Some stream-of-consciousness commentary on payroll, early offseason moves, rumors, and the owners’ first CBA proposal.
Morning all! Happy very fall-ish Saturday. It’s only been a few short weeks since the end of the World Series but there has been a surprising amount of news and information from the Cardinals and MLB. I’m here to give you off-the-cuff thoughts on everything that’s going on, what it means, why it matters and why it doesn’t.
McFarland Signs & Payroll Update
You’ve probably heard by now that the Cardinals re-signed LHP T.J. McFarland. The veteran reliever was pretty good down the stretch, producing a 2.56 ERA and a 3.79 FIP. That production came from an extremely high ground ball rate – 63.7%, which translates to a 2.88 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. In a ballpark that suppresses home runs and a league’s best defense, that will play.
What won’t play is his minuscule 4.89 K/9. That’s abysmally low. It was balanced with a walk per nine in the low 2’s. Basically, the only way McFarland can get batters out is to induce a ground ball. Normally I would call that a bad signing, especially this early in the offseason when the entire free agent class is available. It’s not, though. McFarland at $2.5M is coming in to be the club’s second lefty behind a quality K arm in Genesis Cabrera. Several young lefties in Memphis could step in if needed. This move is not bad, not good, just fine.
What does that mean for payroll? It ticks the needle a bit. Here’s the updated payroll chart, based on the same assumptions I’ve been making about how to apply Arenado’s salary for over a year. Read about those assumptions here.
By my formula (and, yes, mine will be different from Fangraphs and other places who aren’t applying Arenado’s deferrals the same way) the Cardinals are around $136M in projected payroll for 2022. If I stick with my earlier payroll projections of $155M on Opening Day, they have about $19M more to spend.
Should I stick with that number? Derrick Goold of the Post-Dispatch reported this week that the Cardinals anticipate raising payroll over 2021. I am projecting a $13M bump over last season.
That still feels close to me, though I’ve gotten a lot of pushback from fans and commentators on the internet. Most of that is in the form of “well, I think” and not “a source has told me”. “I think” is often just another way of saying “I want”. Yes, fans want the Cardinals to spend more. I want the Cardinals to spend more. But it doesn’t matter what I think. It matters what the Cardinals will do and when it comes to payroll reporting, that’s the information I’m here to give you. They’re not going to raise payroll by $40M this season just because I say they should, especially with the top of their minor league system filled with players they want to play and should play.
Cardinals Let Nick Plummer Become a Free Agent
Nick Plummer was a former high-profile first-round pick for the Cardinals. He struggled through some tough years early before breaking out in AA and AAA this season. Plummer, a left-handed outfield who can play all three spots, produced a 142 wRC+ in 376 PAs in Springfield and a 153 in a short stint with AAA Memphis. He hit 15 homers across the two levels and had a walk rate of 14.1 and 19.6%.
Why in the world would the Cardinals allow someone like that to leave their system? Well, at 25 Plummer is a little on the older side for a prospect. His breakout season is a true breakout – he had an 88 wRC+ as a 22-year-old in A+ back in 2019. So, his history of quality production is short. Still, couldn’t this organization make use of a lefty hitter with pop who walks like crazy and can play some center?
Yeah, they could. They also have about a half-dozen players with similar (or more versatile) skills ahead of Plummer. That includes Lars Nootbaar, who has a firm grip on the 4th outfielder spot after a quality MLB debut and a scorching hot performance in the AFL. Then there is Juan Yepez, a righty who is ahead of Plummer as a hitter and is the best in-house option as DH. Nolan Gorman is an elite prospect and a lefty hitter who will demand a starting spot as soon as midseason. Brendan Donovan would be higher on my depth chart than Plummer and he can play second and both corner infield spots. All he’s done in the minors is hit.
The bottom line is that the Cardinals sometimes just do right by their players. The Cardinals did not roster Plummer to bury him on their 40-man depth chart. Instead, likely in consultation with or at the request of Plummer and his agent, they allowed him to go seek an opportunity where he has a clearer path to the majors. Would I have preferred that they keep him? Absolutely. And he could return if nothing entices him away. I hope it happens because I think has a chance to be a useful MLB player.
GM Meetings: Cards Likely Out On Shortstops, In on Starters
Derrick Goold spent the week at the GM Meetings doing the Lord’s work – gathering up intel on the Cardinals’ offseason plans. I’ll go ahead and embed several of his Tweets (and re-Tweets from the PD) since this is his info, not mine and he deserves the credit. As always, thank you beat writers!
“John Mozeliak said that the shortstop market has ‘not been a focus for us’ to this point,” writes @dgoold. “Pitching has been. The Cardinals are exploring a wide spectrum of options at starter.”https://t.co/UKvWOeMg48
— St. Louis Post-Dispatch (@stltoday) November 11, 2021
You can read more about the crazy shortstop market and the Cardinals’ plans through the link. Despite a wealth of talent available, the Cards seem unlikely to be players in the infield market, preferring to give opportunities to their current options, starting with Paul DeJong. Last year, despite DeJong’s struggles, the Cardinals were 15th in the baseball in fWAR at short with 3.2 produced. Edmundo Sosa’s elite glove and rare (and not-reproducible) ability to get hit by pitches helped stabilize the position after a rough start. DeJong also provided quality defense by nearly every metric available.
Can the team count on average production from the position again? Probably so. DeJong should bounce back a little and Sosa’s glove is not going away.
Then there is the other side of the infield to consider. Tommy Edman might not be the ideal choice as a lead-off hitter, but he does some useful things on a roster. His glove plays – likely almost as well at short as it does at second. With Nolan Gorman’s arrival certain at some point in 2022, the Cardinals will need a place to stash Edman. Could shortstop become his long-term home? Possibly.
Add it up and the Cardinals would have to clear roster space by moving productive and cheap MLB players to spend a ton of money at the same position – something they never do.
That has shifted the front office’s attention toward the rotation where we already have rumors of interest and potential signings.
A rough approximation of how #stlcards currently see their starting rotation:
Midseason arrival: Liberatore
— Derrick S. Goold (@dgoold) November 11, 2021
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Cardinals be so open in their pursuit of free agent starting pitchers. As I’ve documented here many times, the Cards simply don’t go outside of their organization to add starters. At least not in the offseason. In the last decade, the Cards have brought in just three free agent starters: Mike Leake, Mile Mikolas, and Kwang Hyun Kim. Two of those were not proven arms, but scout-and-signs from overseas.
We already know that the Cardinals have had meetings and interest in free agent LHP Steven Matz, who was with Toronto in 2021 and produced 2.8 fWAR in 150 innings. That’s a high-water mark for Matz, who hovered between .5-1.5 fWAR through most of his career with the Mets.
If you take Goold’s depth chart as a rotation order based on talent and expected production (I don’t think he intends it that way), Matz would fit better as the #4-5 starter and not the #3 arm. I would put him behind Hudson and about even with Mikolas, assuming health.
The other name is Nick Martinez, who John LaRue featured here at VEB. He would also be at the back of the rotation in my rankings.
Do you know who would fit perfectly in that #3 slot behind Waino and Flaherty? Marcus Stroman. There are probably a half dozen names I would want the Cards to consider before settling for Matz or committing to an unproven Martinez. Patience is warranted.
The Owner’s First CBA Proposal
Lastly, we have a short note on a rumored proposal from the owners to the players concerning the expiring Collective Bargaining Agreement. This proposal concerns the controversial arbitration system. Instead of going through arbitration, teams would assign salaries to players based on a preset formula that used Fangraphs’ WAR value.
Yes, Fangraphs WAR.
The internet blew up with this news with the typical claims that the owners were being ridiculous and the idea was insane.
It’s not insane. It’s pretty much what the owners are already doing. Here’s Derrick Goold again with the relevant info:
For several years #stlcards have used a publicly available metric (WAR) to determine salaries offered/imposed on players with fewer than 3 years of service time and not yet arbitration-eligible. Their in-house formula uses WAR, service time, plus awards to set $ above minimum.
— Derrick S. Goold (@dgoold) November 12, 2021
Debate the pros and cons of that in the comments, but here’s my takeaway: the owners and players have started the process of negotiation. The sparkle hasn’t worn off the Braves’ new World Series trophy and we already have conversation happening about one of the critical controversies in the game. That’s not a call for optimism. But it’s something better than ominous silence followed by a lockout or a strike. Things could get that bad by the end, but, for now, at least, they are talking.
That’s as far as my consciousness streams! Enjoy your weekend.