Nootbaar, Tyler O'Neill, Dylan Carlson, Jordan Walker, Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan, or Juan Yepez take steps forward in 2023, this club becomes a legit force in the National League. But there again lies the problem, this organization has more than enough resources to bring more certainty to this club.
So, maybe 2023 will be the turning point for St. Louis. It's no longer a league where a few random teams outspend the others. There are now 15 different teams spending more than the Cardinals, and that is unacceptable for the level of baseball this city expects out of the team. Can St. Louis compete with their budget contraints? Yes. But it will become more and more difficult to maintain that until they stretch their budget to the likes of other contenders.