The Cardinals’ Payroll Approach With Younger Players Is Smart Business. Stephen Piscotty Included

None of the deals are whoppers, but the conservative Cardinals have thrown some money around since the end of a disappointing season. Not that they’ve gone crazy, but $260 million is $260 million. And that’s how much the franchise has spent on contracts for six players:

Piscotty agreed to a six-year, $33.5 million deal with the Cards.

Center fielder Dexter Fowler, 5 years at $82.5 million.

Catcher Yadier Molina, 3 years at $60 million.

Starting pitcher Carlos Martinez,  5 years at $51 million.

Right fielder Stephen Piscotty, 6 years for a guaranteed $33.5 million.

Reliever Brett Cecil, 4 years at $30.5 million.

Outfielder Aroldis Garcia: signing bonus of $2.5 million.

This tally doesn’t include the Cardinals’ aggressive foray into the international market last summer, when the club signed 13 players from four nations: the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Cuba and Mexico. The Cardinals likely spent between $10 million and $13 million to open a new talent pipeline. Several  signing bonuses have been reported: Outfielder Jonathan Machado ($2.35 million), pitcher Johan Oviedo ($1.9 million), outfielder Victor Garcia ($1.5 million), outfielder/2B Randy Arozerena ($1.25 million.) That’s at least $7 million right there.

This mix of investments represents a nice balance.

The Cardinals didn’t hesitate to make impact moves over the winter, when they ranked second to the LA Dodgers among MLB teams in free-agent spending by stepping up to make lucrative, need-filling deals with Fowler and Cecil.

Team owner Bill DeWitt Jr. and GM John Mozeliak made a somewhat risky deal with an aging star, Molina, who turns 35 this summer. I believe the risk is minimal, but there’s at least some possibility of Molina fading between now and the end of the 2020 season.

But these pricey deals for Fowler, Cecil and Molina are offset by team-friendly agreements with younger players.

While noting that that  all  major contracts are gamble to some extent, the Cardinals did well in sealing long-term deals with Martinez and Piscotty.

Martinez, already the rotation’s ace, at age 25, is a solid bet at $51 million. Obviously, like many pitchers, Martinez may endure a breakdown and miss time. That’s the inevitable danger when putting millions on the table for a pitcher. But if Martinez pitches up to expectations, his contract will be an absolute bargain. It’s guaranteed through 2021, with a yearly salary no higher than $11.5 million. The team also controls options for 2022 (salary: $17 million) and 2023 ($18 mill.) Even if Martinez suffers the dreaded elbow-ligament injury, has Tommy John surgery, and misses a season, the Cardinals should receive very good value from this contract over its lifetime… yes, even with a lost season in there.

Piscotty, 26, is another smart play. He figures to be playing a corner outfield spot in St. Louis for a long time. The Cardinals bought out Piscotty’s first free-agent year (2022) and have an option to buy out a second free-agent year (2023). Even if they decline to exercise that $15 million option for 2023, the Cards have Piscotty set for six seasons (beginning now) and their partnership will last through his age 31 season. The deal peaks with reasonable $7.25 million salaries in 2021 and 2022. He’ll make “only” $1 million this year and next.

Again, there is no such thing as a sure thing, but Piscotty is off to a good start in his MLB career, with a batting line of .282 / .349 / .467 in 910 plate appearances. That’s a healthy  .818 OPS. With runners in scoring position Piscotty is batting .369 in 223 career plate appearances. He’s also an above-average defensive player. And I believe that Piscotty has what it takes to develop into a team leader.

Piscotty’s motivation is to start earning now. Without this deal, he he wouldn’t have a shot at free agency until after his age 31 season. A lot can happen between now and then. But today he can go to work knowing that he’ll have $34.5 million — guaranteed — coming his way. (I’ve included the $1 million fixed cost of the buyout if the Cards decline to pick up the 2023 option.)

The Piscotty signing is part of an organizational strategy of putting core players in place — and keeping them there.

We’ve seen the Cardinals make similar moves before, seeking to preemptively sign younger veterans before they can enter their advanced arbitration years and/or free agency.

— 1B Allen Craig, 5 years for $31 million in 2013.

— Infielder Matt Carpenter, 6 years for $52 million in 2014.

— Starting pitcher Lance Lynn, 3 years for $22 million in 2015.

— 2B Kolten Wong, 5 years and $25.5 million in 2016.

— And now, Martinez and Piscotty.

You could even go back in time and see the wisdom of giving catcher Yadier Molina a five-year contract worth $75 million before the start of his age 30 season (2013.) Way back, the Cardinals received extraordinary value for their seven-year, $115 million investment in a young Albert Pujols. The Cardinals will undoubtedly come away with mixed results on their five-year $97.5 million deal with pitcher Adam Wainwright; a pact that expires after the 2018 season.

Wong hasn’t paid off yet, but there’s time. And he won’t be making “big money”for several seasons. Craig’s career was damaged by a freak, bad-luck foot injury, but Mozeliak wisely offloaded the contract on Boston in the theft of pitcher John Lackey at the trade deadline in 2014.

Lynn missed the entire 2016 season, which was unfortunate. But if Lynn has a robust 2017 season, no one will care about 2016. Even with the wiped out ’16, the Cardinals would have gotten two quality years of above-average pitching for $22 million. Considering the exorbitant and rising cost of pitching, two seasons of effective pitching for an average of $11 million is more than fine.

This sequence of cost-control moves enables Mozeliak and DeWitt to preserve payroll space for more substantial contracts. Fowler, for example. And while I doubt that the Cardinals will ever outbid every other team for a superstar free-agent talent like a Manny Machado, they’ll have the financial power to get it done. There will be room for free-agent additions.

“I think any time you have clarity on what that looks like, that’s helpful when you’re roster-building and thinking about our future,” Mozeliak said Monday. “When you look at the climate of baseball right now and the free-agent market, it’s not a place we’re going to have a lot of success in if we’re going to rely on it. And to be able to lock up our younger and talented players does mean a lot to our future.”

It looks good, it sounds good. It’s a sensible approach. Perhaps we’ll see shortstop Aledmys Diaz next in line for a long-term contract extension.

Of course there’s one catch: these players must continue to improve, come through and fulfill their promise. They must certify their anticipated status as true core-nucleus performers. If these long-term Birds turn out to be poor investments, the Cardinals lose a built-in payroll advantage. They’ll be at a disadvantage instead.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie 

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