Why Cardinals’ cost-saving move is surest sign yet this could be a cold winter for the hot stove

The Los Angeles Dodgers clinched their first World Series since 1988 on Tuesday night and, on Wednesday, the 2020-21 offseason officially got underway. More than 140 players became free agents Wednesday morning, and more names have been added to the pile throughout the day as options have been declined.

Among them: Kolten Wong.

The St. Louis Cardinals declined their $12.5 million club option for Wong, reports Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The team will instead pay him a $1 million buyout, so it was an $11.5 million decision. Wong is now a free agent and will be able to sign with any team when the market opens Sunday.

“We have both agreed to keep the door open,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told Goold, indicating a reunion with Wong may be possible. Declining the option tells us it will have to be at a reduced salary, however.

Wong, 30, is one of three Gold Glove finalists at second base in the National League. He’s an elite defender who has posted a .350 on-base percentage or better in three of the last four seasons, including 2020. From 2017-20, Wong authored a .273/.356/.398 batting line and averaged 4 WAR per 162 games. He’s a productive player at a premium position and he’s in his prime.

And yet, the Cardinals cut Wong loose rather than commit $11.5 million to payroll next year. This is the surest sign yet free agency will not be kind to players. Teams have lost millions during the pandemic — commissioner Rob Manfred recently claimed operating losses are roughly $3 billion, a number I wouldn’t trust considering the source — and those losses will be passed down to players.

“Obviously, the success of the Cardinals the last 20 years has been our gate revenue. I do think we might be more negatively affected than others,” Mozeliak told reporters, including The Athletic’s Mark Saxon, on Wednesday. Mozeliak also confirmed the team’s payroll will come down in 2021. 

The expectation within the industry is payrolls across the league will come down next season, but exactly how much is uncertain. The fact a productive player like Wong was let go over a mere $11.5 million — in normal times, a player of his caliber would have received three or four years at $10 million or more per year as a free agent — tells us this will be an offseason of penny-pinching.

Baseball is in the entertainment business and free agent signings and rumors are part of that entertainment. A cold, slow-moving hot stove period would make the offseason less exciting for fans. That is the exact opposite of what MLB needs right now. They need to attract fans. An offseason of austerity would be short-sighted and harm the game, but it feels inevitable at this point.

Other players to have their 2021 options declined Wednesday include Anibal Sanchez ($12 million), Wilson Ramos ($10 million), and Adam Eaton ($9.5 million). The Rangers are also expected to decline their $17 million club option for Corey Kluber, reports’s T.R. Sullivan.

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