If you are reading this post, I don’t think I have to recap what happened yesterday. In a postseason Zoom call that touched on a couple of items, John Mozeliak led off with the fact that the Cardinals were not going to pick up Kolten Wong‘s $12.5 million option for 2021, instead paying him $1 million and allowing him to become a free agent. While Mozeliak noted that both sides were “leaving the door open” for a possible return, he noted later in the call that likely Tommy Edman will be starting at second base next year and Kolten’s wife Alissa posted a heartfelt thank you and goodbye on Instagram and Twitter. While 2020 has proven stranger things can happen, it would seem that open door is just a crack ajar, allowing Wong to return if the market is ice cold or the Cardinals find some flexibility. I would guess the next time Kolten sees Busch Stadium, it’s getting a rousing welcome from the home fans as many returning players do instead of riding in a red vehicle around the field.
Obviously, Twitter blew up at this news. Most slammed the organization while some that pride themselves on detachment and complete focus on analytics had fun being the contrary voice that agreed with the move. Personally, I’m not one of those people. I believe that the Cardinals would have been better served by bringing Kolten Wong back. While Edman is serviceable or more, the difference between a double play turned and just a forceout (or a base hit getting through) can be the difference in a game won or lost when the offense is as weak as we’ve seen the last two years. Do you believe that the Cardinals make the playoffs in either 2019 or 2020 without Wong playing Gold Glove defense? I’m not sure that I do, given the small margins and the struggles offensively. Plus the fact that he was solid with the bat, averaging 100 OPS+ (which, I know, is right at average) the last four years, including 2020’s down year that has a lot of variables with it.
While I’m not one that is a big fan of manipulating playing time, you have to wonder if the Cardinals had held Andrew Miller out of a couple of more games so that his option didn’t vest if they would have made the same decision. Miller, of course, will receive $12 million next year and his contributions to this team have been erratic. Given the choice between an aging reliever and an in-his-prime defensive wizard, I’m going with the latter. However, the playing threshold for that option was on the low end for Miller and it would have been difficult, barring injury, for him not to reach it. Still, any time that Miller comes in and struggles next year, I’m going to be thinking, “We could have had Wong.” It also makes you start to wonder that, even with his words to the contrary (which I completely went with), if Wong didn’t have at least an inkling with his last Instagram post.
That’s my position on this. However, I also realize that we’re dealing with a situation where we don’t have all the facts and, unlike many on Twitter, I’m not ready to ascribe all the base motives to Bill DeWitt or John Mozeliak. I’m not advocating by any means that Mo be fired or DeWitt sell the team, as I believe that would be cutting off your nose to spite your face and, even with this ugly mug, a nose makes it look better. So let’s try to look at it from their point of view.
Mozeliak referenced this on the Zoom call, but the Cardinals base their budget in large part on attendance. Sure, they have a billion dollar TV contract that has started kicking in and they do have the MLB broadcast money, but if you assume an average ticket price of $50, losing 3.5 million people is a loss of $175 million. That’s going to hurt (and that doesn’t include whatever they make from concession sales, souvenirs, etc.) While that money didn’t come in, the costs related to generating that money stayed fairly constant. They didn’t have 2/3 of the player salaries, of course, which did help, but until the season was over they kept all their front office, marketing, ticketing, etc. folks on staff. They paid all of the minor leaguers, which granted wasn’t a lot but when you don’t have as much coming in, it’s notable. They paid millions to a fund to help those independent contractors like the concession workers that were out of money and had fewer options. There was a lot of money going out.
Which brings us to the main point I believe. Whether you like it or not, Bill DeWitt (and remember, there are other owners that are weighing in as well, DeWitt’s just the main one) runs the Cardinals as a business and, more importantly, as a separate business. We can talk about Ballpark Village and all that goes into that, but I don’t think that the costs of that have driven down payroll over the last few years and I don’t think the revenue from that will likely spill over into the team. DeWitt wants the Cardinal organization to be profitable specifically and not have to be propped up by other parts of his balance sheet. Again, I’m not saying that I necessarily agree with that perspective, but that’s the way it looks to me with the limited knowledge I have and I understand where he would be coming from.
That perspective might inform what seems to be a bit of a incongruity, the fact that in the midst of the pandemic DeWitt purchased an $8.5 million house out in California. For one, that was a separate section of his portfolio. For two, it is unlikely that he wrote a check for $8.5 million. Much of that was probably financed, just like you might have bought a $100,000 house but only put $10,000 down. You got the asset, sure, but you’ve also got the debt to go with it.
Many of us, myself included, have clamored that, given the assets of DeWitt and company, they could likely take out a loan to get them through the rough patch and then be able to pay it off when the fans return to the seats and the money starts flowing again. There’s some truth to that, I believe, but I also have seen the commissioner talk about how they don’t like their teams to have too much debt. Given the fact that the Cardinals are one of the few teams that are making payments on their stadium, they may be already close to the level of debt that MLB is comfortable with. Again, that’s all speculation, but it would make some sense.
Letting Wong go, especially since it was not a long-term deal, does feel a little penny wise, pound foolish. As you’ll see when we get to the Exit Interviews, I’d much rather Edman be a super-utility guy that maybe plays a little less than every day than to be the starting second baseman. It’s also an interesting place to draw the line on the “legacy Cardinals”
Don’t get me wrong, I know that they can’t keep everyone that they develop forever. Turnover can be good and, honestly, their desire for legacy Cardinals is part of the reason they are in this mess, as they decided to make Matt Carpenter one and now his contract feels like an albatross (and yet another reason why the Wong decision had to be made in this way). When you get to the part of your career that Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are at, there’s a good reason to try to let them finish in St. Louis. (That does seem to still be on the table, which will cause some internal angst if Waino and Yadi are here because Kolten isn’t.) However, Wong felt like a guy that they might want to try that with. Mozeliak didn’t say if they reached out with a contract extension offer that would have reduced 2021 while giving an increase later on. It may be that the internal valuations indicated they would have to move on at some point and they decided this was the best time to do it. No telling, really.
It’s also possible that losing Wong is part of them preparing for whatever Jack Flaherty is going to ask for. Flaherty is due for arbitration this year and while his case isn’t as strong as it would have been last year, he’s still going to get a significant raise either from the Cardinals with a new contract or through the arbitration process, a process Flaherty has seemed perfectly willing to use. There was only so much of a financial pot to pull from and knowing Flaherty was going to get a larger share had to factor in to what we learned yesterday. Payroll overall is expected to drop, which means that there will not be much help from the outside coming and the Cardinals will be stuck with some of their older, expensive players.
This is not the way you wanted to see the 2020-21 offseason kick off. We knew the stove would likely be cold, but at least the last couple of years there have been things to at least speculate on. The Paul Goldschmidt trade was nice and we also spent time talking about Bryce Harper, even if it seemed unlikely they’d go that direction. Last winter, there was the focus on Nolan Arenado. This year, there’s no way in good conscience to expect anything. The Cardinals are going to have to improve from within or hope they can get lucky on a lottery ticket. It’s not the way we like to spend a winter but that stove isn’t likely to have any logs for a fire.
To wrap up, best of luck to Kolten Wong as he moves on to a new organization. I would imagine, given the cold market, he won’t make that $12.5 million next year, but hopefully he’ll find a place that gives him a long-term contract with some security. He will truly be missed in St. Louis.