Usually, when your team comes out of nowhere to win the World Series, your biggest fear is that the general manager gets complacent and refuses to tinker with his roster.
The Twins won the World Series in 1987. The didn't make a major offseason move, settled for shaking up the club early in the season by trading Tom Brunansky for Tommy Herr, and finishing 13 games behind the A's in the old AL West in 1988. The Reds won it all in 1990, kept their entire roster intact, and finished at 74-88 the next season. The Angels followed up their 2002 championship by standing pat beyond looking forward to a full season with postseason secret weapon Francisco Rodriguez in their pen and finished 2003 with a losing record despite him.
Fortunately for Cardinals fans, that won't happen in St. Louis, because the team has so many free agents that the alternative to spending some of their hard-earned money is fielding the Memphis Redbirds. Twenty-nine percent of the team's at-bats were accumulated by players that will be free agents this winter, or are already no longer with the club, including Jim Edmonds, Ronnie Belliard and Scott Spiezio. Forty-four percent of the team's innings pitched fall into the same category, with Jeff Suppan, Jeff Weaver, Jason Marquis and Mark Mulder all eligible for free agency.
Rather than regarding this as a weakness, GM Walt Jocketty should savor the leverage that his situation provides him. With Albert Pujols and Scott Rolen signed to perfectly reasonable salaries, and Chris Carpenter inked at well below market rate, the Cardinals don't have any real bad contracts to get out from under, although they'll probably regret the $8.75 million owed to Jason Isringhausen. Having drawn more than 3.4 million fans to Busch Stadium during the regular season in a market that knows how to differentiate good baseball from bad, the Cardinals have no excuses for not opening the checkbook.
The question is just how the Cardinals should spend that money, and I'll share some ideas about that in a moment. In the meantime, let's get a couple of easy concepts out of the way:
Pick up Jim Edmonds' option Edmonds' 2007 option would cost the Cardinals an even $10 million. He was easily worth that much over his first four seasons with the Cardinals, but fell short of the mark last year between his declining range in center field, his diminishing power, and his increasing propensity to get injured. The catch is that Edmonds is owed a $3 million buy-out even if he doesn't play for the Cardinals, which reduces the true cost of the option to $7 million. He's an easily worthwhile signing at that number. The Cardinals need at least a little bit of certainty amidst all this winter's chaos, and while Edmonds' physical tools are declining with age, he retains one of the game's highest baseball IQs.
Avoid the hometown surcharge The term "hometown discount" is more familiar to baseball fans, but teams coming off a championship have shown more of a propensity to overpay to retain their own talent. The Red Sox signed Jason Varitek to a four-year, $40 million deal following their 2004 title, and are now stuck with a catcher with bad knees and a .238 batting average. If they could, the White Sox would take back their expensive three-year extension to Jose Contreras.
What this means for the Cardinals is not to break the bank to bring back postseason heroes like Suppan and Weaver. If the Cardinals determine that they want to give a three-year, $20 million contract to a No. 3 starter, then Weaver might be the right man for the job. But if there are better pitchers available for the same price, the Cardinals need to be willing to ditch the horse they came in on.
Set a wins budget, not a payroll budget It's my belief that most major league baseball teams go about their budgeting the wrong way. Sometimes it's worth spending more than you might have been planning on if you can acquire a player who will get you over the hump and into the playoffs, since the financial rewards for making the postseason are substantial. Other times, your team is so far from making the playoffs -- or such a cinch to make them -- that paying market price for free agent talent just doesn't make sense.
Put differently, rather than figuring how much money they want to spend, baseball teams should determine roughly how many wins they'll need to make the playoffs, and spend on payroll until that they have the talent on hand to realistically reach that goal. For the Cardinals, the magic number is probably 90 wins; it would be higher if they played in a tougher division.
The "wins budget" concept requires the ability to make an honest assessment about the strengths and weaknesses of your current roster. The Cardinals won 83 games last year, and according to Baseball Prospectus' Wins Above Replacement Player (WARP) statistic, free-agents-to-be Ronnie Belliard (0.2), Marquis (1.1), Mulder (0.2), Spiezio (2.7), Suppan (3.9), Weaver (1.1), and Preston Wilson (0.8) were responsible for 10 of those wins. That means the Cardinals are left with a 73-win roster under the Memphis Redbirds scenario, provided that they re-sign Edmonds, and that they'll have to add 17 wins worth of talent to reach their budgetary target.
Seventeen wins is a lot of ground to make up, roughly equal to bringing on three very good players, or one superstar and two solid major league regulars, plus a couple of bit parts along the way. Jocketty needs to be patient and flexible, and play the market rather than letting the market play him. However, here are some players the Cardinals might target:
Carlos Lee, LF. Lee should ideally be a designated hitter, but the Cardinals need to find a way to end their revolving carousel in left field. Lee has plenty enough bat for the position. Estimated impact: six wins.
Ray Durham, 2B. Durham might not be cheap after a career year in San Francisco, but the Cardinals get virtually no power out of their shortstop and catcher positions, and Durham's one of the few middle infielders around with a plus bat. Estimated impact: five wins.
Brad Radke, RHP. Radke pitches to his defense, which makes him a perfect fit for the Cardinals' strong group of fielders. Assuming his shoulder is sound, the attention paid to Jason Schmidt, Barry Zito, and Daisuke Matsuzaka could hold down his price. Estimated impact: five wins.
Weaver, RHP. We cautioned before about the Cardinals' overpaying to re-sign their own free agents, but Weaver's checkered history could short-circuit any bidding war for his services. He's a better keeper than Suppan on account of his superior strikeout rate. Estimated impact: four wins.
Aubrey Huff, 3B-OF. Huff would most likely slot in at left field for the Cardinals, although he'd also provide an insurance policy in the event of the annual Rolen injury. Huff boasts a good left-handed bat that might be overlooked after his quiet performance in Houston. Estimated impact: four wins.
Octavio Dotel, RHP. The Cardinals came up roses by taking a chance on Carpenter following his Tommy John surgery in 2002, and have the opportunity to do the same with Dotel. Although Dotel pitched only 10 major league innings last year, he's one of the few available arms with closer-worthy stuff that won't come at a closer-worthy price, allowing Adam Wainwright to move into the rotation. Estimated impact: three wins.
These players are meant to be representative of the many options the Cardinals will have available to them in the market. They could get to 17 wins by signing Durham, Radke, Huff, and Dotel, for example, but they could also go after a big-ticket item like Matsuzaka or Alfonso Soriano, and fill out the roster with guys like second baseman Adam Kennedy or outfielder Dave Roberts. Either way, the point should be clear: the Cardinals are going to have a busy winter.
For injury reports, commentary and cutting-edge performance analysis, visit Baseball Prospectus on the Web.