The St. Louis Cardinals are one of the winningest franchises in baseball history, trailing only the New York Yankees in total World Series titles and ranking among the best clubs in every major category. They have continued that success over the last two decades as well, ranking third in wins, third in World Series titles, second in playoff appearances and second in playoff series wins since 2000.
But baseball is changing. Clubs like the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Guardians continue to field legitimate contenders on extremely low payrolls, but haven’t been able to break through the slump and win it all. The teams that dominate the winning landscape today are teams like the Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, and Atlanta Braves, who combine elite player development and big payrolls to create incredible teams.
Now teams like the Philadelphia Phillies, New York Mets and San Diego Padres are showing just how far you can stretch payroll in today’s game. The Phillies already had multiple nine-figure deals on their books with one of the best lineups in baseball, then went out and signed Trey Turner to an 11-year, $300 million contract. The Padres traded for Juan Soto to add to their core offseason of superstars and then added Xander Bogaerts in a mega deal.
Then there’s the Mets, who spent more than $800 million this season on Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, Brandon Nimmo, Kodai Senga, Edwin Diaz, Mar Narvaez, Jose Quintana and David Robertson. Their payroll for 2023 is not north of $500 million, $192 million more than the second-place Yankees and double the payroll of the third-place Padres.
Then there are the Cardinals, who now rank 16th in baseball in payroll ($178 million) and trail the likes of the Red Sox, Cubs, Rangers, White Sox, Giants and even the Rockies. For a club that has had tremendous success over the years and continues to be one of the most profitable franchises in baseball, it is truly concerning that they are not trying to spend anywhere near the best teams in baseball.
I don’t think any fan realistically expects them to spend with teams like New York, but it’s fair to wonder why the Cardinals remain $55 million short of the luxury tax threshold and $22 million short of the $200 million mark.
When you’re a team with Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado at the peak of their powers, and a flood of young talent on the roster or on the way, now seems like the perfect time to go out and spend money, if there’s ever going to be one. The model is certainly being tested this year.
So do the Cardinals have a path to contending in the loaded and high-spending National League? Yes! Their mix of superstar talent and controllable talent on the rise will keep them in the hunt. What 2023 may reveal to Cardinals ownership is how difficult it will be to be true contenders without increasing the budget even further.
There seems to be a lot of blame on John Mozeliak for this, and I just don’t think he’s the guy the fans should be complaining about. If Mozeliak really has a budget of $185 million, how is he supposed to go out and spend it on a bigger name? It’s time for Bill DeWitt Jr. and company to open the pocketbooks and allow Mozeliak to continue building a stable organization while adding to that homegrown talent with legitimate pieces in free agency.
All Cardinals fans hope the club can compete at a high level in 2023. What to watch out for in this process is Dewitt’s willingness to spend more. The Cardinals have positioned themselves to have a high ceiling regardless of their low payroll. If Lars Knuthbar, Tyler O’Neill, Dylan Carlson, Jordan Walker, Nolan Gorman, Brendan Donovan or Juan Yepes, just a few, step up in 2023, this club becomes a legitimate force in the National League. But again there is the problem, this organization has more than enough resources to give this club more confidence.
So, maybe 2023 will be a turning point for St. Louis. It’s no longer a league where a few random teams outperform others. There are now 15 different teams that spend more than the Cardinals, and that is unacceptable for the level of baseball this city expects out of the team. Can St. Louis compete with their budget constraints? Yes! But that will be harder and harder to sustain unless they spread their budget like other contenders.