Yes, it is already that time of year. As of right now, over 150 players have already filed for free agency. Among that group are several members of the 2011 World Series Champion Cardinals. The team obviously has some decisions to make about these free agents (and others), and it’s usually a lot of fun to play armchair GM. In order to make the predictions somewhat plausible, I’m providing a cheat sheet which lists salaries (known or estimated) for the Cardinal players I expect to at least make it to spring training with the team. The sheet only includes 20 players, so there is plenty of room for debate.
About the 20: The team has roughly a little over $85M committed to the 2012 payroll, and that doesn’t include whatever they end up paying the non-closer, Jason Motte. Just a guess, but I would expect a deal to be worked out before reaching arbitration, and that deal would likely push the 2012 payroll to around $88M. Sure, it could be slightly less than that, but let’s just use that as the base.
Free Agents (already filed):
- Gerald Laird (32) – Laird made a cool $1M in 2011, and based on the market for catchers this offseason is unlikely to take a pay cut just for the fun of it. There are several good catchers out there (Type A and B free agents), but only Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder are younger than Laird. Maybe he could be persuaded to stick around St. Louis another year as Yadier Molina‘s backup and personal pinch runner, but it really feels like a good time to hand over the backup duties to Tony Cruz.
- Nick Punto (34) – When healthy, Punto was an impact player on both offense and defense, and he was most certainly a good guy to have around the clubhouse. He only cost the Cardinals $750K for 2011, and that seems like a bargain for a guy who is a switch hitting super sub who can start at a couple positions as well. It would be great to keep him wearing the Birds on the Bat, but it would most definitely cost more than three quarters of a million to do so.
- Rafael Furcal (34) – The Cardinals have a $12M club option with $1.3M buyout, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to hear that a extension is in the works. His days of making 8 figures per year are behind him at this point, but a 2 year deal that provides him with some certainty might be enough to entice him to remain a Cardinal.
- Corey Patterson (32) – Patterson made $900K last season, and he might be a bargain option for a team in need of an outfielder who can get on base regularly and swipe a few bases as well. After hitting just .157 in just 56 plate appearances with St. Louis, you can probably mark the Gateway City off his likely list of destinations.
- Edwin Jackson (28) – He is quite possibly one of the top 3 available starting pitchers under the age of 30 this offseason, and he will definitely draw interest from a lot of teams. Judging by his numbers from his time in the American League, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Yankees made a run at him to try and improve their starting rotation. After making $8.75M in 2011, he could be asking in the neighborhood of $13-14M per season.
- Octavio Dotel (38) – Dotel is one of the Cardinals Type A free agents, and the team holds a $3.75M club option with a $750K buyout. Unless nobody in the organization was paying attention to his 32 strikeouts in 24 2/3 innings with the Cardinals, the odds are pretty good that the team finds a way to keep him in the mix for 2012.
- Arthur Rhodes (41) – As entertaining as Rhodes was during his short time with the Cardinals, it seems unlikely that he will be back unless he is willing to take a pay cut from the $3.9M he made in 2011. That is especially true when you are talking about a guy who only pitched a total of 33 innings in the regular season. Obviously, being a left-handed reliever is great work, if you can get it.
- Albert Pujols (32) – Type A free agent. This is the big unknown in the payroll equation, and it is worth dedicating a whole section to AP5.
If the Cardinals decide to stick with the familiar and try to bring back Punto, Furcal, and Dotel, that would leave 2 open roster spots. Bringing back all 3 would likely push the payroll upwards of $95M as well.
What About the Scrappy Element?
Without Tony LaRussa around to make sure the team has a high “scrappy quotient”, I’m not sure this will be as important a consideration as it has been in the past. If it is, then Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot may merit consideration. If it comes down to choosing just 1 of the 2, then it could be a tossup based on whether or not the team really needs an extra left-handed bat or a right-handed one. Both Schumaker and Theriot are in their 3rd year of arbitration, and their 2011 payroll numbers were relatively close ($2.75M for Schu and $3.3M for TheRiot). If I were making the call, I’d probably favor Skip over Theriot for his ability to play the outfield in addition to 2B.
There there is that Pujols guy. I find it hard to believe that the Cardinals can’t afford to pay Pujols $25M per season. However, I can absolutely believe that they do not have a desire to do so for a significant length of time. If there is anything to the rumor that the last offer made by the team was in the neighborhood of 9 years and $200M, then I think it is reasonable to expect them to add a few million annually and an extra year to the deal. Don’t mistake that for a vote of confidence in such a deal, though. Sure, the Cardinals started 2011 with a payroll just under $110M and added some along the way, so a payroll around $120M for opening day 2012 doesn’t seem all that outrageous.
I’m definitely not in the “Sign Pujols At All Costs” camp. If Pujols does not return, the Cardinals still boast a pretty good offense, and the starting pitching staff should be improved over what it was in 2011. The team would still have plenty of flexibility in terms of moving position players around, and there would probably be a slight improvement in overall athleticism. Just take a moment to push Pujols out of your mind and consider some options the team would have sans AP5.
Option 1: Fill the last roster spot with Adron Chambers and keep the payroll well below $100M to start the season. Move Lance Berkman to 1st base and Allen Craig to right field. Platoon Descalso and Punto at 2B, and keep Jon Jay in center field.
Option 2: Start with a payroll lower than $100M with an eye on potential trade candidates on teams that may be looking to dump payroll. Stick with the Berkman at 1st and Craig in RF option, or even reverse the two just to keep things interesting.
Option 3: Jump into the bidding for C.J. Wilson and be willing to eat a good portion of Jake Westbrook‘s contract. Alternatively, put together a package to try and pry away Tim Lincecum from the Giants who are in need of help at multiple positions.
While it is unlikely that the team could replace all of the offensive production that Pujols usually brings to the table with 1 guy, it might be possible with 2 players, or it might not be necessary to replace all of it. If the pitching and defense can be improved, then maybe the Cardinals won’t have to score as many runs next season to stay competitive. I’m not advocating any particular option here, but I am strong suggesting that there is a lot of potential for this team even without Pujols.
Sure, there are a lot of decisions to be made. It is just reassuring that the team has a lot of different ways to fill the void in the event that Pujols chases the money to another destination besides St. Louis. Even if he does land a big contract to stay with the Cardinals, the team has a lot of money coming off the books after 2012 and some talent in the pipeline to potentially replace guys like Carpenter, Westbrook, and Lohse.
The really good news is that the team is building a young nucleus of players that are a long way from free agency. Ah, the beauty of high-quality, cost-controlled talent. You need to look no farther than the 2011 World Series MVP to see what kind of impact the younger players can have.
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