Uncertainties about financial future prompts Cardinals to decline Kolten Wong’s option for 2021

By Rob Rains

The first result of the uncertain financial landscape facing the Cardinals and Major League Baseball in 2021 arrived on Wednesday with the team’s decision to decline Kolten Wong’s option for next season.

In a 45-minute zoom call with the media, John Mozeliak, president of baseball operations, said the decision to pay Wong a $1 million buyout instead of exercising the $12.5 million option was strictly based on not knowing what will happen next season because of the coronavirus pandemic that forced all of baseball to play without fans in the stands during this shortened season.

“I spoke with Kolten this afternoon and told him with some of the uncertainties we are just not in a position to do that,” Mozeliak said. “We both agreed to keep the door open so as we progress in this it’s something we are not ruling out for a future return.”

Mozeliak said the decision gives the Cardinals a little more financial flexibility as it begins planning for 2021 – even though he admitted there are still far more questions about what that will look like than answers at the moment.

“If we committed to it (the option) and all of a sudden we realized we were in a more difficult spot, then what are we left to try to do?” he said. “Candidly it was a very conservative and the safer play at the moment.”

Mozeliak said the decision on Wong’s contract was only the first of more difficult ones which likely will come this winter.

“I know we will have some changes; I know there will be some decisions that we have to make,” Mozeliak said. “I don’t have a complete road map because there is a lot of uncertainty in this off-season. It’s far too early to lay out a specific strategy on Oct. 28 when there are still a lot of questions that don’t have answers.

“The success of the Cardinals in terms of the last 20 years has been our gate revenue. I do think we might be more negatively affected than others (teams) … One thing we did not plan for was a pandemic and a year like we just experienced. From a payroll standpoint we are already starting at a pretty high number.”

The Cardinals have $110 million committed to eight players for the 2021 season, plus expected raises to players, such as Jack Flaherty, who will be arbitration eligible for the first time.

“We don’t have a ton of flexibility,” Mozeliak said.

Before the pandemic hit, the team’s projected payroll for 2020 was $155 million, and Mozeliak confirmed it likely will be lower than that next season.

“Clearly revenues are going down,” Mozeliak said. “Adjusting to what that looks like we haven’t determined because we don’t know what revenues look like for next year. We have a lot of different scenarios we are looking at and I think that’s part of the challenge of the offseason.

“When you go from having 3.4 million fans in your ballpark to having zero, it’s a big hit. You have certain operating expenses that just don’t go away. We’re trying to figure out how we can best forecast revenues for next year and hopefully we can react in a positive way to help improve this club.”

Wong, who could win his second consecutive Gold Glove next week, is the fifth Cardinal who became a free agent on Wednesday, including Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright. Mozeliak said he intends to have conversations with both of their agents this week. The other free agents are Matt Wieters and Brad Miller.

“It’s going to be continued dialogue to see if there’s a way to retain both of them or one of them as the offseason unfolds,” Mozeliak said.

“It’s really difficult to plan when you have a lot of uncertainties. Right now we don’t know what our revenues are going to look like next year. We don’t understand what attendance will look like next year. Candidly we don’t even know what the rules might be or exactly what the rosters might look like in terms of numbers. Planning will be a challenge this year. One of the things we all are going to need is clarity on this and hopefully that is something we will all gain.”

Mozeliak said there is a possibility that the team and Wong could discuss a new contract in the future which would lower his salary for 2021 and include more years on the deal.

As with the futures of Molina and Wainwright, however, that is a task for another day.

“Until we determine what’s actually going to happen with our free agents, it’s hard to state what’s going to happen next,” Mozeliak said. “I imagine when you get this close to market you go to market.”

This is the first time in Molina’s career that he is a free agent, and knowing that the 38-year-old catcher could sign with another team is not something Mozeliak takes lightly.

“It’s probably one of the most difficult types of negotiations,” he said. “I’ve known Yadi since he was drafted. He’s been an iconic figure to this organization. I’m human, and there are parts of your decision making that will inherently draw into that relationship. Ultimately I think in this particular case it’s about trying to understand next year, trying to recognize his legacy and what it means to this organization, but also understanding that this is still a business and there are some tough decisions that have to be made.

“When you’re agonizing over these types of things it’s difficult. I’d be lying to you if I said it was easy and I’d be lying to you if I said it doesn’t keep you up at night.”

Mozeliak also touched on a number of other subjects during his media session:

The decision to bring hitting coach Jeff Albert back for a third season in 2021 was part of the process the organization began when Albert was hired of changing the approach throughout the entire system, what Mozeliak called part of the “learning curve.”

“I have a lot of confidence in what Jeff’s doing,” Mozeliak said. “We understand it will take time.”

The annual general managers meetings will take place virtually next week, when Mozeliak hopes to begin getting more direction about some of what may or may not happen in 2021, perhaps including whether the DH will remain in the National League.

Mozeliak described the performance of Tampa Bay’s Randy Arozarena as “incredible” especially in the postseason and said that success will prompt a review of the team’s evaluation process for its own players and prospects.

“Clearly when I look back at when we made that deal we were making this trade for our future (acquiring left-handed prospect Matthew Liberatore) but when you look at our offensive struggles it’s a fair question to ask of why him and not someone else,” he said.
“So I will own that, that’s on me.

“I have always said you certainly have to know your own players better than players outside your organization because if you get that wrong you’ve got a problem. That’s why we will take that opportunity and re-visit how we rank our own players and make sure we don’t have something like this happen again.”

At the end of the season Paul Goldschmidt underwent a medical procedure to have a bone spur taken out of his right elbow.

As uncertain as things are at the major-league level, there is even more uncertainty of what the minors could look like in 2021 after not playing at all this season, a fact which does concern Mozeliak.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I’m not worried about something,” he said, “and yes I would have that on the list.”

Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains

Photo by AP courtesy of KSDK Sports

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For the latest news and features in St. Louis Sports check out STLSportsPage.com. Rob Rains, Editor.