Piecing together how much the Cardinals will spend in free agency this year

While the Cardinals tend to be conservative in spending, this offseason looks to be one where they are prepared to spend big.
Cincinnati Reds v St. Louis Cardinals
Cincinnati Reds v St. Louis Cardinals / Dilip Vishwanat/GettyImages
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The St. Louis Cardinals are coming off their worst season under the DeWitt's leadership, and public quotes from President Bill DeWitt III indicate they are ready to open up the pocketbooks this year.

This confirms what Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has been reporting for a few weeks now, that the Cardinals' front office and ownership are in agreement on the need to match the price of pitching this offseason. Not only are they reportedly willing to do that with the payroll flexibility they have with salary coming off the books, but rising in the payroll rankings, as DeWitt III has stated, would mean they are going to invest even more salary into this team than in 2023.

So how much are the Cardinals actually willing to spend this offseason? That's impossible to truly know, but DeWitt's comments to the St. Louis Business Journal and Goold's reporting give us a really good idea of what that may look like.

How much will the Cardinals' have available to spend this offseason?

First, let's look at where their payroll currently sits. Contrary to popular belief, payroll did rise from 2022 to 2023 for the Cardinals. The real problem was with how that payroll rose. According to reporting from Goold, their 26-man payroll opened at $154 million in 2022 and rose up to $174 million in 2023. So for payroll to increase and to rise in the rankings, they need to pass that $174 million number in 2024.

First, there is a lot of salary coming off the books, approximately $52.7 million by Goold's reporting from the six players they either traded or will hit free agency. Now, a few players on their roster have built-in raises to their contracts, and others will have raises in their arbitration numbers for next season as well. You can see the full math from Goold here in his weekly chat, but the estimated number after arbitration for the Cardinals' current payroll is between $136 and $141 million on the books so far.

The reason why I'm leaning heavily on Goold's math here is that he is very plugged in with the Cardinals' organization, and which public numbers are worth following. Websites like Spotrac do a poor job of measuring payroll, so Goold cuts through the mess to get the best numbers to fans.

So far, they have between $33 and $38 million to spend before they even hit their payroll number from last year. That number can easily rise by trading players from the roster or non-tendering the likes of Tyler O'Neill, Dakota Hudson, Jacob Barnes, and Jake Woodford. Just cutting or trading those four alone would give them around $11.3 million more to spend as well.

That's a decent-sized number, but nothing spectacular. That's where the payroll rise comes in. If they truly want to rise in the rankings, they'll need to make major investments. This is where some of DeWitt's other comments come into play. DeWitt indicated that the club is willing to sacrifice operating margin this year in order to get the club back on track, knowing that fielding a winning club will bring them back to stronger revenue margins in the future.

So what could that number look like? Forbes reported an operating income of $43.1 million in 2022 for the Cardinals, which likely took a dip in 2023 due to the frustrating season they had. While some teams, like the Mets, Phillies, Blue Jays, and Padres, to name a few, took operating losses in 2022, most teams aim to have at least some revenue, like the Yankees, Dodgers, Astros, and Braves.

I kind of doubt they budget for zero operating income or losses in that department for 2024, but again, if they believe it will up their revenue significantly in the future, perhaps they would. We do not know what their income was this year as a club, but if they are to field a legit contender again in 2024, that number should be closer to $43.1 million again.

My guess, at least until we have further reporting or the Cardinals make moves, is that we could see the payroll raise anywhere from $20 million to $40 million from where it was in 2023. That would put them anywhere between $194 and $214 million for their 26-man roster on Opening Day and would mean we could see them spend between $53 million and $78 million in payroll additions this year, and that's once again before they even trade away or non-tender an additional $11.3 million in salary.

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Actions will speak louder than words, but getting into that $53 million or more of salary space range is where you can realistically see the team bring in two significant starting pitchers. If they truly cut operating revenue in 2024 and get north of $65 million in spending, that's where you can see even three impactful starting pitchers added to this roster, along with bullpen help through trades or free agency.

More clarity will come in the next two months as free agency and the trade market open up for teams around baseball. So far, it's looking like the Cardinals will finally be big spenders for once, and their plans to be back in contention in 2024 and come alive if they truly do so. Let's all hold them to their rhetoric, and make sure this team spends like