Cheap Seats

The Cardinals are wasting a golden opportunity

I was reading a report this morning about how the biggest player of the off-season, the San Diego Padres, plan to continue to be aggressive in adding players.

And it's really put a burr under my baseball blanket.

The Padres, after adding seven new starting position players, have raised their payroll about $30 million since the end of the 2013 season. Meanwhile, the club is said to be pursing Philadelphia Phillies lefty Cole Hamels. His addition would likely raise the San Diego payroll to well more than $100 million, depending on if they got Philly to kick in some cash, which is doubtful.

If the Padres get Hamels or not, they've indicated that they have room to continue to add to the roster and the payroll.

The thing that irks me is the fact that the Padres can be aggressive and spend more than $100 million with one of the worst revenue streams in baseball. Yet all we hear from the Cardinals is that they're set for next year after rearranging a little bit of furniture in the bullpen and adding an enigmatic, yet talented, player in right field to replace another enigmatic, yet talented player.

They're content to twiddle their thumbs on the Hot Stove League sidelines, scoffing every time someone suggests a player might make the Cardinals a better team. Really, they're laughing all the way to the bank.

Are they trying to tell us that there is no room for improvement? Or simply that they don't feel like spending any money to put the most competitive team on the field as reasonably possible.

At best, the Cardinals are even with where they were last year at this time. The two guys they've added in the bullpen aren't a slam dunk to be better than the two guys they replaced. In fact, the odds are that Jordan Walden won't be able to replicate Pat Neshek's stellar 2014 that landed him in the All-Star Game. So the bullpen, in total, is likely to be worse.

If the bullpen talent balance sheet isn't already in the red, subtract electric right handed pitcher Carlos Martinez who will be moved to the starting rotation to try to replace Shelby Miller, dealt for the newest enigmatic right fielder, Jason Heyward. Miller seemed to be maturing as a starter and reaching his prime. Now he'll be replaced with Martinez who has failed to find consistency the last two seasons when the Redbirds tried to insert him into the rotation. But the third time is the charm, right?

And what happens if the Redbirds suffer from the inevitable injuries that have popped up the last few years? The depth they previously enjoyed is long gone.

Heyward might very well have a breakout season, free from inexplicably being used as a lead-off hitter by Atlanta the last two years. But I don't think his ceiling is any higher than what was projected from the late Oscar Taveras. On balance, the Cardinals are treading water on offense and they've sacrificed pitching to do it.

That situation could go from mediocre to poor should Heyward leave at the end of the 2015 campaign as a free agent.

Sure, the Redbirds bought low on Mark Reynolds, adding the strikeout machine as a bench bat. I guess that is the 2015 version of signing Mark Ellis. Like Ellis, I don't know how Reynolds is expected to succeed as a bench player who gets six or seven at-bats in a good week.

The point is, the Cardinals could easily afford to add some quality pieces to make this team better than the club that struggled throughout 2014 before slipping into the playoffs on the last day of the season. They could add ace Max Scherzer on a whim, re-establish themselves as favorites in the division and still make money hand over fist.

The rotation would be immensely better, the bullpen would be better by default and the Cardinals would seem a lock for the playoffs.

Three seasons ago the Redbirds spent a franchise record $117 million on players. Since then, despite the fact that MLB's national television contract resulted in a $25 million annual boost for each team, St. Louis' payroll has done nothing but go down.

I can appreciate the fact that the Cardinals enjoyed having several young, cheap players on the roster. They wanted to let those kids play and see what they had instead of blocking them with costly veterans. I get it. But I can't really understand or appreciate the relationship between the cost of my season tickets going up each of the last two years while the payroll goes down.

In addition to the new national TV pact, the Cardinals have cornered the market on downtown St. Louis entertainment dollars with the opening of ballpark village. Plus, they're renegotiating their local TV deal which is set to expire in two years. While it's unlikely the Birds will see a billion-dollar bounty like the Los Angeles or New York teams, it's fair to say that they'll get a substantial boost. The Cardinals had the highest ratings, by a long shot, among MLB teams last year.

The Padres had the fourth-worst local television ratings in 2014, with 34,000 eyeballs on San Diego area TV sets while the Cardinals had the best local TV ratings of all the MLB franchises. About 97,000 St. Louis area sets were tuned to Cardinals broadcasts on a given night, about 7.7 percent of people watching TV in the area. In contrast, the Padres set a single-game ratings record last year when 4.4 percent of people watched.

We keep hearing about the Redbirds saving their "dry powder" to make a move when they really need it. Assuming that the Cardinals weren't over-leveraged into debt in 2012 (Which, given this ownership group's record of being extremely financially conservative, that's extremely unlikely) their tight-fisted ways the last two seasons resulted in about $65 million being deposited into the payroll war chest.

While general manager John Mozeliak proclaims the Birds can't afford a top free agent, a casual look at the team's financial picture would seem to indicate otherwise. $65 million would make a heckuva nice down payment on Scherzer. Of course, we know that's never going to happen. But it's nice to dream.

Still, if the Cardinals put that $25 million in extra national TV cash on top of the 2013 payroll, it seems they'd have $142 million to spend. That's a figure commiserate with the Detroit Tigers, Arizona Diamondbacks, Washington Nationals and Toronto Blue Jays as opposed to their current position of having a lower payroll than the Cincinnati Reds.

I think the Cardinals owe it to fans who shell out thousands of dollars for tickets to make a better effort to sign players, using a higher percentage of the investment fans make in the team on the payroll.

On the local level, San Diego drew less than 2.2 million fans in 2014 while more than 3.5 million folks spent their hard-earned cash at Busch Stadium last season. And that equates not only to ticket revenue -- but also to the cash each of those patrons spends on food and drink, souvenirs and trips to the franchise's new cash cow across the street from the ballpark. 

If the Cardinals count on fans being enamored with their recent past successes while the product rots on the vine, they're going to lose a portion of the fan support that puts them in a position to compete with baseball's big boys.

There is no reason this club has to sit back and watch the core of the club get older while doing nothing about it. It's the perfect time to add some new pieces to smooth the transition.

I don't expect the Cardinals to match the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox dollar for dollar. But I do think there is plenty of room for improvement and that this team can still be fiscally sound while parting with a little bit of its substantial profit margin.

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