ST. LOUIS -- In a move to reduce spending and give the team “immediate flexibility” on its payroll, the Cardinals declined second baseman Kolten Wong’s $12.5 million option for the 2021 season, president of baseball operations John Mozeliak announced Wednesday.
With a $1 million buyout on his contract, Wong now joins the list of Cardinals who became free agents Wednesday, one day after the World Series ended. That list includes longtime catcher Yadier Molina for the first time in his career, as well as pitcher Adam Wainwright, catcher Matt Wieters and infielder Brad Miller.
“We have both agreed to keep the door open,” Mozeliak said of Wong potentially returning on a new contract next year. Mozeliak said that an extension and renegotiation of Wong’s contract hasn’t yet been pursued, but he did not rule out future discussions.
Wong took to Instagram to thank St. Louis and its fans, as well as his teammates and coaches: “You guys not only grinded with me on and off the field, but you also turned this kid from the little town of Hilo [Hawaii] to the proud man I am today.”
In previous years, picking up Wong’s option would be a no-brainer. He just turned 30 and hit .265 with a .350 on-base percentage as the Cardinals' leadoff man in 2020. His most valuable asset, though, is on the field. He won his first Gold Glove Award in '19 and is a finalist for the award again as one of the top three second basemen in the statistics used by Rawlings to determine the awards for '20.
After St. Louis drafted him in the first round of the 2011 MLB Draft, Wong signed a five-year, $25.5 million extension in '16 and has a career 16.7 bWAR in eight years as a Cardinal.
But the financial uncertainty this year is what made the Wong option a difficult decision for the Cardinals. Mozeliak noted that not knowing what the 2021 season will look like from a revenue perspective -- after coming out of a 60-game season with no fans at the ballpark -- will guide many clubs, including the Cardinals, in the free-agent and trade markets. It’s what guided the Cardinals in their decision about Wong, who is now one of the best second basemen on the free-agent market. The Cardinals will now turn to Tommy Edman as their starting second baseman if a reunion with Wong doesn’t happen.
“It’s just immediate flexibility, whereas, if we committed to it and then all of a sudden, we realized we were in a more difficult spot, then what are we left to try to do?” Mozeliak said. “Not having a ton of time to explore the trade market or know what that looks like, candidly, it was just the very conservative and safer play at the moment.”
The Cardinals are anticipating decreased payroll for 2021 because of the lack of gate revenue this season, although Mozeliak wouldn’t offer exact numbers. St. Louis has $116.75 million committed to nine players already, and several players, including Jack Flaherty, Harrison Bader and Jordan Hicks, are headed for raises in their first year of arbitration.
When determining their strategy for this winter, the Cardinals are looking at all the different scenarios that might greet them -- no fans, limited fans, a full ballpark and more -- in 2021. They’re also keeping an eye on '22, when big contracts like those of Dexter Fowler ($82.5 million for five years) and Matt Carpenter ($39 million for two years) expire.
“When you go from having 3.3, 3.4 million fans in your ballpark to zero, it’s a big hit,” Mozeliak said. “And you have certain operating expenses that just don’t go away. When you have fixed commitments and contracts, those are not going away. And so obviously, we’re trying to figure out how we can best forecast revenues for next year, and then hopefully we can react in a positive way to help improve this club.”
Part of this offseason will be spent trying to retain Molina and Wainwright, two Cardinals icons who have spent more than a decade together in St. Louis -- and who are now about to explore the free-agent market together. Wainwright, 39, has been a free agent before, but he’s signed one-year deals with the Cardinals the past two years. Molina, 38, is seeking a two-year deal, and his preference is to stay with the Cardinals. But he has said he will listen to offers from other teams.
Mozeliak plans to reach out to both of their agents again this week.
“Obviously, it’s going to be continued dialogue to see if we can retain both of them or one of them as the offseason unfolds,” Mozeliak said. “But talking about the offseason, it’s really difficult to plan when you have a lot of uncertainties, and 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 exactly what the rules might be for next year. … One of the things that we all are going to need is clarity on this, so hopefully as we enter the offseason, that’s something that we will all gain.”