Cardinals Payroll: Scratch that Keeps Itching

Yet another view of the furor over the Cardinals player budget and the posture of team management and ownership.

The subject of the Cardinals' player payroll and the broader question of the team ownership's finances seem to be subjects that are just not going to go away during 2006. Even if the regular season goes well, the worry over whether or not the owners spent enough to win eleven games in the post-season will continue to dog them into the fall.

Just this week, there have been more news items observing the fires of discontent, and in at least one case, stoking them. They include an article by Joe Strauss of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on the Cardinals' player salary budget and a subscription-only piece by Will Leitch of Baseball Prospectus focused on the Cardinals.

In the former, an article entitled "Money keeps talking", Strauss, the lead Cards' beat writer for the local paper, legitimizes work that countless fans, bloggers and websites agonize over all winter long each off-season. That is, Strauss compares the amount of money that the team spent on its players last year with the forecasted player budget for 2006.

Strauss comes to the same conclusion as many, in that give or take a few million, the $90 million-plus payroll of the team looks to be basically flat from year-to-year. Putting aside the now-forgotten fact that 12 months ago at this time, we were discussing an $83 to $85 million 2005 payroll, some fans are outraged by this recent news.

They feel that ownership promised an increase based on revenues associated with the new ballpark and have now backed out of that commitment, while lining their pockets with cash that should be put back into the product on the field instead.

While pointing out investment in other areas, such as debt service on the new ballpark and the new player development programs in the Caribbean, ownership either explains its position or simply comes across as defensive, depending on which camp you're in.

The latter article, entitled "Offseason of Discontent - How St. Louis Baseball May Be Altered", is on the same theme, but adds a longer-term warning. In it, Leitch suggests the Cardinals may be on a slippery slope that could soon deposit them squarely alongside perennial also-rans and "small market teams" Tampa Bay, Kansas City, Cincinnati and Milwaukee as formerly-loyal fans turn their back on the team.

Several factors are cited as evidence, including an "unwanted new stadium", the break with KMOX and the "the sudden (and promise-breaking) penny-pinching".

I am not going to reopen either the subject of the new ballpark or the impact of the team's purchase of partial ownership of KTRS here. However, Leitch's last point is one that I cannot let pass without comment.

While not rehashing points that Strauss and Leitch already made, such as the size of the St. Louis market, the perennial top ten ranking of the Cardinals payroll and the commitment of the Cardinals' fan base, there is a key element not mentioned by either.

Let's step back for a moment.

Remember, we are sitting here in early February. Pitchers and catchers are still a week away from reporting. With the hot stove season coming to a close, but no games having yet been played, months of analysis begets over-analysis. New worries pop up, whether real or imagined, and loud concerns are amplified even louder.

Shortsighted critics apparently assume that the Cardinals roster that exists today is the one that will be in place to start the season and imply that it would become the 2006 post-season roster, too.

However, there are others who recognize the team's wealth of starting pitching (at least in terms of volume) and potential offensive weaknesses might first come together in a spring trade.

Depending on the player(s) added, such a move could surely drive an increase in the payroll. Instead, would we want General Manager Walt Jocketty to be put in a corner such that he could only make trades that are budget-neutral or positive?

Still, a spring trade should not be assumed. In fact, it might not be the best move to increase the odds of achieving that elusive World Series success.

As most know by now, over his eleven years as Cardinals' GM, Jocketty has built his reputation by making prudent moves and not being overanxious. For these reasons, he may not decide to act until this summer.

Is that bad?

Unless there was an unnatural disaster, I think we all (except for the very most negative, perhaps) can agree that the 2006 Cardinals team as currently constructed should be good enough to remain in the thick of the National League Central Division chase until at least August.

The Cardinals assert they have money remaining for the acquisition of a key player later on. Either some critics don't know this, don't understand it, don't care or simply don't believe it.

Let's consider the alternative. If the Cards were to go out and get someone now and spend every nickel in their coffers in the process, where would they be come August?

More than likely, they would have to stand pat at a time when their competitors will be making additions to fill gaps for the stretch run. If the Cards followed that path, the same fans complaining now will just shift to complaining then. The fact that a big-bucks player had been added back in January, February or March in this scenario would be long-forgotten by late summer.

The potential value of a trade deadline deal should not be discounted. No matter how good the Cardinals' record may be at that time, the boost provided by a key player could provide an important edge coming into the most crucial time of the season.

There is another factor to consider that is more difficult to quantify. In recent years, it has become almost expected that contending teams will make a key addition or two and if unmet, these expectations can become an internal problem, too. In other words, the negative psychological impact on a team by not adding a name player down the stretch has proven to be real in more than one case.

If you doubt this, just ask new Cardinal Jeff Nelson, as he has first-hand experience. Nelson was run out of Seattle in 2003 at least in part for making widely-reported comments critical of management for not acting to improve the Mariners at the trade deadline. Others apparently quietly supported Nelson for speaking up and stating what other players were thinking but couldn't say for obvious political reasons.

By the way, the 2003 Seattle Mariners later missed the playoffs by two games despite earning 93 victories, the same as in 2002.

Bottom line, in this world of immediate gratification, some people expect everything and they expect it now. And then, they expect it later, too.

I, for one, think I understand what the Cardinals are doing and believe it to be a reasonable strategy - assuming it plays out into the fall of 2006.

Just remember, it is still February, folks!

Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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