photo: Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports)
Note to readers: Because some have trouble differentiating between ideas served up by writers and real rumors – especially during a very, very cold hot stove season for the St. Louis Cardinals – I want to be crystal clear right up front that what follows is a sharing my thinking in print. It is not a reflection of anything more than that.
Many of us know from personal experience in a long-term relationship that you know is ending, it can be a relief if your partner is the one who actually finalizes the break up.
So it may be with the St. Louis Cardinals and their two free agent stars, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright.
The Cardinals, like the majority of their MLB brethren, are playing the four corners stall game with regard to the market during this long and quiet off-season. In fact, costly turnovers have been the only major headlines, with Kolten Wong and John Brebbia among the victims of the financial belt-tightening.
The stated priorities of the club this winter are two-fold:
- Re-sign Molina and Wainwright.
- Operate in 2021 with a reduced payroll compared to 2020.
Any roster enhancements beyond the above would be only speculation. And the possibility of any such addition being an impact player seems quite low.
Further, other than the disclosure that the player payroll will be down from 2020, no 2021 budget has been outlined publicly. In other words, there is no assurance that the money earmarked to pay the aforementioned veteran battery would be fully redeployed elsewhere to improve the 2021 team if they leave.
Sure, some of the money would have to be used. But how much and where?
For example, one could reasonably assume that if Molina does not return, a veteran catcher would be signed to pair with inexperienced Andrew Knizner. But that expenditure would almost certainly not be in Molina’s price range. (For reference, Matt Wieters signed for $2 million per year in both 2019 and 2020, a rate that was 1/10th of Molina’s prior salary.)
Despite the depth of the current pitching staff being the apparent strength of the 2021 Cardinals, the club could also go out and sign another veteran pitcher to compete for the rotation. But again, that could potentially be accomplished for less money than Wainwright may require. And this seems far less of a necessity than a proven second catcher.
But if the Cardinals want both Wainwright and Molina back for 2021, isn’t it only a matter of “when”?
While that certainly seems to be the prevailing thinking, let’s step back and consider the factors that could lead to one or both of the two team icons leaving.
And what if this is what the Cardinals actually hope will occur?
In other words, what if assumption number 1 above is just window-dressing?
I know what they are saying. That is what they need to say. But given the continuing uncertain financial environment, what if there is more going on behind the scenes?
A partial salary for Waino?
Here is such a twist offered up by Post-Dispatch beat writer Derrick Goold in his chat this Monday:
“It is entirely possible that Adam Wainwright is not with the Cardinals on opening day, but Adam Wainwright is a Cardinal by season’s end.”
This is a reference to a veteran signing a mid-season contract to pitch only in the second half of the year. In the past, Roger Clemens did it and so did Pedro Martinez as their celebrated careers were winding down. In this scenario, the Cardinals would save multiple millions by paying Wainwright for only a partial season.
Of course, Adam would have to buy in to such a plan. Considering his legendary competitiveness – not to mention his 2020 mound success and good health in recent seasons – it might take some real selling to convince him. And if “mystery team X” offers a full-season deal with full-season compensation… well, he might be gone.
Then again, Goold seemed to imply Wainwright would be amenable to the partial year deal. I am not nearly so sure about that, but I am just guessing.
It wouldn’t be the first time or last that a team (or an agent) used the media to float an idea without having to personally bring it to the negotiating table and have to deal directly with any negative reaction.
What might all this mean in the bigger picture?
Could this actually be a strategy employed by the Cardinals to force Wainwright to either take much less money to stay – or even leave entirely – without it appearing to be the team’s fault?
If your primary goal is to save money, but not disrespect your two beloved team icons, you go out of your way to reassure the public that you want them back. This will keep fans happy. But at the same time, you execute a plan under the covers in which the players end up making the decision to leave themselves.
A potential win-win – if cash conservation is your true decision driver.
Molina moves possible
In Molina’s case, there are multiple levers the Cardinals could potentially pull to quietly push him away – other than the obvious time delay tactic already being deployed and the sheer dollar amount of his contract offer. As free agency remains tepid and other catchers fill existing openings, Molina’s market and perhaps dollar value seem to be shrinking, which play into the hands of the Cardinals stalling.
What else might they do?
For example, there is considerable speculation that a second year may be important to Molina. Making 2022 a team option in their bargaining would keep the Cardinals in control, not the catcher. It might provide the desired window-dressing to the public, but could leave a negative perception with Molina.
Another tactic could be to force the matter of playing time. As everyone reading this already knows, Molina essentially holds the power to dictate when he plays – and he expects to be in the lineup every day. Requiring Molina to accept a lesser role by making this explicit during contract discussions could turn the catcher off.
However, many Cardinals fans would actually support the concept of some type of job share. They adore Molina but also want to see an orderly transition begin at the catching position. The rub is that there is no indication that Molina would agree to such an approach.
And only he knows if that would that make him angry/disrespected enough to leave.
We should not forget that any bumps in the Molina negotiations ahead are going to be exposed to the public by the catcher himself and/or those in his camp. That could lead to considerable dirty laundry being aired. No one wins in that case, but other than the Cardinals buckling and signing him under his desired terms, it seems inevitable.
The bottom line impact
By carefully avoiding showing their hand on the size of their budget, the Cardinals could easily cut another $10 million or more from their 2021 spend by replacing the two free agents with lower-cost alternatives – a bargain second catcher ala Wieters and a back end rotation veteran – or save millions more by just adding the former.
The negative PR from the two walking away is lessened by the team making it clear they tried to re-sign them, but it just did not work out.
2021 ticket sales to be allowed are almost certainly going to be well under full capacity due to the impact of the ongoing pandemic. Would the loss of the two materially impact team revenues this coming season? It is certainly debatable.
When all is said and done and the smoke has long cleared, I believe the career legacies of Molina and Wainwright as future Cardinals Hall of Famers would not be severely impacted – no matter what happens in 2021. There is no doubt that both will be soon wearing red jackets for the remainder of their lives.
Could any of what has been outlined above happen? Perhaps.
Will it happen? Who knows what is ahead?
Again, I want to be clear that I am not suggesting this approach has a factual basis, but I have been thinking a lot about the possibilities, so I decided to share.
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