Cardinals burned by timing of immediate need to improve and few -

Cardinals burned by timing of immediate need to improve and few realistic ways to do so

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Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has been criticized for his caution in the past. This winter, criticism is unwarranted. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images) Cardinals GM John Mozeliak has been criticized for his caution in the past. This winter, criticism is unwarranted. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, Mo. ( -

At this point, it’s almost an annual tradition.

Another winter has brought a chill to Cardinal fans dissatisfied with the team’s inability to win the offseason. John Mozeliak brought lefty reliever Brett Cecil and centerfielder Dexter Fowler into the fold, but with an infamous 17.5 game gap looming over St. Louis, those moves aren’t enough for some.

Recognizing that Mozeliak – in a weak free agent class – successfully addressed two key roster needs is not synonymous to worshipping at the alter of the Cardinal Way. While the signings of Cecil and Fowler come to $113 million in financial commitments in the years ahead, their combined salaries for 2017 won’t eclipse the amount St. Louis shed through the departures of Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss.

Consider then that Jaime Garcia, Jordan Walden, Seth Maness, Jeremy Hazelbaker and Mitch Harris are also off the books. To reveal additional savings, factor in a $2.5 million decrease in Jhonny Peralta’s salary compared to 2016, thanks to his front-loaded contract. According to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the total savings equal approximately $45.8 million. In 2017, Cecil and Fowler will fetch a combined $24.25 million.

In fairness to the front office, pay raises are due for guys like Matt Carpenter, Kolten Wong and Jedd Gyorko, while several others including Carlos Martinez and Trevor Rosenthal will see their salaries increased through the arbitration process. Considering the above circumstances, without another major move before spring training, any increase to the Cardinals payroll from last season to the one upcoming will be negligible.

Edwin Encarnacion would have been a worthwhile avenue for the Cardinals to overspend, but on a short-term arrangement. His reported signing for three years with the Cleveland Indians erases that thought. For yet another offseason, it appears the Cardinals have postponed a substantial hike in payroll despite having the capacity to enact one.  

Criticisms of the Cardinals’ failed pursuits of David Price and Jason Heyward a year ago are fair and perhaps warranted. Go back another offseason to 2014, when the Cardinals neglected to flex their payroll muscle for local kid Max Scherzer in free agency; that one is absolutely worth second-guessing. This winter, however, the absence of an overly aggressive spending spree by St. Louis is within reason.

If the Cardinals don’t procure a meaningful upgrade on the infield in a post-Peralta universe after the 2017 season, the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the team’s non-pursuit of Encarnacion may be validated. But as it stands, the Cardinals have Peralta, Carpenter, Matt Adams and Jedd Gyorko under contract at the corners. That’s four plausible starting infielders, two spots (suggested alternatives to Aledmys Diaz and Kolten Wong up the middle should be taken elsewhere).

Pointing to this logjam alone does not adequately explain the Cardinals’ hesitance to make the plunge for Encarnacion. When fans insisted the Cardinals could afford Peralta as an overpriced bench bat for 2017, they were right – St. Louis didn’t have to unload his contract to make 42 home runs and 127 RBIs fit. The Cardinals have watched a fair bit of power hitting walk out the door since the season ended; Encarnacion, by himself, could have replaced it and then some. It may not have been comfortable for Peralta, Adams and Gyorko, but it would have worked out.

Under that line of thought, the Cardinals should have done it. USA Today’s 2016 Opening Day payroll numbers had the Cardinals ranked ninth in MLB at $143,057,500. With the $1.1 billion television rights deal on the horizon in 2018, and revenues that consistently outperform their market size, the Cardinals certainly could afford a bump in payroll.

If Cleveland, which landed 27th in those same payroll rankings, could offer Encarnacion a deal in the range of three years and $60 million, so too could St. Louis.

But doing so would have invited future roster complexities. Over the past two seasons, Encarnacion has played first base in only 133 games, having spent more time as a designated hitter. While the Cardinals were reportedly not married to Carpenter at first base should a player of Encarnacion’s caliber have come available for a bargain over one or two years, the defensive downgrade over the life of a three-year contract would have directly opposed the organization’s stated goal to improve in the field.

It seems strange to prioritize defense over power hitting, but for those who lived through the Cardinals adventures in run prevention this past summer, strange isn’t a bad way to describe it. Encarnacion also opens next season at age 34, the same age as Peralta, whose sharp decline in the past two years is emblematic of the reason St. Louis desires youth and athleticism. Throw in the odds that a conversion from the American League could depress his offensive numbers among the reasons the Cardinals didn’t consider Encarnacion the perfect fit many outsiders had declared.

Call it a whiff if it helps, but a long-term commitment to Encarnacion – or Mark Trumbo or Jose Bautista, for that matter – doesn’t align with the Cardinals’ objectives. That this comes on the heels of consecutive disappointing winters probably doesn’t amplify enthusiasm toward this year’s practical free-agent haul.

It boils down to this: the Cardinals had the chance to land transcendent talents leading into the 2015 and 2016 seasons, and they couldn’t pull it off. Unlike then, the standings now dictate the Cardinals should go for broke. The timing of this market feels cruel. Even after recent signings, the Cardinals have more money to spend – but nowhere to sensibly spend it.

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