The fan bases of the St. Louis Cardinals, Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates may very well be the deciding factor in the National League Central race this summer.
Because the Cardinals reloaded with the addition of Jhonny Peralta, overspending in the opinion of many, to improve their obvious need at shortstop. They could afford to do so not only because they've filled so many roster positions with low cost, young talent. But also because they have a much higher payroll threshold than their division rivals.
The Birds had a payroll of $116.8 million last season and claimed that they were willing to spend $120 million-$125 million if they were able to find players that would make the club better. They shed several expensive contracts at the end of the 2013 campaign including the pacts of Carlos Beltran, Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook and Rafael Furcal, so they have plenty of room to maneuver even after signing Peralta and paying raises due to Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and arbitration eligible players.
Cincinnati was maxed out at $110 million last season. Despite the fact that the club saw lead-off man Shin-Soo Choo walk away and durable pitcher Bronson Arroyo prepared to do the same, general manager Walt Jocketty told the Dayton News that the club has no money to sign a significant player. The loss of Choo certainly makes the Cincinnati offense less dynamic. And the pitching will be much weaker without Arroyo. Another area where the Reds will be hurting is in the area of depth. They have a good front line crew of players. But if a starter goes down, they don't have the ability to go get someone that the Cardinals enjoy.
The Reds have tried to dump the pricey contract of second baseman Brandon Phillips to create some payroll flexibility. But, so far, they have been able to find no takers.
Pittsburgh is in the same kind -- albeit smaller -- type of boat as the Reds.
The Pirates spent $66.9 million last year and were forced to wave goodbye as their trade deadline help walked away as free agents. Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau both signed contracts elsewhere to thin out the Buc's offense while it appears that the club is likely to lose the veteran leader of its rotation, A.J. Burnett.
While the Redbirds can't spend like the Yankees, Dodgers, Angels or Phillies, they're certainly much stronger than team of comparably-sized cities. Nevermind the best fans in baseball hype. This isn't about clapping for an opposing player who makes a great play. It's about dollars and cents.
The only difference between the market of the Cardinals and the Royals is that the St. Louis fans remain invested in the project and support it financially in a way that allows the team to compete.
So fans ought to pat themselves on the back if the Cardinals make it to the playoffs again in 2014. They're the ones who paid the freight.