Pitchers and catchers reported for spring training Monday, but off the field, it was a momentous day for the Cardinals for another reason.
While players began official workouts for the first time of the year, the Cardinals were tending to another first: for the first time time since 1999 with Darren Oliver, the Cardinals were heading to arbitration with a player. In the team’s hearing against Michael Wacha Monday, according to Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the independent panel sided with the Cardinals. This means the 25-year-old righthander will earn a salary of $2.8 million for the 2017 season. Wacha filed for his salary to be $3.2 million.
Going to hearing–an actual court case against the club’s player–over a difference of $400,000 seems petty at first glance. But John Mozeliak and the Cardinals intended to prove to agents and players that they are now a ‘file and trial’ team. This means that instead of negotiating contracts beyond the exchange deadline back in January, the club wants to commit to bringing its cases to hearing if settlements cannot be reached prior to that filing date.
The reasoning behind this method relates to leverage in negotiations. If agents know teams consistently avoid arbitration–as the Cardinals had since 1999 prior to this Wacha case–those agents are more likely to request a salary for their player higher than they believe him to be deserving, in order to raise the midpoint of a presumed compromise. The Cardinals, like many other teams in baseball in recent years, intend to regain leverage against agents using this methodology.
Though Mozeliak says the team had instituted this policy prior to this offseason, this is the first time the Cardinals have been forced to prove it. Both Wacha and fellow 25-year-old righty Carlos Martinez awaited resolution for their statuses beyond the exchange date. Martinez, however, agreed with the club on a long-term extension a couple weeks ago. The team had been working on a Martinez extension for months, so his situation constituted a special circumstance.
So Wacha became the lone test case for the Cardinals new model for handling arbitration. In a way, he made sense as a guinea pig; while he views himself as a starter capable of throwing 200 innings in the upcoming season, the Cardinals remain leery of his injury history. If they can’t pencil him into the rotation, perhaps he is not as valuable as he thinks he is. They felt they had a strong claim.
The Cardinals left it for the arbiter to decide, and it turned out in their favor. If anything, this decision validates the Cardinals' mindset to continue as a 'file and trial' team, allowing them to use the information learned from this experience, and tweak their methods for similar endeavors in the future.
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