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Goold: Did Cardinals follow through on plan to increase payroll, or did they pinch pennies?

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Cardinals minor-league spring training day two in Jupiter

John Mozeliak, the Cardinals president of baseball operations, walks the grounds on Tuesday, March, 8, 2022, as he watches minor-league spring training in Jupiter, Fla. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

Check out the highlights from the Post-Dispatch's weekly Cardinals chat with readers. 

Q: Is it true the Cardinals are 30 million less in team payroll in 2022 vs 2021? If that is true why didn’t they sign Marcus Stroman? Everyone knows we are not winning a world championship with our present starters.

A: I'm so glad you ask. It is not true. It's not even close to true. I'm not sure where that number is coming from. One source that has been used often does not yet include the players with less than three years of service time and they will be paid more this year than last year because the minimum is going up. Another source that I know was not cited but was used in a recent story is talking about the entire 40-man roster and the total payroll from 2021 while only comparing that to the opening day roster for the 2022 Cardinals. That's the difference between 46+ players and 28 players. It's not apples to apples.

It's hard to compare the 2021 total payroll expense to the 2022 opening payroll expense because the season hasn't been played yet, and there will be movements and promotions and additions and the like to change the payroll. One is a finished product. The other is a beginning.

Got some time? Let's do this together.

I took the 2021 opening day roster and included all of the salaries for the players on that team that day or on the injured list, or, in the case of Fowler, what he was owed by the Cardinals. I did not include signing bonuses. Arenado's cost for the Cardinals in 2021 was zero because what they owed him has been deferred and the rest was paid by Colorado. The total, including about $24m on the injured list, was $137.6 million for the opening day roster. That was a downturn from previous years, as the team said they would have coming out of 2020.

The opening day roster and IL, not including bonuses, for the current team announced today is $151-$152m. That uses estimates for the players who are zero-to-three based on their service time and past performance. For example, newcomer Andrew Pallante is set to make the minimum as a rookie ($700,000), but Tommy Edman will make beyond that based on the Cardinals’ formula because he’s got nearly three years in the majors and a Gold Glove.

You are welcome to check my math.

And please do so in the comments.

As for Stroman, it became clear that the Cardinals identified several pitchers to pursue, saw Matz as both the preferred signing as a lefty and the value play to maximize with their defense, and when they got that deal done, they pivoted to shop for swingmen, which Stroman is not.

Q: Seems the media and fans tend to agree the game needs more action, more base runners to revive a boring 3 ½-hour baseball game. Doesn’t the shift regardless of the strategy to use it compound the problem of keeping runners off the bases?

A: Studies have shown that the shift does not steal as many hits or suck as much time as other elements of the game, no. The shift still needs balls in play to matter, and the game is come to a halt because there are fewer balls in play. It doesn't matter where the fielders are if the outcomes are strikeout, walk, or homer. They could shift to the dugout. It's not the shift. It's the lack of balls in play. More balls in play and you'll see the shift adapt, too. Let's see a substantive move to improve the game, not a cosmetic one. 

Q: Sandy Koufax was quoted as saying that once he began pitching to contact he became a much better pitcher, or words to that effect. This seems to be the Cardinals’ approach this year as they attempt to build on the strength of their defense by utilizing pitchers that induce higher percentage of ground balls. This makes a lot of sense to me. Your thoughts please? Thanks for the chat.

A: That is exactly the case. And it has a daily-double benefit, too. The Cardinals will take advantage of their standout strength — defense — by pitching to contact, and they will be more efficient, which should help the starters cover the innings and bring stability to the bullpen use in a way other teams won't be able to. A bullpen, even bloated with arms to start, can only cover so many four-inning starts in a week. A team that gets 80 pitches and four innings from a starter is going to test its bullpen more than a Cardinals team that might get six innings from 80 pitches because of the approach and efficiency. That's what they're banking on. They’re banking big on it.

The Cardinals in 2021 turned 78% of groundballs into outs, and the next closest team was 75.9%, according to Sports Info Solutions. That is a sizeable gap over the course of a season, and the Cardinals want to feed that defense even more groundballs in the coming year to take advantage. Miles Mikolas and Adam Wainwright are both aiming for 200 innings, and to do so they’ll need to be expedient and efficient, and for lefty Steve Matz to take that next leap I his career he’ll need to both.

This is the symbiotic relationship — groundouts, quick outs — the Cardinals have hinged a lot of their season on.

Q: It is April 2, 2001, and I tell you that 21 years later Albert Pujols will start at DH for the Cardinals. What events between April 2, 2001 and April 7, 2022 that actually have occurred would have surprised you more (or at least as much)?

A: That a player drafted in the 13th round would become the greatest righthanded hitter of his generation and lead the league in home runs, average, and RBIs for an entire decade while spotting every other hitter in the league a year before he debuted. That we’d watch the only player in MLB history to reach 3,000 hits and 600 home runs and also win at least two World Series championships. That he'd do something that Hank Aaron didn't do.

He set records for the start to his career that no other hitter ever had, and he was a spring sensation that just kept hitting for 11 years as a Cardinal — so how could we see that coming?

Maybe Stan Musial did.

He did show up opening day 2001 at Coors Field and surprise everyone.

Q: Hi, Derrick! Thank you for all your coverage — and hoping for a safe return home for you. … How would the Cardinals be a different team today had they actually re-signed Albert Pujols after the 2011 season. What would that large payroll outlay to Albert have prevented the Cardinals from doing? Thank you!

A: The Cardinals believe that if they kept Pujols they would have had to choose between Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, that they could not have kept extending the contracts of both. The likely move would have been to keep Molina, and they would not have gone and kept Wainwright through the years. They also would not have been in position to make a move for Paul Goldschmidt. Those are the ones that stand out that we can draw direct lines between and not tumble into a bunch of guesses.

There’s this sense that if the Cardinals re-signed Pujols that they would have won another World Series. Hard to know. It’s entirely possible they would not have reached the 2013 World Series. Michael Wacha was a huge part of that run, and the Cardinals don’t draft Wacha without the compensation pick from Pujols leaving for the Angels. Also, Carlos Beltran. The Cardinals don’t sign Beltran if they sign Pujols. Suddenly that ’13 team looks a lot different.

Q: Given last year's experience with pitching, is there any chance the front office has learned their lesson and will be quicker to pull the trigger on an earlier trade to bring in reinforcements if needed, like the Brewers did last year with (Willy Adames)?

DG: We'll find out. No indication yet outside of the depth moves to really add numbers to the middle relief and swingmen roles. There’s déjà vu in the air. 

Q: I appreciate when you answered the previous question about the Cardinals model of consistency over peaks and valleys that you were trying to convey the Cardinals point of view. My question is why can’t the model evolve? When Walt Jocketty was the GM he gave the Cardinals a competitive edge by picking up salaries. Look at players like Jim Edmonds and Larry Walker. (Chairman) Bill DeWitt realized there was an influx of money coming. That meant small market teams wouldn’t necessarily have to trade high-end players and high-end players were going to become more expensive. Only the largest markets could spend to stay in contention. So the Cardinals got ahead of the curve. They saw a change in the league and adjusted.

The league has changed again in the last 5-7 years. Tank and rebuild is painful, but it can be done to great success. Just making the playoffs isn’t enough to win anymore. I know the Braves made a comment like that, but look at the in-season trades they made. The team they had at the end was better than what accumulated a great deal of their in season record. Why could Cardinals ownership acknowledge a change in the mid-2000s, but ignore the changes that have happened now?

A: That's a fair question. The Cardinals have established a brand that they contend every year. They say it. Fans expect it. Players sign on because of it. Nolan Arenado sought them out because of it. There is a sense within the walls of Busch Stadium that the fan base could not stomach two steps back to maybe take one step forward — and I tend to agree. I don’t think the fans would respond to that, and the team is heavily leveraged against selling tickets.

And, big one here, the tank/rebuild isn't exactly a guarantee.

The Cubs did it, got a single title, but now where are they? Doing it again? Back on the rollercoaster, never having produced a single homegrown, impact pitcher during that time. There are a handful of teams that have tried the tank-and-go model and just never went. Have we heard from the Tigers recently? Anyone know where the Pirates are in their tank-to-go plans? Anyone? How are the Reds looking?

The Cardinals see staying steady as the best way to maximize their chances of winning in the postseason because of the increasing randomness of the postseason. It worked for the Braves. And you make a good example. But what did the Braves do with outfielders that the Cardinals didn't do with starting pitching? Atlanta was trying to survive and field an outfield, so they traded for an injured player and they traded for several players having down years. Sounds a lot like what the Cardinals did to get Jon Lester, J. A. Happ and, to a lesser degree, Wade LeBlanc. Lots of parallels there — except how it ended.

The Braves aren't the only team that wants to contend constantly and see what happens when they get in. That's also the model employed by the Brewers, who are arguably doing it much better than the Cardinals. That's also the Rays model. It's how the Yankees talk, much to the consternation of their fan base. And — wait for it — it's where the Cubs want to get. That is their goal. They're taking another step back in order to try to get to where the Cardinals are — and stay there.

If tank to win was a guarantee, more teams would do it, but then it wouldn't work either, and it's not a guarantee. The Orioles exist.

There is one change to the game that tanking has brought that the Cardinals do need to adjust to. Ninety wins just does not mean the same thing as it did before tanking was en vogue. If teams are winning less, that means those wins are going somewhere — standings are zero-sum — and that has inflated win totals so that 95 is the new 92, and if the Cardinals want to win the division they need to aim for that 95 total.

Ownership has acknowledged that change and a need to seek that target.

Q: DG, I know you are someone who values facts over baseless assertions, so I have come prepared to back my point that making a meaningful move at the deadline is not optional but essential for any team serious about a deep playoff run. Here are the last six seasons (omitting 2020) of World Series participants and their in-season/deadline moves that helped propel them there. Every team, save for the 2019 Nationals, made a move for a contributing player to the everyday line-up/rotation/bullpen:

2015

Mets: Yoenis Cespedes, Tyler Clippard

Royals: Johnny Cueto, Ben Zobrist

2016

Cubs: Aroldis Chapman & Mike Montgomery

Guardians: Andrew Miller, Coco Crisp

2017

Dodgers: Yu Darvish, Tony Watson, Tony Cigrani, Curtis Granderson

Astros: Justin Verlander, Tyler Clippard

2018

Dodgers: Manny Machado, Brian Dozier, John Axford

Red Sox: Steve Pearce, Ian Kinsler, Nathan Eovaldi

2019

Nationals: Daniel Hudson

Astros: Zack Grienke

2021

Braves: Eddie Rosario, Joc Pederson, Jorge Solar, Adam Duvall

Astros: Kendall Graveman

By comparison here are the Cardinals transactions during that same time frame (excluding players who did not appear in MLB game that season):

2015: Brandon Moss, Steve Cishek, Johnathan Broxton

2016: Zach Duke

2017: N/A

2018: Tyler Webb, Seth Elledge, Tyler Ross, Justin Williams, Genesis Cabrera

2019: Tony Cingrani

2021: Jon Lester, J. A. Happ, T.J. MacFarland, Luis Garcia

Conclusion: the best way to reduce the randomness of the post-season is to reinforce your talent and not be over-reliant on luck.

A: Agreed. Great research. Fantastic context. And spot on. Let's not overdramatize the moves that the Braves made — but respect them for being aggressive and addressing a need in a variety of ways and doing it twice during the season. There are similarities with what the Cardinals did at the deadline, too. That said, the lack of action at the deadline is one way the Cardinals have left themselves exposed. They don't get that depth jolt, that change in look, and that booster rocket toward October, and they've been left lacking now for years in the playoffs. I think you make a strong case, and it's one that does stand out for what the Cardinals have not done to add to what they have.

It's tricky to say this team isn't built to win the division, because they haven't played a day of the season and there's still four months before the August 2 trade deadline.

If they are in position to win the division on Aug. 2 and don't do something to enhance their chances beyond the end of September, then they'll invite ample criticism for a dull deadline. Another dull deadline. Again.

Q: Do the Cardinals plan to match the Angels’ personal services contract? Didn’t they say at the time that they would have included it if known that was what Pujols was looking for?

A: They did say that. DeWitt told me they would have included one, but that they felt the discussion of a "lifetime" contract meant just that — a lifetime, a promise for post-career role, too. Countering the Angels is not really for them to do right now. Pujols has the personal services contract in place with the Angels and that has not changed; he signed it. It is a 10-year, $10-million deal and it does not activate until after he retires. He has the option to accept or turn it down.

Again, he can turn it down if he does not want to do it, if he wants to walk away from $10 million guaranteed and pursue something else. But until that point that contract exists. It's the last contract of its type. MLB no longer permits personal service contracts. I asked Pujols about this, and he told me he's worried about getting his swing right for this season, not the decision he'll make at the end of the season about returning to the team that DFA'd him.

Q: Hi Derrick! Wondering if you mind sharing what you know about MLB regular season scheduling for the future. I heard somewhere that the league will be changing their criteria starting in 2023. I, for one, am not thrilled with playing each National League Central teams 19 times per year. UGH! That's too much. I like the Cards playing AL divisions (home & away series) once every 3 years — that's perfect! I don't like the NL Central only playing the NL East and NL West teams one home/away series annually — that's not enough! Has there been any word from the league that can give me hope of adding games from those two divisions to the Cards' season schedule? Thanks!

A: Here is what is going to happen in the coming years with the schedule, starting in 2023.

  • The Cardinals will play the other 29 teams at least once every year.
  • They will play their AL rival (KC) home and away. They will play the other 14 teams either home or away. Odd years could be in the Bronx. Even years could bring the Yankees to Busch Stadium, and the same for the Mariners, Twins, Angels, Red Sox, White Sox, etc.
  • There will be 14 division games, seven at home, seven on the road.

Here's a fun little twist, a little newsy tidbit if you will:

In the current schedule for 2023, the Cardinals are headed to London to host two games against the Cubs. Those two games will be two of the seven home games vs. the rivals. The rough draft of the schedule has the Cubs playing those other five games all that once.

That's right — a five-game series at Busch between the Cardinals and Cubs. That will be bonkers. The 2023 schedule is not final, and it's subject to change. The Cardinals do expect to be the team selected for London, and multiple sources have told the Post-Dispatch that's MLB's plan.

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