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Cardinals arbitration, spending and more dry powder

The St. Louis Cardinals wouldn’t have to wait until their arbitration cases are settled to make their next move, but they may have good reasons for doing so.

    Here in mid-January, the St. Louis Cardinals payroll management strategy for 2010 still remains under question.

    One milestone occurred in early December when during a presentation at Webster University, team president Bill DeWitt III hinted his club might not spend up to their total player budget, expected to be around $100 million.

    “Clubs have a tendency — and we’ve been guilty in the past — of putting every resource into the team in the offseason. That just doesn’t leave you any flexibility,” DeWitt III said.

    Showing restraint would be a repeat of an approach that was widely ridiculed during the previous winter. The term “keeping powder dry” in reference to holding back money was first coined by his father, team chairman Bill DeWitt Jr.

    As we saw in 2009, if game attendance exceeds the Cardinals planning numbers, they could also choose to apply additional financial resources to players. Some combination of “dry powder” plus new expense money opened the door to trade for and take on the salaries of Mark DeRosa and Matt Holliday in June and July, respectively.

    About ten days ago, back on January 7, as the club digested the Holliday re-signing, general manager John Mozeliak was quoted as saying the following:

    “[Assistant GM John] Abbamondi, myself, Jeff [Luhnow, scouting director and farm director] and the group will sit down tomorrow. I’ll then also get with Tony [La Russa, manager] over the weekend and we’ll kind of prioritize what we think, if we had a bullet to use, what would we use it on. Once we get to that point, then we’ll look at what’s out there and how to use that resource if it’s there. We may stand pat. But we’ll see.”

    In the process, Mozeliak outlined the two primary outcomes for some or all of the remaining budget – either acquire one additional significant player using their so-called “bullet”, keep dry powder or perhaps a combination of the two.

    How much money are we talking about?

    Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick (AP photo)The Post-Dispatch offered a graphical summary following Holliday’s re-signing. In it, they suggest the Cardinals will have $7.4 million remaining to spend. One of the few assumptions required was an estimation of the 2010 salaries of arbitration-eligible players Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick.

    Though Schumaker is hinting he is close to coming to terms, completely resolving both players’ 2010 salaries may not be happening soon. At Winter Warm-Up, Mozeliak said the Cardinals would like the contracts of both Schumaker and Ludwick completed before his club dips back into the free-agent pool.

    This sequencing doesn’t completely hold together to me.

    In his first season of arbitration eligibility, Schumaker should be the easier of the two to sign. The real question is how big of a raise Ludwick is looking for coming off a season in which he made $3.7 million, but delivered declining results compared to 2008.

    (For my detailed views of how comparable players’ salaries might be applied, The Cardinal Nation subscribers can read my January 7 article, “How Much Will Schumaker and Ludwick Make?”. At the low end, I have the two coming in at $6.9 million combined, while the P-D estimates they will make $8.5 million in total when all is said and done.)

    Here’s my concern. The Cardinals surely have a planning bandwidth for the two arbitration cases and would seem to be position to have at least $6 million remaining once the two arbitration deals are done. (This assumes the Post-Dispatch estimates for the two will turn out to be $1.4 million too low, which I strongly doubt is the case.)

    Both sides will formally know how far they are apart on Tuesday, when club and player arbitration amounts must be filed. Though the parties could come to terms at any time, if disagreement remains, the conclusion could drag on until a hearing scheduled as late as the third week in February – the time pitchers and catchers are due to report for spring training.

    Again, either way, with conservatively $6 million or more in their chest, why would they be waiting, unless they are planning to save dry powder?

    The P-D reports the Cardinals have been in contact with pitcher John Smoltz’ agent but they would like the veteran to wait for a potential offer until they have a better feel for their payroll. The paper has been in contact with the future Hall-of-Famer, who says he has heard nothing substantive from the Cardinals. Smoltz went on to say that while he would like to return to St. Louis, he is preparing to move on.

    At 43 years old next season, Smoltz offers at least as an intriguing relief alternative as he would be a fifth starter. His likely contract would include a base deal of several million dollars with incentives for several more, seemingly within the amount of money the Cardinals have remaining.

    High on the list of other possible options could include a right-handed hitting outfield reserve who could spell Colby Rasmus in centerfield and veteran depth at third base behind untested starter David Freese.

    There is one other possibility for waiting – the knowledge that as spring training nears, prices for the remaining unsigned free agents will go down. Though Mozeliak isn’t saying it, using some of that dry powder over the next six weeks wouldn’t necessarily keep them from gaining and deploying more later.

    Even if the Cardinals decide not to make another significant signing this winter, they have already done enough to position themselves as National League Central Division favorites for 2010. Without immediate additional spending, not everyone will be content, however. The annual resurrection of the “DeWallet” loonies, armchair critics of ownership’s player payrolls, is quite possible if the Cardinals head into the season with a mid-$90 million payroll. Instead of applauding player development and efficient spending, the simplistic minds of the habitual complainers can only compare annual bottom lines.

    After last year, I have become a believer that if the Cardinals need help during the season and they play well enough to deserve it, ownership will come through. In the meantime, the primary pressure should be on the players and coaches to win.

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    Brian Walton

    Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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