Figuring the Cardinals’ Payroll for 2012

This season’s hopes for a Cardinals division title are by the boards, but there are some things the Redbird brass can accomplish as they head down the stretch of 2011.

Kyle Lohse, Jake Westbrook and Jaime Garcia are all under contract for next year for a total of about $23.5 million. Adam Wainwright will be back with the club, likely at his $9 million option. And Chris Carpenter is likely to return, although not for the $15 million option he’s due, but more along the lines of $10 million. That’ll be about $42 million tied up in the starting rotation.

Add in Matt Holliday’s $17 million and Yadier Molina’s $7 million option, and you’re up to $66 million for seven players before negotiating with Albert Pujols or Lance Berkman. So the Cardinals will need to have some kids make an impact next year.

David Freese is pretty much locked in at third base, so he, Molina and Holliday are the only positions settled.

The Cardinals need to play Jon Jay every day in center field. Do they need an every-day centerfielder, or can he be the guy? They need to determine if he can play 30 games in a row, and now is the time to find out. Corey Patterson isn’t going to be here next season. There’s no good reason to play him in September.

We know what Skip Schumaker and Ryan Theriot are. Both have expiring contracts that, once either Pujols or Berkman sign, will prove prohibitive for a franchise that’s trying to limit payroll to $110 million (if Pujols is signed) or $100 million if it’s Berkman. The same goes for Rafael Furcal. He’s a known commodity, and we know what he’s capable of. For the preponderance of September, Tyler Greene should play shortstop, and Daniel Descalso should play second.

Here’s another thing that should happen, but won’t. I know and you know that the Cardinals can’t/won’t afford both Pujols and Berkman next season. So Tony La Russa needs to give Allen Craig enough at-bats against all kinds of pitching to see if he can sustain quality offense over an extended period. Craig is your 2012 right fielder. So Pujols and Berkman should each have to sit in September to accommodate the youngster. Should, but won’t.

With the $66 million the Cardinals have committed, here’s my idea. Offer Pujols a five-year contract for $120 million: $17.5 million in each of the first two years, $32.5 million in the third year, and $52.5 million in the last two years. If he takes it, you have $83.5 million committed in 2012, and need up-the-middle players, a right fielder, a bench and a bullpen. Let’s start with position players. Freese, Jay, Craig and Daniel Descalso can be brought back for $500,000 each. Same for Greene on the infield, and Tony Cruz behind the plate. In the bullpen, Fernando Salas, Jason Motte, Lance Lynn, Mitchell Boggs, Eduardo Sanchez and Marc Rzepczynski are all $500,000 players. Kyle McClellan will come in at about $2 million. Now our payroll is at $91 million. We can get Javier Lopez, Damaso Marte or George Sherrill for around $2 million.

To fortify the defense, bring back Furcal for between $4-5 million plus games played incentives. And sign two $1-2 million utility men (Schumaker? Nick Punto?) The payroll is up to about $100 million.

The coup de grace is a closer. Allocate $10 million (it doesn’t have to be that much) to pursue Heath Bell, Rafael Soriano or Jonathon Papelbon. Since Soriano has to opt out of his Yankees deal that’s worth $11 million, and Papelbon is making $12 million this year, Bell, who’s making $7.5 million this year, is the best bet.

So you’d have a lineup of Furcal, Jay, Pujols, Holliday, Craig, Freese, Molina, Descalso and the pitcher. Greene is one of the backup infielders, along with a Punto type. A Schumaker type is the fourth outfielder. Cruz is the backup catcher. You need one more bench player, preferably someone who does something, hit for power or run, really well, and costs a million bucks. Wainwright, Carpenter, Garcia, Lohse and Westbrook are the starters. The bullpen is anchored by Bell, McClellan, Motte, Lynn, Salas, Boggs, Rzepczynski and lefthanded Mr. X. There is competition for spots in a seven-man bullpen.

If Pujols turns down a Cardinals offer, then they can bring back Berkman for $10 million to play first base. If Berkman is here rather than Pujols, the payroll almost certainly falls to the $100-million area. So the moves suggested would still be in play, with Berkman simply replacing Pujols.

After 2012, Lohse comes off the books, and Westbrook’s contract is up after 2013. As Shelby Miller and Carlos Martinez ascend, the Cardinals will better be able to afford an increasing salary for Pujols.

Very soon, the franchise is going to have to develop their version of Ryan Howard and Chase Utley, or Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder, or Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis. Home-grown stars that can step in when Pujols and Holliday are gone. The cost of getting that type of player, as the Cardinals are learning, is prohibitive with what they want to spend. And if they’re going to compete for division, league and world titles, they need inexpensive impact players to surround Pujols and Holliday.

The 2012 season starts now. It’s important to find out who can help you win and who can’t. Because if they can’t, then all my hard work is for naught and I need to start over.