The Long, Cold Cardinals Winter Ahead

photo: John Mozeliak via Zoom (Brian Walton/The Cardinal Nation)

With the overnight to reflect, I want to coalesce my reactions to the messages delivered by St. Louis Cardinals President of Baseball Operations John Mozeliak to members of the media on Wednesday afternoon.

Kolten Wong (Jasen Vinlove/Imagn)

First of all, I readily admit that I was surprised by the team’s decision to pay the $1 million buyout on second baseman Kolten Wong’s contract to save $11.5 million in 2021 expense. (further details here)

It set the tone for what followed over the next 45 minutes.

Yes, I understood the implications of an empty Busch Stadium. I understood the team took huge losses just to play in 2020.

What I did not expect is that such a healthy franchise would revert to this level of year-by-year bottom line financial management. The Cardinals have made money for years before not doing so in 2020. Maybe they will be unable to show a profit in 2021, either.

But if the DeWitt ownership group is going to run the team like a bottom-line business, then why aren’t they looking to buy depressed assets and invest for the long haul when the market is down? Instead, they are sending a clear cost-cutting, austerity message – at least for 2021.

Maybe they are willing to take a short-term hit in fan interest while waiting for multiple contracts to come off the books for 2022. If the ballpark cannot be full, anyway, a year of potentially reduced public support would matter less to the bottom line than it would in normal times.

While not naming names, Mozeliak did acknowledge that they have their eye on contracts that currently limit the team’s financial flexibility but conclude in 12 months from now (primarily Matt Carpenter, Dexter Fowler and Andrew Miller, plus perhaps even Miles Mikolas).

So 2022 could bring an opportunity to spend to improve the team.

The time might also allow the organization’s top prospects an important 2021 season to further develop in a semi-normal environment – potentially difference-making youngsters like Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson, Ivan Herrera and Nolan Gorman.

But what should we expect in the interim?

The general environment

Normally, Mozeliak sprinkles his talks with optimism about the Cardinals’ selective ventures into the free agent and trade markets, while all the time being “opportunistic”. I heard nothing even vaguely resembling that on Wednesday.

Because of the uncertainty of 2021 in terms of team revenue – which Mozeliak noted is highly dependent on game day-related fan spending – the team called the “conservative, safer play” with Wong.

Until proven otherwise, it is hard for me to see how that kind of conservative outlook will change any time soon.

While it was not a specific statement about the player payroll, Mozeliak said, “’Do more with less’ is one of our mantras for 2021.”

Stepping back and looking at the world around us, what are the odds that over the next four months, the Cardinals (or any other business in the world) will become confident enough on the future economic outlook for April through October 2021 to risk making major investments – ones that may not pay off?

It is one thing for health officials and politicians to make pronouncements, but they are non-binding. This is about making multi-million dollar commitments based on predictions.

Translating that directly to the Cardinals 2021 player roster and the payroll is a challenge that is inexact by definition, but let’s review some related comments for clues.

2021 roster/payroll considerations

Because the 2021 financial models are cloudy, we have no way of knowing if the Wong belt-tightening is the beginning or the end. Certainly it was low-hanging fruit, to resurrect a “Mo-ism” from years past. But are there further reductions in the works? We just don’t know.

Mozeliak acknowledged a down player payroll will follow the down revenue plan, but would not comment on how much, either in dollars or percentages.

Beefing up the outfield was a question on many peoples’ minds as the August 31 trade deadline came and went with no action taken by the Cardinals. At that time, Mozeliak stated that he would use the remainder of the season to evaluate the young outfielders and make a determination whether the team needed to “go external” for offensive help this offseason.

On Wednesday, I asked Mozeliak both about that assessment and whether the team will be “going external.”

He replied that he did not want to answer, going on to explain that it was a “difficult season to make judgments” and that “COVID had a negative effect on performance.”

Both of those observations are absolutely true – however, they were equally true back on August 31 when he himself opened the door to the possibility of getting outside help for the offense.

Later in the call, I probed for interest in bringing in a platoon hitter, an approach used very successfully by the American League Champion Tampa Bay Rays to squeeze more production from one of the very lowest payrolls in MLB.

Though I did not name names, in the back of my mind was a player like Harrison Bader, who continues to hit left-handed pitching very well, but who struggles against righties. A righty-mashing free agent like the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson could be an ideal platoon partner.

Mo was again non-committal at best. He noted generically that “Rosters are the sum of their parts” and “If we are confident with the platoon model, we would be open to it.”

So, what changed from August 31 to October 28?

My conclusion is that the financial realities have come home to roost and any major hopes to improve the team externally this winter have been shelved.

Do I know this to be fact? Of course not.

Hey, I was wrong about Wong, so maybe I have swung the pendulum too far in the other direction. But this is my reading of the current situation.

What will they do?

Adam Wainwright (Steve Mitchell/Imagn)

Rather than leaving on what the Cardinals will not do, let’s consider what they may do.

Franchise icons Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina are free agents. The two want to return to finish their careers with St. Louis. Molina seeks a two-year commitment.

Earlier this week, team president Bill DeWitt III, son of the man holding the purse strings, made the following statement to the Belleville News Democrat.

“(Wainwright and Molina) do fit into the payroll structure,” DeWitt said. “They have to, and it’s all got to work. Without predicting what will happen there, I don’t think you can look at them kind of separately.”

Yadier Molina (Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

It may not occur quickly, however, and it is not unreasonable to expect the Cardinals will wait until they know how much it will take to get the two back into the fold for 2021 before committing any significant money elsewhere.

A slow-moving approach may not be a big problem considering how many free agents are in the market now and will be added when the December 2 tender deadline for arbitration-eligible players arrives.

I could see the Cardinals waiting until February to make a few $1-2 million additions as needed to fill gaps to couple with the re-signing of Wainwright and Molina and call that a winter.

Build the 2021 marketing around the increasing list of career milestones to be achieved by the duo, while getting younger players more experience on the field.

Get through 2021 and all that is associated with it (bad contracts, lower revenues, uncertainty, etc…) with another competitive, but not World Series-contending roster, and look ahead – while keeping the 2022 powder dry.

I hope I am proven wrong, but that is the level to which my immediate expectations have been lowered.

In closing, if you would like to watch Mozeliak’s entire session to make your own assessment, it has been posted via the link below. Then stop by The Cardinal Nation’s free forum to join the lively discussion with other Cardinals fans!

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