ST. LOUIS — Have you ever acquired something and found it to be a bad decision a few years later?
It's honestly part of life. Making choices and learning from the poor ones. For John Mozeliak and the St. Louis Cardinals, the current issue with the payroll heading into the offseason could be the difference between a hot stove platter and a mediocre appetizer.
Namely, have the moves from recent years hamstrung their ability to make a splash this winter?
First off, I wouldn't put much stock into the comments made by Mozeliak and Bill DeWitt Jr. at the end of the year team press conference. When have they just outright said they are going to make a hard push for a big time free agent? Like, in those exact words. The answer is never. Mo and company play it close to the chest, giving less away than a Christopher Nolan film does in its first trailer.
Looking at the payroll, it's most likely going to open up the season around $160 million when all the arbitration control salaries kick in. Factor in all the tax allocations, and the number could rise to around $170 million, which would leave the team around $35 million in space.
Basically, they have just enough money to sign Anthony Rendon and sneak under the mark. I kid, because that will never happen, but let's dig into the reasons why the team is so up against it.
In other words, a closer look at the three players who make up 27% of their payroll: Dexter Fowler, Matt Carpenter, and Brett Cecil. These are the three contracts to examine this year and moving forward if you want to hurl any rocks at the front office.
Step up the plate, Cecil. This is easily the most embarrassing case, due to the fact that Cecil couldn't even crack the bullpen for the majority of 2019. And no, he wasn't injured. Let's call the official term "not effective enough to make it over Mike Mayers." Cecil struggled with a nerve issue towards the latter part of 2018 and into 2019, but there was no room for a guy making $7 million. Ouch. But did the team make a poor move in acquiring him? Hold that thought.
When the team signed Cecil before the 2017 season, he was arguably the second-best lefthanded reliever on the market behind Aroldis Chapman. Here's a guy who had put together four solid seasons in Toronto, the arcade stadium of the American League. Cecil put up at least a 10 strikeout per nine inning ratio in those four seasons, along with very fine WHIP, FIP, and ERA+ marks. He was very effective and 29 years old. Four years may have been a bit much, but the market said otherwise.
Cecil is merely a contract that didn't work out, performing very poorly after a decent first season. I won't fault Mozeliak too much for this, and it rightfully made him gun shy on handing out long-term contracts to relievers. See Andrew Miller's two-year deal.
Fowler is a sweet and bitter case. The Cardinals had missed out on Jason Heyward a year before, and were still reeling from the loss of Oscar Tavares in 2014. Fowler was coming off two very good seasons in Chicago and a World Series, so the price was high. He was turning 31 before the first pitch in 2017, so age was a risk for a five-year contract worth over $82 million.
Fowler's first season was decent, if incomplete. Playing in just 118 games, Fowler hit 18 home runs and put up a .855 OPS and 122 OPS+. Solid marks that helped an average-at-best defense. 2018 was an abomination all around, with Fowler ranking last in the MLB in multiple stats. 2019 was a rebound of sorts, where Fowler climbed closer to the 2.0 WAR mark. With two years and a no trade clause still attached, it won't be easy to move a soon-to-be 34-year-old outfielder with limited upside.
Unlike Cecil's contract, which was relatively market-savvy at the time, Fowler's deal can be picked apart. Group Marcell Ozuna and Fowler together and you have a disappointment package. A failure to recover from an unfortunate loss of life and rejection by not only Heyward (thank goodness, in a way) but Giancarlo Stanton as well.
It is the Fowler contract that makes me weary of expecting another long-term deal for an outfielder.
Fowler's drop-off probably scared the team off from extending Ozuna, another productive bat with questionable defense. Unless Fowler really turns it around, this will be an overall underwhelming signing. If Fowler can only put up a 1.7 WAR in 2019 at this age, can he really get better? Doubtful.
Now, let's talk about the Carpenter deal, a premature extension before last season. Carpenter was coming off a glorious comeback campaign in 2018, albeit one that was cooled off in September. 2019 followed that end's unfortunate trend. Carpenter, all across the board, wasn't good last season. There was some pop and walks, but overall a disappointment. The defense wasn't good, the strikeouts were depressing and the on-base was gone.
He will turn 34 in eight days, so the chances for a big rebound aren't likely. All the team can hope for is a solid return to ordinary status. Get on base, hit 20 home runs, and collect 30 doubles without costing the team ten runs in the field. While I liked it at the time, the Carpenter extension can be rightfully seen as unnecessary, even with the robust 2018 season.
He was over the age of 30, under contract for another season, and not outright looking for an extension. Now, the Cardinals didn't have a third baseman ready to take over, even if they knew about Tommy Edman. Paul Goldschmidt was coming in to play first base, so the options for Carpenter were limited outside of third base.
Like Fowler, this extension can be rightfully tugged in each direction. A need was there in some form, but it wasn't outright necessary. Carpenter wasn't going anywhere, and if he did start fast in 2019, they could have approached him then, knowing the slow start wasn't reoccurring.
Those aren't the only questionable deals. Mike Leake will get paid $4 million this season by the Cardinals to pitch elsewhere. That was a problematic, if sunny at first, five year contract. Wouldn't re-signing Lance Lynn to an extension seem better right now? Miles Mikolas rebounded from a slow start last season to finish well, but that contract will be examined.
Here's the deal with contract analysis. Hindsight can be 20/20, but that doesn't mean the initial take is set in stone. One can like how it looked at the time and then reexamine. That's baseball for you. Heck, that's sports.
The contracts that take up nearly a third of the roster are problematic and will restrict the Cardinals for the next two seasons. For all intents and purposes, Mozeliak did deserve an extension for the 2019 season success. The Cardinals won 90 games, took the Central, won a playoff round, and are primed for repeat division success.
But his moves have been faulty, if not completely wrong. He is still worthy of inspection. There's room to improve there for a guy who people once said was a mastermind. He's given a top 10 payroll every season to work with, so the parts are there. Along with Michael Girsch, he needs to truly second-guess extensions, reconfigure free agent worth and find a way to chase down a true stud in the free agent market.
He will have little choice but to run with youth in the depleted outfield in 2020, but this team will eventually need a splash to get back to World Series-contending status. When will they be able to make the splash? Who knows? I wouldn't say anytime soon. Not this team. Not this front office. The Cardinals could have signed Bryce Harper last year, still traded for Paul Goldschmidt, made Harrison Bader a fourth outfielder, and been set going into this season-but that's too bold for Mo.
Here's the thing. I wouldn't label the moves Discussed in this article to be terrible, but they are fairly questionable. Sure, they need Goldschmidt to be himself and Carpenter to rebound a little, but when you start adding up the hopes and probabilities, it gets a little far-fetched.
2019 was solid. If the Cardinals are to improve in 2020, it'll be inside the organization due to previous gambles taken by the front office not panning out.
Sometimes, you don't like what you buy and want to return it. Sometimes, it's just not possible. Welcome to the Cardinals' world.