ST. LOUIS — As baseball heads into the offseason, the action moves away from the field and into the front office. Clubs have already begun their internal house cleaning as they prep for the pursuit of free agents, and the following is a primer for fans who are tracking the complicated processes of free agency and arbitration.
The Cardinals have five free agents in Mark Ellis, Jason Motte, A.J. Pierzynski, Pat Neshek and Justin Masterson. A team has until November 3 to extend a qualifying offer to any of their free agents. A qualifying offer is a one-year contract for a price that is standardized across the league. This year, that figure is $15.3 million. If the player declines the offer, his original team receives a draft pick from the team that signs him. This would be the signing team's first-round pick unless it’s in the top 10. Then, it’s a second-rounder.
Many times, players decline the offer in search of a longer-term deal. The Cardinals famously were able to draft Michael Wacha in 2012 when Albert Pujols declined their qualifying offer. When he signed with the Angels, St. Louis received their 19th pick. The Cardinals will not make any qualifying offers this offseason, if for no other reason than none of their free agents are worth $15.3 million for one year’s work. However, any of the five free agents can still sign with the team for a lesser deal.
On November 4, free agents can sign with any team.
The Cardinals also have six arbitration-eligible players. Players eligible for arbitration are those with at least three years of service but less than six. Certain players with between two and three years are eligible (deemed Super Two), but as no St. Louis player currently falls in that category, we’ll skip that rather complicated explanation.
The first date to keep in mind for arbitration is December 2. That’s the deadline for teams to offer arbitration to eligible players. If they don’t, the player becomes a free agent (referred to as a non-tender FA).
If arbitration is offered, the team and the player have until January 13 to negotiate a deal. If the two sides cannot reach an agreement by January 13, they enter the arbitration process.
On January 16, both parties exchange proposed salaries. Those numbers are each side’s estimation of the player’s worth, and will be used in the arbitration hearing. Essentially, the player says, “based on my contribution to the team and current market value for players like me, I deserved to be paid $X.” The club counters with, “based on our evaluation, you deserved to be paid $Y.”
Those numbers are presented to an impartial arbiter, who decides which salary is fairest. Arbiters must choose one side or the other, and cannot suggest a compromise. Those hearings run from February 1 through the 21st. Teams and their players can reach an agreement any time before their hearing. In most cases, contracts are settled within this window.
Clubs tend not to want to go to an arbitration hearing, as players almost never take a pay cut and often get more in a one-year deal than they would in free agency. Players also generally hope to avoid a hearing, as the one-year contract is not great for piece of mind and there’s more money to be made in multi-year deals.
With that in mind, we have a breakdown of our evaluation of the Cardinals’ options heading into contract talks you can read here.