As you have likely heard, but which likely has not yet tangibly impacted your experience as a consumer, Major League Baseball owners locked out its players on December 2. Despite implications from commissioner Rob Manfred, this was not a requirement of MLB owners, as the league’s collective bargaining agreement had not expired, but it was the tactic that owners chose. At least they did it in December instead of during the season, I guess.
The framing of professional sports labor negotiations is often that it is the squabbling of millionaires versus billionaires, which on some level is true (though a majority of Major Legaue Baseball players make a league minimum which, while a desirable six-figure total that most people would envy, is by definition not enough to make one a millionaire) but which does a poor job of conveying scale. Albert Pujols is the wealthiest active Major League Baseball player (to the extent that he is active, as he is presently a free agent) and his career earnings of over $344 million are only about 3% of New York Mets owner Steve Cohen’s net worth. The career earnings of new St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Steven Matz, whom Cohen complained about having the audacity to exercise his free will, has career earnings of around one-tenth of one percent of Cohen’s $11 billion net worth. Steven Matz is viewed as a very wealthy man, but proportionally, Steven Matz is to Steve Cohen what somebody with a net worth of $19,060.95 is to Matz.
I’m not exactly somebody with a ton of empathy for the billionaires who own MLB teams, but as a fan of the sport, I also do not want them to go broke because they own teams (and lucky for me, they absolutely do not and never will!). But the fundamental battle in MLB labor negotiations is in how the money that the league seems to print is distributed. If players made less or more money than they currently do, it would not impact the prices of tickets nor souvenirs nor concessions–as is true in every private business, the price that is charged is the amount which will maximize profit. In my platonic ideal of a league setup, all profit would go to players–I know that this will never happen, but also, it’s not like owners would lose in this scenario, as they would still own assets which are constantly appreciating in value (yes, the accountant-by-trade with an econ minor in me is coming out) and would still have the social capital associated with owning such a high-profile entity which is viewed, often for the purposes of extorting taxpayer money, as a public trust.
There is a such thing as an overpaid baseball player. I don’t view this as a moral judgment–sometimes, players get older and are not as productive as they once were, and this does not mean they were not trying. After all, while no player wants to be underpaid, becoming underpaid because you surpassed already-high expectations (see: Scherzer, Max) often means making more money down the road (see Exhibit A’s new Mets payday and contrast it with Jon Lester, the other top free agent pitcher from the 2014-15 class, who is a free agent and whose career is in relative limbo). The easy argument to not exhibiting too much empathy for owners with regards to, say, how much money Albert Pujols made with the Los Angeles Angels occasionally of Anaheim is that Arte Moreno has a ton of money. And even without considering Albert Pujols’s non-playing contributions to the team’s bottom line (increases in 2012 ticket sales, PUJOLS 5 Angels merchandise), if Pujols were considered a tandem along with Mike Trout, the players were dramatically underpaid since 2012.
There are Cardinals players who have been overpaid–the $5 million Ty Wigginton collected from the Cardinals may not have exactly bankrupted the worth-four-billion-dollars Bill DeWitt Jr., but if you told me Wigginton, a trainwreck of a player on the field, sold more than six Cardinals tickets, I would assume you meant “his kids sold Cardinals tickets as a school fundraiser” or something. But who is the best Cardinals player who was, objectively, overpaid relative to the market value of his on-field contributions? I’m approaching this with a necessarily simplistic view of player value–FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement–because I want to remain divorced from any biases I may have. Dating back to 2002, FanGraphs has calculates how much a player, based on his WAR, would be worth in a free and open market, so I will simply subtract a player’s salary from his open market worth. And eventually, one of the players will have a negative total. And then I will stop.
Albert Pujols: Worth 74 fWAR between 2002 and 2011 (given that he was an MVP candidate while making the league’s minimum salary in 2001, you can rest assured that this calculation will underrate his value to the Cardinals), Albert Pujols is somewhat easily the most valuable Cardinal during this stretch. And since the Cardinals got two years of him making under a million dollars and then signed him to a pre-arbitration extension which carried him through the remainder of his Cardinals career, they also got a massive bargain. Pujols earned an annoying-to-calculate-on-Baseball-Reference $103,840,436, but was worth $391 million per FanGraphs. Cardinals profit $287,259,564.
Yadier Molina: Although some goodwill late-career extensions narrowed the gap a bit, the overall contributions of Molina easily outweigh the cost. With nearly as much open market value worth as Pujols (aided by inflation) at $390.3 million, Molina’s salary of just over $151 million (in case you are cross-referencing my numbers with Baseball Reference, keep in mind that they do not adjust that players in 2020 only made 37% of their scheduled salaries) is nowhere near that. Cardinals profit $238,901,500.
Adam Wainwright: Like Molina, Wainwright keeps signing short extensions, but unlike Molina, Adam Wainwright has been quite tangibly valuable on the field into his late thirties and forties. Although the profits are getting a little bit less cartoonish, the Cardinals still wind up making nearly a sixth of a billion dollars in profit off Adam Wainwright. Cardinals profit $166,513,000.
Matt Carpenter: While his final extension with the St. Louis Cardinals, which concluded with the club buying out a final team option year, did some reputational damage to his broader Cardinals legacy, Matt Carpenter was an MVP candidate while making the league minimum and was a star-level player on what turned out to be a very team-friendly extension shortly thereafter. Cardinals profit $153,821,000.
Jim Edmonds: Edmonds’s profit to the Cardinals is far higher than calculating post-2002, given how productive he was in 2000 and 2001, and unlike the aforementioned players, the Cardinals are not where Edmonds made his MLB debut and thus the team did not get to build a huge profit lead with league minimum salary seasons. Therefore, the figure is less absurd, but still, a big win for the Cardinals. I am not counting the retained salary the Cardinals paid Jim Edmonds to play elsewhere in 2008, but then again, I’m also not counting the value David Freese provided when the Cardinals traded Edmonds. Cardinals profit $71,029,426.
Scott Rolen: Like Edmonds, Scott Rolen spent his youth in another organization and only spent two months with the Cardinals before an extension to buy out free agency years kicked into place. Paying free agency rates did have an impact on Rolen’s surplus value, but given his MVP-caliber tenure with the Cardinals, it did not sink it. Cardinals profit $66,190.647.
Matt Holliday: Like Rolen, the Cardinals traded for roughly two months of an underpaid player in his prime, but then offered substantially more money to the player to age with the Cardinals. And as with Rolen, Holliday, who was good for longer though with lower peaks than Rolen, proved to be quite valuable with the Cardinals. Cardinals profit $60,015,566.
Chris Carpenter: Carpenter was a classic buy-low Cardinals acquisition–the injured Toronto Blue Jays pitcher seemed quite comfortable with the organization that turned him into a star pitcher, however, and he kept providing additional value for the Cardinals, even with a few seasons with negligible on-field contributions for the team. Cardinals profit $63,897.043.
Carlos Martínez: Although the extension Martínez signed in early 2017 turned out to be the rare case of an arbitration contract extension which did not work out very favorably for the team, the Cardinals had paid league minimum salaries for two excellent seasons of Martínez as a starting pitcher. The barely-didn’t-work-out extension does not come particularly close to canceling Martínez’s league minimum years out. Cardinals profit $70,265,000.
Kolten Wong: A top prospect, check. A team-friendly extension which Wong signed for security, and I can’t blame him for doing so, but which generally winds up with players leaving money on the table, even moreso since the final year of the contract, which had by far his biggest payday, came with a prorated 2020 salary. You know this story by now. Cardinals profit $102,937.500.
Lance Lynn: Lynn didn’t reach the heights he would over the past three seasons with other teams while in St. Louis, but this also means that the Cardinals were not paying free agency rates for their homegrown pitcher. The Cardinals locked in some arbitration years, but that was it. They secured their profit fairly quickly. Cardinals profit $82,570,000.
Jaime García: Not unlike Kolten Wong, García signed a team-friendly extension, and while Jaime García was not quite as obviously lucrative to the Cardinals, the combination of his low early salaries with competent performance when he started making millions still made Jaime García a valuable player for the St. Louis Cardinals. Cardinals profit $52,363,000.
Paul DeJong: For as much criticism as Paul DeJong has received over the last couple seasons for his inconsistent offense and (from people who stridently refuse to look at statistics) unspectacular defense, his extremely manageable extension has assured that DeJong could become a completely worthless player and the Cardinals would still be delighted with his total production as a Cardinal, even if his next two years are a money sink and the Cardinals are saddled with $3 million in buyouts. Cardinals profit $94,983,332.
Edgar Rentería: A seven-year veteran by the time our time frame began, the Cardinals did not get to pay the shortstop a league minimum salary, but even the later years of a team-friendly contract extension worked out quite favorably for the Cardinals. Over his remaining three seasons, he made under $20 million and was far more valuable than that. Cardinals profit $31,750,000.
Ryan Ludwick: You can spot this value from a mile away–the Cardinals acquired Ludwick, a fallen prospect, for basically nothing, and even eventually getting paid more substantial money by the Cardinals was not going to offset that initial windfall. Cardinals profit $61,739,000.
Matt Morris: 2001 was arguably Matt Morris’s best season, and by 2002 he was well past the league minimum stage of his career, which greatly hinders the profit that a Major League Baseball team can extract from him. Which isn’t to say that Matt Morris was not still quite underpaid from 2002 through 2005 for the Cardinals. Cardinals profit $16,400,000.
Woody Williams: Woody Williams was nearly old enough to be elected president when the Cardinals acquired him. If ever there should be a case where a player is being overpaid for past performance, it should be the pitching-starved team that acquired a decent but hardly elite veteran. Just the kind of awful contract that makes free agency so risky for MLB owners. Cardinals profit $17,700,000.
Paul Goldschmidt: Goldschmidt was criticized a bit for underperforming in 2019, and that season certainly was not as excellent as his 2013-2018 Arizona Diamondbacks prime. But by fWAR, Goldschmidt was still worth the money. Now, does that mean that with two bounce-back seasons under his belt that Goldschmidt has now been an extremely lucrative player for the Cardinals? Sure does, and while the remaining years could still tank Goldschmidt’s value, it would take a pretty big dropoff for that to be the case. Cardinals profit $30,880,000.
Harrison Bader: This is almost a free space for the Cardinals. Bader is still in his arbitration years (and he looks increasingly unlikely to sign any sort of long extension with the Cardinals) and his value comes in a way that is often not properly captured in arbitration, given his capital-E Elite center field defense. Cardinals profit $77,103,363.
Michael Wacha: A player who was genuinely excellent in pre-arbitration years who never reached free agency years as a Cardinal? Why yes, this was a massive win for the Cardinals. Cardinals profit $68,706,000.
Tommy Pham: In a Tampa Bay Rays-like move, the Cardinals ironically dealt Tommy Pham to the Rays once his looming arbitration salary started to become, while absolutely not an overpay, something noticeable. The result here is obvious to anyone who has paid any attention so far. Cardinals profit $76,109,934.
Jon Jay: Because Jay was, until his final season, a consistently solid but not spectacular player, his arbitration rates never got too high, and thus his production always managed to outperform his reasonable salaries, and then the Cardinals traded him before they would have to pay him an open market rate. Cardinals profit $57,681,000.
Jack Flaherty: Another pretty simple case–Flaherty has never gotten paid free agency rates by the Cardinals. Yet. Cardinals profit $61,669,235.
Kyle Lohse: A middling player when the Cardinals signed him initially, the Cardinals quickly gave Lohse a longer contract that seemed like a bit of a risk, but worked out well, and then the Cardinals cut bait when Lohse had a chance to make substantial money, which was then paid by the Milwaukee Brewers. Despite always making in the millions, Lohse worked out for the Cardinals. Cardinals profit $18,662,500.
David Freese: Let me be clear–if my overall conclusion was that David Freese was somehow overpaid by the Cardinals, I would delete this post and set my computer on fire. Something clearly would have gone wrong in how I’m viewing this process, even knowing full well I am not weighing postseason production nor general franchise marketability in my calculations. Cardinals profit $47,526,000.
Colby Rasmus: While his tenure in St. Louis did not end gloriously, Colby Rasmus was a good player who never got a big payday from the Cardinals, which makes the direction of his surplus quite obvious. Cardinals profit $47,386,670.
Miles Mikolas: Oh hey, the guy who started getting hurt a bunch after signing a big contract, surely it’s this guy, right? Well, he made $7.5 million as a Cy Young vote recipient, so…not quite. While his current contract looks shaky for the Cardinals, it would take a pretty lousy next couple of years for Mikolas’s overall tenure with the Cardinals to wind up underwater. Cardinals profit $18,410,000.
Tyler O’Neill: Well, he still hasn’t made it through the arbitration process yet. So that’s a pretty easy one. Cardinals profit $57,229,142.
Trevor Rosenthal: A closer may seem like a prime candidate to be overpaid by a WAR-based model, as WAR tends to discriminate against relatively meager innings totals more than front offices. In the macro sense, sure. But not with Trevor Rosenthal, who only made it through two years of arbitration before being non-tendered for year #3 (because he was injured). Cardinals profit $43,054,000.
Randal Grichuk: Not unlike Tommy Pham, Grichuk’s time as a Cardinal simply lined up with the inexpensive stage of his career. And even when Grichuk was a marginal starter, which he was for some if not all of his Cardinals career, the Cardinals kept him around on the cheap. Cardinals profit $51,012,800
Tommy Edman: Maybe his value will depress once he starts getting paid. But in the meantime, Tommy Edman is a Gold Glove winner who hasn’t even reached salary arbitration yet. Cardinals profit $50,618,771
Allen Craig: *cracks kncukles* All right, here we go, Allen Craig. The guy who signed the worst contract in the modern history of the St. Louis Cardinals. The man who got paid and then got hurt and then fell harder and faster than anybody I have ever seen. The man who…still made the league minimum for the Cardinals for three productive seasons. The man who was mostly paid on the back end of his career by the Boston Red Sox. Cardinals profit $40,707,685.
Jhonny Peralta: Peralta was a straight free agent signing, so no artificially suppressed salaries here. And by the end of his contract, he was straight up bad, notably being designated for assignment during his fourth and final season in St. Louis. And yet he was also very productive in his first season, 2014, and hardly a liability in 2015 either. Over the four seasons, Peralta earned $53 million. And by FanGraphs’s measure, Peralta was worth $47.6 million. It’s close. It’s hardly a disaster. You could argue that his marketing value was worth enough to make the difference, and if he had been a good playoff performer I probably would have argued that this was close enough that it shouldn’t count. But I am a man of my word. Cardinals lose $5,400,000.
It should be obvious that this exercise is going to lean towards the best players–I literally went down a WAR list. But it took me 33 names to find a player who cost more for the Cardinals than he was worth, and it was quite easily the smallest absolute value of any contract covered.
Up to and including Peralta, who has a marginal negative impact on the Cardinals’ total, the total surplus value attained by the St. Louis Cardinals was $2,379,692,677; you can call it “over $2.3 billion” if the numbers have gotten too big to easily read as a numeral, though this would seemingly be beneficial to the owners since most of us can’t really grasp how big of a difference there is between a million and a billion. If you want a point of reference for $2.3 billion, in July 2019, Forbes estimated that the St. Louis Cardinals franchise was worth $2.1 billion. The total combined payroll, based on AP reports, for the St. Louis Cardinals from 2002 through 2021, the scope covered in this post, was $2,090,171,070.
To the extent that value is a proxy for joy, which is simplistic but not exactly untrue when it comes to a team sport where a fan’s primary hope is that their team emerge victorious, thirty-two players provided more joy for Cardinals fans than St. Louis Cardinals ownership has provided over the last two decades. This is the nature of the sport–Bill DeWitt Jr., though I would not call him a particularly free-wheeling spender, is also not uniquely miserly as far as MLB owners go. There is a long history of professional sports owners leveraging class resentment, the fact that exponentially more people know how much Nolan Arenado makes and that it is more than they do than know how much the Cardinals’ ownership group makes, to win the public relations war against players. Usually, it works.
I have no idea how much the public relations battle matters in a tangible sense–I suspect most owners don’t really care if fans hate them beyond the extent to which it impacts their bottom line. I do not care if fans have true empathy for Major League Baseball players–empathizing with poorly compensated minor leaguers is the more germane move–but just know that it was the labor of baseball players that produced the treasured memories you may currently fear missing come April. The fair market value of the Cardinals’ last two decades of rosters, by FanGraphs WAR, was over $5 billion–the Cardinals have saved nearly $150 million each year because of a financial system in which players do not earn what a free and open market dictates but rather because of a system designed to keep salaries low in a player’s fourth through sixth seasons and microscopic in years one through three.
There is an argument, and it is a cogent one, that a healthy league should provide financial incentives for player development. Maybe the Cardinals shouldn’t have gotten 2001-2003 Albert Pujols for that cheap, but it’s reasonable to suggest that had they been forced to pay him his full value, there perhaps are not proper incentives to try to develop young players, and that player development is crucial for the survival of the sport. But a Major League Baseball team, and I assure you that the Cardinals are not particularly exploitative nor honorable compared to the industry’s standards, was able to save billions under a structure which they now claim is not financially sustainable, all while refusing to actually supply evidence that this industry in which no person has ever once gone bankrupt is not a lucrative one.
If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to ardently support the players, that’s fine. But I can assure you of which side you should not be supporting.