“Dead money” is money already spent on or committed to something that can no longer provide a return on the investment. “Walking Dead Money” represents the zombie equivalent. It’s not technically dead, but it’s not likely to pay dividends, and there is a good chance it ends up dead anyway. The Cardinals have a lot of both.
Surprisingly, the roughly $4M the Cardinals are paying Greg Holland to pitch against them after his August 1st release sits just third on the "dead money" list. The leader in another clubhouse is the $6M the Cardinals are paying the Mariners for the Mike Leake giveaway. Toss in about $5.5M for Dexter Fowler’s semi-permanent vacation, and you’ve got all the core ingredients of a $15.5M poop sandwich.
If you are keeping score at home, Luke Gregerson’s $5M deal means he gets to take home the Dishonorable Mention trophy. Gregerson managed to “appear” in 17 games and blistered his own defense in surrendering 10 earned runs over just 12.2 innings pitched. A good chunk of that $5M falls in the dead money category, and the rest probably falls under a not-yet-defined “autoimmune” one. So, a team with a $160M opening day payroll has more than 10% in dead money, and that does not even include a hefty chunk of the $19.5M for Wainwright which defies classification.
That’s the good news. Now here’s the bad news.
The Cardinals owe Fowler $16.5M each season for the next three years in what could be “walking dead money” considering the mutual appreciation, respect, and love fostered by the front office and Fowler. Fowler’s no-trade clause and propensity for not being a great player make it difficult to move him, and if the team manages to do so, it would probably need to eat a good bit of that contract to facilitate a deal. That’s if they can get Fowler to sign off on such a thing. Of course, Fowler could turn things around next year, but even 50-50 odds on a $49.5M gamble feels like a junk punch waiting to happen. I’d bet on him remaining a Cardinal and his eventual enshrinement in the team’s Hall of Fame somewhere around the year “hell freezes over”.
Joining Fowler on the “Leaderboard of Fiscal Despair” is Brett Cecil and the $15M total he’s due over the next two seasons. That’s $7.75M for 2019 and $7.25M for 2020. Opposing left-handed hitters are batting just .309/.381/.436 against Cecil. Those are practically shutdown numbers compared to the .297/.434/.469 right-handed men with bats are hitting against him. He’s another one who could turn things around, but that’s in part due to the bar being set so low. The Cardinals could Shanghai an usher into bullpen duty at the league minimum and likely get more value.
Try not to think of all this as anything more than an indictment of John Mozeliak’s Midas touch failing him at an inopportune time. After all, one can hardly blame the players for accepting the wads of cash someone throws at them, and make no mistake here. Mozeliak was the one doing the throwing.
In his defense, he’s not responsible for Wainwright, Wacha, Martinez, or anybody else getting injured and missing significant portions of the season. All teams lose potential ROI to injuries, and much like stores include allocations for theft and waste into their budgets, teams accept that a certain amount of payroll will be dedicated to players not in uniform.
However, it’s up to Mozeliak and Girsch to evaluate the risks, and it’s time for a report card that won't get them on the honor roll this time. The Cardinals opened the season with a $160M payroll, and even if you take out the amount lost to injury, far too much went to guys who somehow managed to register some wins below replacement.
The worst case walking dead money scenario for next season is Fowler, Cecil, and Gregerson costing the team $29.25M in addition to the $5M dead money payment to the Mariners for Leake. If the team pushes $160M again, they'll be doing so with potentially 20% just as well dumped into a pile and set aflame. Remember this when they claim they don’t have the money to make a splash in a relatively deep free agent pool this winter.
If they truly don't have the cash, it's because they’ve handcuffed themselves and not in the really fun “Stormy Daniels with a mushroom character” kind of way. Even if they make nice with Fowler, he could simply be the highest paid 4th outfielder in baseball.
Looking back, had the team shown any actual faith in any one of Pham, Munoz, O’Neill, and Bader to do what they’ve done this season, perhaps the Fowler thing never comes to pass. So giving the team credit for turning to guys like Bader (which they did out of necessity) blatantly ignores the reality that they purposely stacked the depth chart and kept some good men down. The organization deserves credit for developing guys Bader, Voit, and a host of others, but management deserves some shaming for a lack of faith in what developed.
The money is already spent. Most of the walking dead money is gone too. Once the smoke and the books clear, the onus is on management to make better choices with how future money gets spent. How they handle Fowler depends greatly on Dex and how he looks next year, but there’s a good chance that they have a tough call to make. The decision to let Wainwright’s $19.5M leave the books for good is much easier, and it should already be made.
Through foolish spending on under-performing relievers and graciously overextending an offer to Fowler, they’ve created a self-imposed limitation that hampers potential activity this winter. To compete going forward with these shackles of their own design, they’ll have to rely heavily on high value dollar-for-dollar guys making the minimum or close to it. That means no more Voit/Pham deals to clear space. Those guys were casualties to the immovable objects like Fowler, and the team is worse off for that.
Consider 2019 the year to streamline the budget, because they need every penny they can scrounge up from the couch cushions to pay for 2020 and Ballpark Village Phase 9 (or whatever). Matt Carpenter’s $18.5M team option could get restructured into a multi-year deal that lowers the average annual value just a tad, and the same could be said for Gyorko’s $13M team option. However, the team could have as many as 11 arbitration eligible players including Miles Mikolas, so they may have to open the purse strings just to keep the core intact.
Barring a Ponzi scheme of some sort, I don’t expect the Cardinals to go shopping for any big ticket items this winter, and I certainly hope they’ve learned their lesson regarding high cost relief help. Dead money is a tough pill to swallow, but in many ways the walking dead money is even harder to watch.