Real Talk: Who Can the Cardinals Actually Acquire This Winter?

Oct 3, 2019; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Dodgers left fielder Joc Pederson (31) follows through on a swing for a solo home run during the eighth inning in game one of the 2019 NLDS playoff baseball series against the Washington Nationals at Dodger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

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Let me open this by saying that the St. Louis Cardinals are more than welcome to over extend their budget and make big splashes — in free agency or trade — whenever they choose. This would be entertaining and — assuming the players acquired are actually good — help the team compete for their 12th World Series championship.

They can do that.

We need to be realistic. We have to acknowledge the approach of a front office that has been in place since 2008 and an owner that has written the checks since 1995. We can argue all day long about what they SHOULD do and how they SHOULD spend their money, but that just leads to expectations that don’t mirror reality, whatsoever.

There are a ton of names that get thrown around in fan circles, posted up to blogs, and mistaken as rumors. Then there are reporters that receive leaks from agents that link teams to players, even if that team was only checking in to get a feel for the market, and fans automatically assume that their team is all-in on said player.

So my goal today is to attempt to frame the offseason for the Cardinals an filter through some of the names we’ve heard. In doing this, we can hopefully set reasonable expectations.

The Budget

Actual Payroll

In the end-of-season press conference, Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch asked Bill DeWitt, Jr. if there was flexibility to be found in a payroll that has roughly $140M committed to 12 veterans. He responded by saying, “our payroll this past year, I think, was 6th in Major League Baseball. Our revenue was 11th, and I think this coming year, it’ll be…similar categories as it was last year.”

He didn’t cite dollar figures, rather relativity to other teams. The Cardinals like to float somewhere between 5th and 10th in payroll, historically. So DeWitt’s words don’t mean that 2019’s Opening Day payroll of $166M is a hard and fast cap for this season. The payroll can move, but expect it to remain somewhere around 5th or 6th in baseball, and not for them to spend $30-40M this winter and jump to the front of the line.

According to Roster Resource (at Fangraphs) — with estimations for pre-arb players and John Gant’s arbitration — the Cardinals payroll currently projects to be $165M. They ended 2019 at $174M, and that is roughly where I expect them to start 2020. This means there is $9-10M in the budget, without moving salary.

Now, there is potential that they could extend up to $180M, knowing that their $7.25M/year commitment to Brett Cecil and $4M payment to Mike Leake come off the books following this season. They won’t pre-spend all of that — they don’t want to destroy 2021’s payroll flexibility in 2020 — but that at least provides some buffer if the right deal presents itself.

I want to stay conservative — realistic — and stick with the $175M figure as our payroll framework.

Luxury Tax

Now, there is another factor with the budget. That is the Competitive Balance Tax (CBT), more commonly known as the Luxury Tax. I will use CBT for this, because it’s easy. This season, the threshold for those penalties sits at $208M.

Now, without doing a deep explanation, the straight payroll is not what is used to determine your standing in regards to the CBT. Instead, Average Annual Values of contracts are used to determine the “cap hit” of each player. So let’s say a player signs for 2 years and $30M, but the contract is backloaded and will pay them $10M in 2020 and $20M in 2021. The player does not count for $10M against the the CBT in 2020 and then $20M in ’21, instead they count for the AAV of $15M during both years.

Because of this, team’s CBT payrolls and their actual payrolls differ. For the Cardinals, Roster Resource has the 2020 CBT playroll at $179.8M, roughly $28M away from being subject to Luxury Tax penalties.

That $28M figure is the most important number for me this offseason, as it is the most hard-and-fast number available to determine what kind of contracts the Cardinals can realistically take on this winter. You and I both know that there is no way this team will choose to operate above the Luxury Tax threshold.

Roster

Contracts

Moving from the payroll, there are a couple contracts that fans keep bringing up as ways to create space in the budget. Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler.

I get it. Carpenter and Fowler are making $18.5M and $16.5M, respectively, in each of the next 2 seasons. Carpenter had a career worst season in 2019, and Fowler’s bounceback from a bad 2018 was a generally league-average performance.

Here’s the issue, both have a no trade clause. Neither is going to approve a trade to a non-competitive team. Competitive teams that they may approve a trade to will have little interest in taking on the salaries of players with poor seasons in recent memory.

Neither of these players are moving. No one is taking Brett Cecil’s contract, either, who also has a no-trade clause. There is nowhere else to move money off the payroll without significantly hurting the talent on your roster.

Skills

There should be a threshold for the type of starting pitcher the Cardinals pursue. He should be no worse than a #3 starter. Acquiring another #4 or #5 would not move you forward, as you likely have that in-house.

For outfielders, a left handed bat is a requirement, the team has a ton of RH options. Power is needed.

They don’t need to mess with the infield or bullpen.

They aren’t trading Dylan Carlson or Nolan Gorman.

So that’s the framework. They can’t subtract and the ability to add is limited in terms of payroll, the type of players needed is very specific, and top prospects are off the table.

The Names You’ve Heard

Whew…ok. Now I’ll take the players that have been somewhat linked, fan desired, or generally listed as available and state if they fit within the framework. I will TRY not to dwell on any one player for too long. Remember, we’re working with roughly $10M in the 2020 budget (to get a $175M payroll) and definitely cannot add more than $28M in AAV against the CBT.

Free Agent Pitchers

Madison Bumgarner, LHP – Probably not.

The reported ask is north of 5 years and $100M, in Zack Wheeler territory ($23.6M AAV). That would push the team up to the $185-190M range, close to the CBT threshold, and all for starting pitching which isn’t actually a pressing need. A draft pick would also be lost. He’s still a good pitcher, but he doesn’t fit the framework.

Hyun-Jin Ryu, LHP – Maybe

This depends on how his market shakes out. Fangraphs projected him at a 3-year deal with an AAV of $16M. That is doable for the Cardinals, as it is only a financial hit with no draft pick compensation. It’s a smallish stretch over the budget. However, his price has likely gone up. Wheeler was projected for an AAV of $18M and topped that by nearly $6M/yr. With top-end options dwindling, I expect Ryu to command somewhere between $20-24M, which is probably more stretching than the team will do.

Dallas Keuchel, LHP – Maybe

Similar to Ryu but not as good of a pitcher, though a little more certain in terms of health. He would benefit from pitching in front of the Cardinals defense. He probably lands closer to his projected AAV of $18M, which is a stretch, especially since he is more of a #3 or #4 starter than a #1 or #2. He could fit, though.

Tradeable Pitchers

Robbie Ray, LHP – Yes

Ray fits as well as any pitcher on this list. He slots in as a #3-type starter and his salary will be in the ballpark of $11M, so that too is palpable. As he is one year from free agency, the Diamondbacks will not be able to get a huge return for him. He is the Cardinals type of deal.

David Price, LHP – No

Price has 3 years and $96M left on his contract. He is 34 years old. In the last 3 years he has thrown 74.2, 176, and 107.1 innings. His health is questionable. The appeal of Price is that Boston wants to be rid of his salary, so you could theoretically get him without trading anything significant, and Boston would probably still have to kick in serious money. Even if they would pay $12M/yr and the Cardinals only have to give up a low-level prospect, $20M/yr for Price is still a risky move. Paying slightly more for Bumgarner would be smarter at that point. That’s about the most I could envision the Cardinals paying for him. Price has almost no value right now.

Free Agent Hitters

Nick Castellanos / Marcell Ozuna, OF – No

It seems clear that the Cardinals are fine with giving their expansive outfield depth a chance to prove itself. If they add, it would be for something different than what they have, a LH hitter. They have probably moved on from Ozuna — a chronic underachiever — and if you think he is a bad outfielder, Castellanos is far, far worse defensively. The team has put a premium on defense. Derrick Goold has reported multiple times that the Cardinals have had no interest in Castellanos in the past, and I doubt that has changed.

Corey Dickerson, OF – Yes

He fits as a LH bat and his price will probably fit within the budget. So yes, he fits the framework. However, his offensive production isn’t far from what is expected from Fowler, so my opinion is that the Cardinals would see him as a redundancy. He would fit as another piece in the outfield mix, as a solid veteran to supplement the unproven youth and provide a production floor.

Shogo Akiyama, OF – Yes

This is a new entrant, a Japanese centerfielder enter MLB for the first time. Bruce Levine reports that he is seeking a contract of roughly 2 years and $10M, total, so the $5m/yr salary is certainly a fit. Over the last 5 years, he has posted OBP’s of .419, .385, .398, .403, and .392. Even if that drops to .350-.360 in MLB, he still fits at the top of a lineup. His HR power is modest — his career high is 25 — but he hits plenty of doubles. He has twice won a Pacific League golden glove, so his defense is likely at least competent, if not very good, in CF. He hits left-handed. He is a different type of hitter than we’ve been thinking of, but would be a fit nonetheless.

Tradeable Hitters

Francisco Lindor, SS – No

High acquisition cost in terms of prospects. No, Paul DeJong and a couple spare outfielders isn’t going to get it done. Reports have the ask, in talks with the Dodgers, to be Gavin Lux and Dustin May, the #2 and #32 prospects in all of baseball per MLB Pipeline. The Cardinals aren’t trading Carlson AND Gorman AND another good player or two, to get Lindor for 2 seasons. His estimated arbitration salary of $16.7M is under the CBT, but pushes the team beyond $180M. They won’t do those financials in addition to trading top prospects.

Mookie Betts, RF – No

Same situation as Lindor, except his salary will be above $25M in 2020 and you would only get him for 1 season.

Starling Marte, OF – Yes

Despite being another RH hitter, he would still fit for the Cardinals and be an upgrade over Ozuna. He makes $11.5M a year, so his salary just barely stretches the budget. He has a team option for 2021. The biggest issue with Marte is the obstacle of trading within the division and watching your propect(s) play against you for the next 6 years. However, he definitely fits.

Joc Pederson, OF – Yes

Absolutely yes on this one. First, his estimated salary through arbitration is at $8.5M. That fits neatly within the budget. He is a fit on the field as he plays all 3 OF spots and hits, for power, from the left side. Yes, he is a platoon player. He should never face lefties. However, when healthy, he has been more productive than nearly every Cardinals hitter, despite only starting 75% of the time. The team has tons of RH outfield options to pair with him to cultivate a 30-35 HR’s and an .850+ OPS out of one of the OF positions. He can hit cleanup. He will cost in trade, but as his is only 1 year from free agency, the ask cannot be astronomical. I love this fit, as you can tell.

Nolan Arenado, 3B – No

He’s good, for sure. However, he has 7 years and $234M left on his contract and would require top prospects to acquire in trade. The free agent market offered Anthony Rendon — a better player — for 7 years and $245, with only the loss of draft pick. Rendon would be the better bargain and the Cardinals were not fishing in those waters, so don’t expect an Arenado pursuit either. Additionally, his $32M AAV would push them into Luxury Tax penalties.

Eddie Rosario, OF – Yes

A lefty bat with power, but he doesn’t walk much. It was reported that the Twins were listening to offers on him at the Winter Meetings, and that they were asking for alot in return. Still, his salary would fit the budget and he is 2 years from free agency, so he is a realistic option, depending on the prospect cost.

David Peralta, OF – Yes

Peralta is a solid player and a LH bat. Realistically, he produces similar to a good version of Fowler. He fits from a financial standpoint and is unlikely to demand much in a trade. He would be similar to Dickerson in how he would fit the roster.

Trey Mancini, OF – Yes

Mancini had a breakout in 2019 for Baltimore. Of course, believing in one big season is not always wise. Still, Mancini is still 3 years from free agency, hits left-handed, and has power that the team can use. He is a bad outfielder, from what I have read, and Baltimore will surely want a decent haul in return. He’s a fit, though.

Dominic Smith / JD Davis / Brandon Nimmo, OF – Yes

All Mets outfielders. Smith is a left-handed bat with power potential. He’s not yet broken out, is 5 years from free agency and is finding himself in a situation where Pete Alonso plays 1B and the Mets have at least 6 legitimate OF options. Maybe he is the one they want to keep, but he would definitely fit for the Cardinals. Davis is right-handed and a similar case as Smith. He can hit, but he isn’t much of a fielder. Finally, Brandon Nimmo doesn’t have the power of the other two, but is LH and carries high OBP potential. He is 3 years from free agency. Any of the three fit, though Smith fits the best, depending on the prospect cost.

Wil Myers, OF – No

While his AAV would not put them in Luxury Tax hell, but he is currently in the backloaded part of his contract and owed $22.5M/yr for the next 3 years. That’s a massive salary for a player that just isn’t very good. He’s also a RH bat that would likely be outproduced by Tyler O’Neill, given an equal number of at-bats.

Wrap Up

I likely didn’t get every player whose name you’ve heard, but I think I covered most of them.

If the Cardinals can only get one player listed above, my choice would be Joc Pederson. I think he is the most bang for the buck and the best fit for roster, lineup, and payroll. I’m intrigued by some of the other names, but he’s at the top of my list.

They could get some combination of one of the cheaper outfielders and a pitcher, or a moderately priced OF and a trade for Robbie Ray. I do not see them signing a SP for north of $15-20M AND acquiring a $10M+ outfielder. It just isn’t realistic.

I didn’t write this post as an attempt to crush dreams, or to serve the team by lowering fan expectations. I just wanted to lay out reality, which unfortunately is a bit harsh with the team’s current payroll. They can improve, they just have to be selective and creative, it’s not as simple as “go get So-And-So.”

I think we can all agree that we hope the do SOMETHING to add to the current team, and there are obviously several players that do fit for them to acquire that would help the team improve.

And that’s all we want, to try to be better than we were the year before.

Thanks for reading.

Thanks to FanGraphs/Roster Resource for stats and payroll/contract information. Baseball-reference for Akiyama’s stats.

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TeamWLPct.GB
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Cardinals2725.5193.5
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Last updated: 09/23/2020

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