2011 Organizational Rankings: #13 – St. Louis

The Cardinals were struck a mighty blow to start the season, as they’ll miss their ace Adam Wainwright. That hurts their ranking a bit, as a higher present talent score might have bumped them a spot or three higher. But they’re still strong at No. 13.

Present Talent – 80.45 (t-11th)

Cardinals Team Preview

Future Talent – 75.00 (t-20th)

Cardinals Top 10 Prospects

Financial Resources – 77.50 (15th)
Baseball Operations – 79.55 (14th)

At the major league level we know that the Cardinals can be a threat. They feature one of, if not the, best 3-4 combinations in the game in Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. The supporting cast lacks a bit, though Colby Rasmus and Lance Berkman will provide some additional punch on offense. Yet, as with most of our organizational rankings, we have to dig deeper into the Cardinals organization to fully grasp it. While their average marks in financial resources and baseball operations might not seem interesting on the surface, there is a lot that goes into them.

For the past decade St. Louis has ranked in the middle third of the payroll scale. Even in 2008, when the team spent just around $100 million, it still ranked 11th. But in 2011 that number will rise. The Cardinals figure to enter the season with a payroll around $107 million, the highest in team history. They might have to get used to that if they plan to retain their best player and remain competitive.

The Pujols situation highlights the team’s financial situation. Can a mid-market team afford to dump 30 percent of its payroll on a player, even if that is the best player in baseball? If that question isn’t tough on its own, Matt Holliday’s contract complicates it further. He is owed $17 million per season, and while some of that is deferred it still eats into St. Louis’s budget considerably. Then there’s the matter of pitching, something that could get expensive if the Cards don’t see some quick progression from their top pitching prospects.

Currently the Cardinals have just over $49 million committed to the 2012 payroll. That includes Adam Wainwright’s option, which, despite his missing the entire 2011 season, I’m confident they won’t void. But even with Wainwright that $49 million covers only four players: Wainwright, Holliday, Jake Westbrook, and Kyle Lohse. It does include buyouts for Yadier Molina and Chris Carpenter, but there’s a good chance that the Cardinals pick them up. That leaves them in a tight spot financially.

Assuming they pick up Carpenter’s and Molina’s options, assuming Colby Rasmus makes around $3 million in his first year of arbitration, and assuming that the Cardinals re-sign Pujols to a contract that pays him $28 million annually, the Cardinals’ payroll situation can become troublesome. Those contracts push it over $100 million for just eight players: four pitchers and a first baseman, left fielder, center fielder, and a catcher. Can the Cardinals support this kind of payroll while also paying arbitration-eligible players (Skip Schumaker, Kyle McClellan) and otherwise filling out the roster? If not, they could run into a slew of future problems.

The team could decline Carpenter’s $15 million option and put that money towards compiling the rest of the team, but that leaves them in a tough spot for pitching. They have three other starters under contract, but one is coming off Tommy John surgery and another is Kyle Lohse (who represents the current administration’s worst move). That doesn’t make for a very stable rotation. The free agent market doesn’t look very appealing, and in any case Carpenter is among the best available options. Maybe he gets hurt and comes back cheaper in 2012, but if he’s healthy and effective in 2011 the Cardinals will probably lose him if they don’t pick up the option. Yet even without him they’re looking at an $85 million payroll with 18 spots left to fill.

This is where that middle-of-the-road baseball ops department comes into play. With or without Carpenter they’re going to have a difficult off-season ahead of them. They first have the Pujols situation front-and-center, and then have all of those free roster spots with little remaining money. Maybe a few of their young arms, including Shelby Miller, can help provide production on the cheap. Outfielders such as Jon Jay and Allen Craig will also be available for around the league minimum. But is that enough for the Cardinals to contend? Can they contend at all if Pujols leaves after the season? These are all questions facing that baseball ops department. Their answers will go a long way in determining which side of average they land on in 2012.

The baseball ops situation is further muddied by all the hands involved in the decision making. Tony LaRussa wields more power than most managers, and his moves can come as a detriment to the team. For instance, we know he likes Skip Schumaker, but how much will his influence count as Schumaker enters his second arbitration year this off-season? Will Dave Duncan convince the team to sign or trade for a fairly expensive veteran whom he thinks he can reclaim? Or will he find someone on the cheap? These are all questions that make it more difficult to judge St. Louis’s baseball ops department, because they’re issues that other clubs, for the most part, do not face.

A strong major league team factors strongly into the Cardinals ranking No. 13 on our organizational list. It’s a bit of a downgrade from last year’s rankings, when they were the No. 10 organization. An August collapse out of the playoff picture will do that. Now the team faces a difficult situation, with its payroll peaking as it needs more money to sign its superstar. The Cardinals ranked middle of the pack in baseball ops and financial resources this year, but depending on how they handle these situations this season into the off-season, they won’t be average at this time next year. There’s a ton at play in St. Louis right now.

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Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.

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