The St. Louis Cardinals addressed their gaping offseason need, a catcher to replace Yadier Molina. The team signed Willson Contreras, a former All-Star and one of the best offensive catchers in the sport. After the impact signing, the front office apparently decided to go into hibernation. Meanwhile, other National League contenders are improving and making move after move. One of those teams would be the San Diego Padres.
The Padres played in the NLCS last season, and still aimed for the stars this winter. Imagine trying to put together a team that can win in October and not merely appear in the postseason. Some people might point out that the Cardinals have much more success historically than the Padres. But what have you done for me lately? The Cardinals are 1-9 in their last 10 playoff games, and bank on their ability to win an increasingly mediocre division to reach the playoffs. The Padres have the Los Angeles Dodgers in their division, so they have no such luck.
While the Cardinals made their move, teams like the Padres have continued to stock up on talent. The Padres have spent money aggressively, headlined by infielder Xander Bogaerts on a long-term deal. Dating back to last season, they landed superstar outfielder Juan Soto via trade. The Cardinals had reported interest in Soto, but apparently couldn't get the Washington Nationals to take on spare parts in return or throw in roughly $50 million.
I apologize for the snark, but as a Cardinals fan I'm frustrated. After proclaiming that the payroll would go up, Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak has had a tame offseason. Any increase in the payroll appears to be modest, and little has changed in terms of roster movement. The Cardinals have seemingly tried to stay around the top 10 in payroll in MLB, and now have fallen to 16th out of 30 teams via Spotrac.
The Padres are currently third in payroll. Why am I saying this? What do the Padres have to do with the Cardinals? Well, the two teams are pretty close in market size. Per Sports Media Watch, St. Louis is 24th in market size for professional sports teams. San Diego is 30th. Considering that the Cardinals are always one of the top teams in attendance and have a loyal and supportive fanbase, being in the bottom half of the league in payroll seems like a slight. Especially when other teams are making moves and continuing to improve while it seems the Cardinals aren't even trying to make more moves.
The cost of putting together a winning team has gone up. Sure, high payrolls do not equal success, But if you look at the teams with the highest payrolls, they expect to win and have the talent to do so. The teams at the bottom in payroll do not have high expectations of winning. If you want to win, you have to have talent. The price of talent, either in free agency or via trade, has reached new heights. The Cardinals seem tied to their antique model. It has worked in the past and might work still in this brave new world of roster building.
However, there's no reason the Cardinals can't be more like the San Diego Padres. The New York teams, especially the Steve Cohen-led Mets, are still at the top of the class in regard to spending. Mr. Cohen has shown fans of all teams what a determination to win looks like. Again, that doesn't guarantee success this season, but it sure makes the Mets a favorite in 2023.
If the St. Louis Cardinals aren't going to adjust to the new marketplace and the new cost of doing business, they risk being left behind. Their current payroll reflects that. It doesn't have to be this way, fellow fans. The Cardinals don't have to be the Padres, or certainly not as free-spending as the Mets. But they should be doing more than they are now, and the strength of the National League and the new reality of baseball economics should make that plain to see.