|Yes, this is an arbiter. No, unfortunately I don't think baseball's arbitration process features anything quite so cool. |
It's that time of year again, when salary arbitration comes to the forefront, as players across baseball file for a raise. It's not quite as exciting as the run-up to the annual Winter Meetings, and certainly not as much fun as when the countdown to Pitchers and Catcher Report Day begins in earnest, but, um, I forgot where I was going with this thought.
Oh, salary arbitration! Okay, so it probably seems a little boring on the surface, and maybe a little deeper than the surface, too, but I have to say, I'm honestly interested in the decisions the St. Louis Cardinals will have to make in the upcoming weeks.
Their arbitration class this year is, well, I'll say it: it's downright intriguing.
Five Cardinals filed for arbitration yesterday:
David Freese, 3B
Jason Motte, RP
Mitchell Boggs, RP
Edward Mujica, RP
Marc Rzepczynski, RP
I have to admit, I find this list to be downright fascinating, mostly because in my own head I can't seem to assign a decent value to any of these players.
It's made extra complicated by the fact four of the five are relief pitchers; trying to establish the value of relievers is a fool's errand at best, it seems. The fact the Cards have managed to avoid having to pay open market dollar for bullpen help the past few years has been one of the great achievements of John Mozeliak and Jeff Luhnow's farm system; with the exception of a midseason acquisition here and there, the Cards' relief corps has been largely self-sustaining in recent seasons. Culling from a deep, talented pool of power arms, this club hasn't had to go shopping for the Heath Bells of the world, despite occasional flirtations in those directions.
This, then, is the conundrum presented by the four relievers above: the Cardinals have been very successful in recent years, and a big part of that success, I believe, is due to the fact this club has been able to avoid dipping their toes too heavily into the absurdly overpriced free agent market to shore up the bullpen. Homegrown (read: cheap), closer, revolving cast of setup relievers, all of whom were either developed in house or acquired during their cheap years, you get the picture. There just isn't a whole lot of money tied up in that area of the club right now.
But what happens when all those cheap assets, the ones you've so carefully nurtured and brought along to avoid any kind of huge outlay for the team, all start getting expensive at the same time? I'm not saying any of the four relievers up for arbitration are going to break the bank, by any means; this isn't a situation where Jason Motte is going to set any new records in the field of salary arbitration. But you take all four of those guys together, give each of them even a fairly modest raise, and you quickly start to see payroll heading upward in a hurry.
So how does a team handle something like this? When part of the gameplan has been to conserve resources by going heavy on the build from within bandwagon in certain areas of the team, what happens when one of those areas suddenly hits you with a big bump? Do the Redbirds just bite the bullet, accept it as the cost of doing business, and take comfort in the fact the starting rotation should be getting cheaper (substantially so, actually), over the next season or two? Or do they start to move some of these guys as they come into their more expensive (relatively speaking), years and count on the farm system to step up again and continue producing pre-arb talented arms to fill in the spaces?
And, of course, that's to say nothing of the fifth member of our quinumvirate up there, Mr. Freese himself. If the other four cases are fraught with at least a modicum of intrigue because of the team's construction and the position of the players themselves, David Freese's arbitration status needs no such help to be supremely fascinating. (Again, supremely fascinating in terms of discussing a pair of competing financial proposals, so, you know.)
The reason, obviously, is the extraordinarily unorthodox path of Freese's career. You look at the moments he's had, and what he's meant to this franchise over the past couple years, and you could be forgiven for forgetting that this is, in fact, the first time he's really gone through the arbitration process, or the fact he has just a shade over three years of total service time in the big leagues. (3.028, to be oh so precise.) A combination of an old draft age, bad luck, and some self-inflicted troubles early on in his career have put David Freese in the unusual position of fast approaching his 30th birthday -- bringing with it the specter of decline -- while still fairly far away from free agency. A player with his service time, who has put up the numbers he has (when healthy, of course), and the unbridled adoration of a fanbase should be in line for a killer payday. No arbitration award necessary; you would normally expect a player in his situation to get a contract put on the table to buy out the messiness of exchanging those figures.
Not so for Freese, though. The age, the injury history, those nagging questions about whether or not his ankles could be arthritic and degenerative, all of it serves to keep him from being the kind of player you commit multiple years to, ensuring franchise cornerstone status.
In short, I literally have no idea how you go forward with a player like David Freese. The questions surrounding each of the relievers we're talking about here are largely philosophical, focused on how the team wants to allocate its resources going forward. The questions with Freese, though, are so much more specific and personal. I honestly don't know how to value a player like him, with his combination of factors.
In the end, of course, some of this will end up not mattering; the Cardinals will likely sign at least some of these guys to contracts, avoiding the actual arbitration process. And, really, that's probably a good thing; it isn't always the most cordial process, and hurt feelings can linger at times, particularly on the player's end of things. Plus, it's always better to simply reach an agreement and be sure, rather than waiting for a decision to know exactly what your situation is.
Still, it will be interesting to see how the Cardinals handle these cases. This is still a team largely in a transition phase, and the relief corps in particular is a large part of that. Even in what has been a relatively quiet offseason so far, there are decisions on the horizon for this club. Much bigger ones, of course, than the financial situations of four relievers and David Freese. Still, though, it's always amazing to me how often these small decisions essentially make the large ones for you later on.
So yes, it might not be the most interesting subject in the world. But besides being a waymarker on the road back to baseball -- which is always welcome, at least to me -- there is a bit more intrigue to be had than usual this year for the Cardinals and the five who filed yesterday.