It’s been a Cardinals-heavy day in the news, with the team agreeing to re-sign Adam Wainwright for what will be his 18th Major League season. St. Louis also announced that a trio of coaches will not return for the 2023 season — one day after losing bench coach Skip Schumaker, who’ll become the new Marlins manager. Beyond that pair of headlines, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak held court with the Cardinals beat, revealing in an extensive press conference that he recently met in person with Nolan Arenado about the third baseman’s looming opt-out (link via Jeff Jones of the Belleville News-Democrat). Beyond that, Mozeliak pledged that the Cardinals’ payroll will increase and unsurprisingly acknowledged he’ll be on the lookout for a successor to Yadier Molina this offseason.
Chief among those details is the team’s recent meeting with Arenado, who can opt out of the remaining five years and $144MM on his contract this winter. Mozeliak indicated there’s a sense of optimism regarding a resolution on that front, though there’s nothing official between the two parties just yet.
A year ago, that opt-out provision was far from a lock to come into play. Arenado chose to forego an opt-out clause last winter, when he could’ve returned to the market and sought a larger guarantee than the six years and $179MM he had remaining on the contract. Arenado was coming off a strong season but far from his best year, having batted .255/.312/.494 in his first season following a trade from the Rockies.
One year can make quite a difference, however. A sensational 2022 campaign has Arenado among the front-runners for National League MVP honors (alongside teammate Paul Goldschmidt), and with $144MM remaining on the deal, an opt-out now looks far likelier. The nine-time Gold Glove winner and five-time Platinum Glover turned in a sensational .293/.358/.533 batting line with 30 home runs, 42 doubles, a triple, a career-low 11.6% strikeout rate and his typical brand of elite defense at the hot corner. Despite the fact that he’ll turn 32 next April, Arenado suddenly has an easy case to eclipse the remaining money on his contract.
Granted, it’s rare for players of this age to secure contracts of more than five years in length, although exceptions are often made for the game’s top stars. One need only look to this past March, when Freddie Freeman inked a six-year deal with the Dodgers — one that, as will be the case with Arenado, begins in his age-32 season. Even if the market were to draw a hard line at five years for Arenado, there’d surely be a greater annual value than his current $28.8MM waiting for him in free agency. Annual salaries in excess of $30MM have become increasingly common, and Arenado himself at one point held the record for position player AAV ($32.5MM). That AAV took a hit when the Cardinals tacked on an additional year and $15MM at the time of the trade — but also granted Arenado a second opt-out opportunity.
Since Arenado signed his extension, Anthony Rendon ($35MM), Mike Trout ($36MM), Carlos Correa ($35.1MM), Corey Seager ($32.5MM) Francisco Lindor ($34.1MM) have all inked deals with annual salaries equal to or in excess of Arenado’s original AAV (to say nothing of Gerrit Cole’s $36MM annual value with the Yankees and Max Scherzer’s $43.33MM with the Mets). On the heels of such a brilliant season, Arenado could well find an AAV in the mid-30s over a five- or six-year term.
Understandably, the Cardinals appear to have little interest in allowing things to reach that point. Arenado’s opt-out decision is due five days after the World Series draws to a close, but the Cardinals can spend the interim trying to persuade him to stay. Tacking on an additional year or perhaps restructuring the deal to pay him at an annual rate more commensurate with the sport’s top hitters could well be in play over the next couple weeks.
All of that dovetails with Mozeliak’s comments about a forthcoming payroll hike. The Cardinals already have $105MM in guaranteed salary between Arenado, Goldschmidt, Miles Mikolas, Steven Matz, Giovanny Gallegos, Paul DeJong and Drew VerHagen (though the Rockies are reportedly covering $21MM of Arenado’s 2023 salary under the terms of the trade). Whatever salary Wainwright agreed to will add to that figure, and MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz projects just shy of $40MM in salary for the team’s 11 arbitration-eligible players. There are some non-tender candidates within — Mozeliak mentioned Alex Reyes’ name when discussing looming 40-man roster decisions, per Jones — but the majority of that arbitration class is a lock to return.
That gives the Cardinals more than $150MM on the books before even factoring in a slate of pre-arbitration players to round out the payroll. Jones notes that last year’s payroll, following trade deadline acquisitions, clocked in around $170MM. Extending or restructuring Arenado’s contract won’t necessarily impact the 2023 payroll on its own — he’s owed $35MM and the Rockies are paying that $21MM to the Cardinals even if Arenado were to opt out — but there are clearly other needs to consider.
Catching help, as Mozeliak acknowledged, figures to be among the most critical needs. Molina, a franchise icon, has played the final game of his Major League career, but the win-now Cardinals unsurprisingly aren’t content to merely hand the reins over to Andrew Knizner or prospect Ivan Herrera. Jones notes that the team will likely be looking for a starting-caliber option and not a part-time player.
The free-agent market has a handful of starting options, headlined by longtime division rival Willson Contreras but also including Christian Vazquez and Omar Narvaez. On the trade market, Oakland’s Sean Murphy will be available as the A’s continue their rebuild, and the Blue Jays have a surplus at backstop with Danny Jansen, Alejandro Kirk and Gabriel Moreno all on the 40-man roster and capable of shouldering a starter’s workload at the MLB level. Other options, of course, will emerge.
With Wainwright back, the rotation doesn’t figure to be a dire need, though depth could be pursued. The Cards will have Wainwright, Mikolas, Matz, Jack Flaherty and Jordan Montgomery as the likely top five, with Dakota Hudson, Matthew Liberatore, Zack Thompson and Jake Woodford serving as depth. Mozeliak and his staff will still likely be on the hunt for upgrades at some combination of shortstop, outfield and designated hitter, however, as the Cardinals look to inject more force into the lineup. Bullpen help is a near-annual need for every contending club.
For the time being, now that Wainwright’s status has been resolved, all roads will point to Arenado. Whether he and the Cardinals are able to reach a middle ground will not only shape the long-term outlook of the organization as we know it but also the very fabric of the 2022-23 offseason. If Arenado were to reach free agency, he’d join the likes of Aaron Judge, Trea Turner and Correa atop another star-studded open market.