Cardinals: Stagnant payroll creates pressure for front office to improve in-season
Following an electrifying 2022 season where St. Louis Cardinals fans, upwards of 3.3 million of them, poured into Busch Stadium to watch Albert Pujols and Yadier Molina’s final season, President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak made a statement that seemed obvious and necessary. In a late October 2022 press conference, Mozeliak vowed that payroll would increase for the 2023 season. More recently at Winter Warmup, Mozeliak again addressed the payroll:
""...Has payroll gone up? Yes. Did it go up as high as [fan's] expectations? That's [in] the eyes of the beholder … Do we have bandwidth to still add to this club throughout the year? Yes we do.""- John Mozeliak, January 14th
From a purely mathematical perspective, as Mozeliak addressed, the payroll for the 2023 St. Louis Cardinals will be higher than it was for the 2022 St. Louis Cardinals. However, the Cardinals remain in the middle of the pack with the 16th-highest payroll in the MLB. Cardinal fans hoped that DeWitt, Mozeliak, and the company would significantly push payroll and be potential suitors for the likes of Carlos Rodón, Trea Turner, or Carlos Correa.
This is not to say that Mozeliak and DeWitt Jr. didn't consider adding a top-tier free agent. Mozeliak opened his January 14th press conference with the following:
""When we reflect back on the off-season there were certainly some things that we were hoping to do that we weren't able to accomplish...""- John Mozeliak (January 14th, 2023)
With the dawn of the 2023 season on the horizon the Cardinals did address the most gaping hole in their roster with the 5-year agreement of 3-time All-Star catcher Willson Contreras. Outside of this, marginal moves were made, and barring a late off-season addition, the 2023 Cardinals will look fairly similar to the 2022 Cardinals.
It will take time, decades perhaps, to evaluate if the Cardinals' relative inactivity in the superstar tier free agency sweepstakes was a calculated and shrewd move leaning on organizational depth or another quiet offseason where National League foes such as the Padres, Mets, and Phillies further separated themselves. For all of the criticism of the Cardinals' unwillingness to shell out decade-long, nine-figure deals (the seven-year, $120 million extension for Matt Holiday in 2010 still represents the largest deal in franchise history) team leadership deserves grace and patience from the fanbase entering the 2023 season.
After re-signing Adam Wainwright to a 1-year deal worth up to $17.5m it is reasonable to assume that the Cardinals were never going to be players for top-tier free-agent starters such as Justin Verlander or Jacob DeGrom. While Carlos Rodón would have fit the bill of a true ace, other available starting pitchers did not provide a meaningful upgrade over options already within the organization. Would Jameson Tallion have been a significant upgrade? Enough to push the Cardinals to the top of the National League? A move to bring back José Quintana who delivered a spectacular performance in Game 1 of the Wild Card Series might have made sense to build starting pitching depth. It also could have blocked young arms such as Matthew Liberatore, Andre Pallante, or Connor Thomas from pitching meaningful innings.
How about at a shortstop? While the addition of Trea Turner or Carlos Correa would have made the Cardinals better both offensively and defensively, the platoon of Tommy Edman and Brendan Donovan and the emergence of electric prospect Masyn Winn provide an explanation for staying put.
The true opportunity for the Cardinals to emerge as championship contenders comes in the season, leaning on organizational depth and adding impact players at the trade deadline. The NL Central remains a winnable division despite the schedule balancing and the additions made by the Cubs (Bellinger, Swanson, and Tallion) or the Brewers (William Contreras).
Maybe in July, Steven Matz and Jack Flaherty haven’t proven their ability to be healthy and effective or the projected DH platoon of Nolan Gorman and Juan Yepez aren’t producing as Albert Pujols did in that role in 2022. Then the front office who has pulled off two highway robberies (with the benefit of hindsight) in the Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado acquisitions can make moves to improve the roster for 2023 and beyond. The Cardinals, who have 5 prospects in the MLB Top 100 Prospect Rankings, still have one of the deepest and most talented farm systems in baseball to draw from.
The bottom line: adding Willson Contreras behind Goldschmidt and Arenado makes the lineup more lethal, realistic free agent pitchers did not provide marginal upgrades over in-house options, and a perpetually weak NL Central buys the Front Office time to evaluate the performance of the team and respond accordingly midseason.