The Cardinals Have Gotten Cheaper

The local paper touts the team’s payroll “flexibility,” floating the possibility of a “sizable addition” in the near future. The owner concedes that the club has “not had great results pursuing the highest-profile free agents, even though we’ve been close on several occasions”; the problem, he says, is that “there’s always a team or two or three who go beyond what we think is a value or the prudent thing to do.” Some fans grumble about the team’s “static” payroll, while others maintain that its track record of success means ownership should be given the benefit of the doubt.

That all of this describes the Cardinals won’t surprise you; what might is the fact that it describes the Cardinals of ten years ago. Following their surprise 2006 World Series title, the Cardinals spent the offseason ostensibly in the hunt for a “premium free-agent pitcher” but came up short, ultimately filling out their rotation by signing Kip Wells to a one-year, $4 million deal and getting 162⅔ innings of 5.70 ERA ball in return.

The next few years were a tumultuous period for the Cardinals, who struggled on the field and underwent a messy organizational shakeup off of it. As no shortage of stories and profiles and books have chronicled, the new regime led by John Mozeliak and Jeff Luhnow emphasized a forward-thinking, data-driven approach to scouting and player development—and that approach eventually produced an abundance of young, home-grown talent, including many of the players who helped the club win the 2011 World Series and three NL Central titles in the years since.

It also saved Bill DeWitt’s ownership group a lot of money. While the team’s payroll has obviously continued to rise over the last decade—during which it spent big money on Matt Holliday, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina, and others—figures published by Forbes in its annual “Business of Baseball” rankings show that team revenues have risen at a significantly higher rate. When combined with year-end payroll figures from Cot’s Baseball Contracts, they paint a picture of an organization that has grown increasingly tight-fisted over the last ten years:

Between 2005 and 2009, the Cardinals averaged a payroll that ate up slightly more than 53% of club revenues; in the three seasons after that, it held steady at around 48 percent; and since 2013, it has sunk to an average of just above 43 percent.

With Holliday, Brandon Moss, and others now off the books, it’s a near certainty that this percentage will drop again heading into the 2017 season. Baseball Reference estimates that the Cardinals’ 2017 payroll obligations (including both arbitration-eligible and pre-arb players) currently stand at $134.7 million. Assuming club revenues next year are in line with their average rate of growth over the last ten years, the Cards would need to add about $25 million in salary before the end of next season to match last year’s payroll-to-revenue ratio of 45 percent. (And that’s before they trade away Jaime García and his $12 million salary, as they’re widely expected to.) They could net an extra $50 million in spending next year and still not hit the 52 percent threshold the club regularly breached before 2010.

Just as they did ten years ago—when, I’ll note one more time for posterity’s sake, the team invested a significantly higher percentage of revenues in its on-field product than it does now—opinions differ as to how objectionable this is. It’s certainly true, as far as the present moment goes, that this winter’s lackluster free-agent class doesn’t represent a great opportunity for a spending spree. But when fans are outraged about picking up García’s no-brainer option or aghast over the possibility of a deal for Dexter Fowler in the middle eight figures, healthy skepticism has mutated into something else entirely.

Years of DeWitt apologism and breathless praise for the club’s front-office wizardry have given the Cardinals a fanbase that values not just a winning team but a specific kind of winning team—one that succeeds not because it’s richer but because it’s smarter, scrappier, even morally superior. Maybe it’s an overstatement to say that some Cards fans would rather lose with a low payroll than win with a high one, but not by much.

The Cardinals don’t get to choose between such clear-cut options, but maybe the choice is clearer than we think. The competitive advantage the club gained during the Luhnow era has faded amid a league-wide analytics arms race. The Cubs are ascendant, deep-pocketed teams like the Dodgers and Giants remain wild-card threats, and plenty of others are rebuilding in a hurry. The Cardinals may not end up on the outside of the playoffs looking in for the the next few years, but if they do, don’t let yourself believe they did everything they could to avoid it.