In recent years, the St. Louis Cardinals front office has seemingly focused on constructing a roster with a high floor. The free agent signings of Dexter Fowler, Mike Leake, and Brett Cecil support that notion. This philosophy keeps the team competitive, and it’s hard to argue against the front office’s track record. But is this the best way, or even a sound way, to construct a team?
Yesterday, I wrote a post criticizing Yadier Molina’s contract extension. In that post, after calculating that Yadier Molina’s contract was an overpayment of about $25 million, I commented about the team’s willingness to extend medium-sized contracts which then handicap the team’s ability to spend externally. Molina’s extension is one such deal. Mike Leake’s and Dexter Fowler’s are others. On their own, these deals don’t impact the team’s ability to spend much. Together, they take up a significant portion of payroll capacity.
In all three of these cases, the Cardinals committed more than $15 million per year to a player who projected somewhere around the realm of average. In total, the St. Louis Cardinals committed about $226 million to three roughly average players. While that commitment raises the team’s floor, it lowers the team’s ceiling.
Now, the St. Louis Cardinals find themselves with commitments in excess of $110 million each season through 2020, according to Spotrac. They already have the 8th most committed dollars to 2018, 5th most in 2019, and most in 2020. The team’s ability to address needs externally through free agency is certainly limited to some extent by those commitments.
The question I pose today, however, is whether the front office’s current roster construction philosophy gives the team it’s best shot to make the playoffs. That is, whether signing and paying average players to these type of deals is in the best interest of the team if the goal is making the playoffs.
To address this, I used Cot’s Baseball Contracts database and Baseball Reference to compile player salary data since 2015. There were some issues with the data, and where there were holes I estimated a roughly league minimum salary; the players with unlisted salaries were generally in the renewable stage of team control, as far as I could tell. Then, I calculated the average salary each team paid to players who produced between 1.5 and 2.5 WAR or are on pace to do so this year; 1.5 to 2.5 WAR is roughly average over a full season. Next, I graphed the average salary paid to average players against the team’s winning percentage in that season. My method is far from perfect, but I believe it’s pretty good.
Clearly, there’s a lot of noise here. However, it does look like at some point between $6 and $7 million, the team ceilings lower and the floors raise. Most teams above $7 million having a winning percentage between .450 and .550. Teams that spend less have significantly lower floors, but they also have noticeably higher ceilings.
I singled out each of the St. Louis Cardinals last three seasons in red. Their average salary paid to average players has increased each season, and they’ve firmly planted themselves in the group with high floors and low ceilings.
The goal is to make the playoffs, though, and then see what happens. So, do the teams who spend more than $7 million per average player have a better chance of being playoff contenders? In short, no.
I looked back at the past three seasons, and found that a .550 winning percentage is a fair benchmark for playoff contention. A .550 winning percentage equates to about 89 wins, which also seems fair.
Every team except the 2016 Atlanta Braves had at least one player who qualified as average. Of those 89 teams, 67 spent $7 million or less per average player. Seventeen of those teams posted a winning percentage of at least .550, or 25.4%.
Of the 22 teams that spent more than $7 million per average player, only one had a winning percentage of .550.
So what’s the lesson here? Maybe nothing. After all, the salary data isn’t perfect. I’d have rather used projected production over actual production, but I couldn’t find WAR projections from pre-season 2015 or 2016. Additionally, if you expect your higher paid players to produce at an above average rate and they fail to do so, of course you’ll underperform. So maybe the data is biased. And the sample sizes are pretty small.
However, the data does show that teams which commit more money to players who go on to post average production are less likely to be playoff contenders. In the last two offseasons, the St. Louis Cardinals committed $226 million to players who projected as average. They didn’t commit $226 million to players who were expected to be 3 or 4+ WAR players and who then underperformed. Instead, the St. Louis Cardinals intentionally committed $226 million to average players. That isn’t a winning formula.
The best teams pay less money per average player. Most likely, that means most of those teams’ complementary pieces are developed internally. Developing those players internally frees up money to spend elsewhere on stars in free agency or to absorb larger contracts in trades for better players.
If you look at the St. Louis Cardinals farm system, they have a history of developing complimentary pieces. Stephen Piscotty. Lance Lynn. Michael Wacha. Kolten Wong. The list goes on. The farm system is perfectly capable of continuing to produce complimentary pieces. Luke Weaver, Carson Kelly, Harrison Bader, Paul DeJong, and others project as average MLB regulars. The organization has a glut of B-level prospects.
Now, though, some of those players aren’t getting a chance to play. Consequently, the Cardinals aren’t benefitting from cheap production. Dexter Fowler is contributing to the outfield excess that kept Harrison Bader in Memphis until this week. The outfield excess will require the Cardinals to make a premature decision on players like Bader, Magneuris Sierra, Jose Adolis Garcia, and Tyler O’Neill.
Mike Leake is currently blocking Luke Weaver or Jack Flaherty from a shot at the rotation. If Alex Reyes hadn’t been injured, Leake would’ve blocked him too. Sure, Lance Lynn and Michael Wacha contribute to the block as well, but Leake is the only one the Cardinals reached externally for. At the time, of course, Leake filled a “need.” But couldn’t that need have been filled on a shorter deal for Yovani Gallardo, J.A. Happ, or John Lackey? Look back at that free agent class. There were plenty of decent, cheap, shorter term options for the Cardinals to explore.
Like I ended with yesterday, the St. Louis Cardinals are stuck in the middle. They will probably be stuck in the middle for another three years. The team put themselves in this position, and they did it intentionally.
Photo credit: @cardinalsgifs