ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- As the fans lined up for autographs in the big ballroom during the team’s Winter Warm-up, Cardinal general manager John Mozeliak stood at the lectern in a small conference space on the fourth floor facing reporters.
The first question was all business.
With the arbitration deadline come and gone, the Cardinals have two players yet to sign (Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha). There remains time for teams to find common ground with their players up until the moment the door to the meeting room closes, but if they can’t, it goes to an arbitration panel to decide the salary. Did Mozeliak expect it to get that far?
“We do have time, but our strategy was if we file and exchange, then we would take it to hearing, so yes,” he said.
Arbitration is a relatively simple process. The player’s camp suggests an amount he’s worth, and the team does the same. If the two can’t agree by the hearing, they present a defense for their figures and the arbiters pick which of the two numbers they believe most accurately represents the player’s value. There is no splitting the difference.
It’s been 18 years since the Cardinals have gone to an arbitration hearing. In 1999, the team and Darren Oliver were too far apart to agree, so a panel decided for them. The Cardinals won.
Though neither Wacha nor Martinez’s filings are that far off from what the team put forth, it’s notable the organization is so willing to play out the string. After nearly two decades of commitment to negotiation, going to arbitration with two of the team’s biggest names seemed like a jarring departure from the norm.
But reputations precede in business, and with the rising cost of MLB talent, they can be leveraged.
“We actually changed a couple years ago. We just felt like the deadline, when you look at arbitration, was getting to [a point] where if agents felt like you weren't actually going to take it to hearing, you usually got a much higher filing number,” he said.
A higher filing number means a higher midpoint, which means agents can net a higher payday for their clients under the guise of compromise if a team is committed to avoiding a hearing.
The gap between the team’s number and the player’s is less than $500,000 for both Wacha and Martinez, meaning neither side was particularly outlandish in their demands. But the operating principles have changed for the Cardinals. They are demonstrating they’ll go the distance if it ensures a more honest negotiating environment in the future.
“This time around, I think you saw a much more conservative filing numbers on both sides and when you look at the delta between both Martinez and Wacha, they're not huge. Ultimately these will see hearing rooms and we get to find out how good we are at these,” Mozeliak said.
But being good at arbitration comes at a cost. Both sides must present a defense of their valuation, which means a team must argue all the reasons their player isn’t worth what he’s asking for. Players are often in attendance, which means becoming a captive audience as their employer outlines in great detail all the areas in which they are lacking.
For Martinez, who figures to be the team’s ace going forward, this experience will probably be less painful. Pitchers net a premium price in the existing market and and he could likely walk away with the $4.25 million he requests. The Cardinals initially pursued a longer deal to buy up his remaining arbitration and possibly some free agency, but were unable to get ink on paper.
“We did discuss, at least peripherally, a multi-year (deal). But we did decide we'd focus on the one-year,” Mozeliak explained. “We did try to get that but kind of in the final hour, it just never got through the goal.”
Martinez, for his part, was succinct when discussing his contract with the team. He wants to play his entire career in St. Louis. Beyond that, it’s someone else’s area of expertise.
“My position on this is just to be able to offer the team support and do what I do. I leave the contracts to my lawyers and just try to keep a positive mindset. Hopefully I can have a very long career with the Cardinals,” he said through an interpreter.
Wacha enters arbitration with less ammunition, but his lower filing number ($3.2M) reflects his realism. The Cardinals asked for $2.775 million, and the panel will have to weigh his tremendous past against an uncertain future.
“When you look at role, what he's done, it was a trickier arbitration one, for sure,” the GM said. “Especially when you look at his career – his most-robust year was probably his first one, so it's hard to pin down. Based on even filing numbers, you sort of see that it's not completely irrational on either side.”
Wacha, who began a brand new workout plan to try to strengthen his shoulder for 2017, plans to attend the hearing despite the risk of acrimony.
“I don’t really know much about the situation, but everything they could say is obviously what I’ve done pitching. It’s nothing that would be new to me, I guess,” he said.
How players rebound from such experiences is individualized. But at the risk of a caustic fallout from their first hearing in 18 years, the Cardinals are resetting their reputation.