Offseason Outlook: Arbitration

Yesterday we discussed the pending free agents the Cardinals have and today we’ll take a look at their salary arbitration eligible players.

A quick recap on what salary arbitration is. A player needs six years of MLB service time to elect for free agency and players who have yet to accumulate that is in their “team control” years. The first three years of this is where the team has the most control, they can unilaterally decide what the players will make. The second three years they qualify for salary arbitration. Players and teams negotiate a salary and if an agreement can’t be reached, they go to an arbitration hearing where an arbiter decides which side is correct.

There are some special situations, one which the Cardinals are facing and I’ll talk about at the end, but in general that is how this works.

Players who are under team control must be tendered a contract by their team by December 2nd or they will be what we consider to be “non-tendered.” When a player is non-tendered, they become a free agent.

LHP Tyler Lyons. Over the past few years I’ve really grown to love Tyler Lyons and have become quite enamored with his potential as a top level relief pitcher. It’s not just those dreamy eyes, though they certainly don’t hurt. I’ve argued for the last couple years that Lyons could be an elite setup guy if he was ever given the opportunity to be one.

This year he got his first taste of that action. He made the move to the bullpen full time and posted a 2.83 ERA and 1.09 over 54 innings. His second half was even more incredible as he posted a 1.61 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in 28 innings. That 1.61 ERA was the 13th best ERA among relief pitchers who threw at least 20 innings in the second half.

Lyons will be arbitration eligible for the first time and is projected to get $1.3 million by MLB Trade Rumors and he is totally worth that. In my opinion, Lyons is the kind of reliever that you’re going to want to buy out his arbitration years. Lyons has a 2.74 ERA and 1.01 WHIP over 144 innings as a relief pitcher in his MLB career. What he did this year as a full time reliever should not have been a surprise to anyone.

OF Randal Grichuk. Randal Grichuk will also be arbitration eligible for the first time and he may be one of the toughest players to value. On one hand, he strikes out a lot, but he has power. Power so impressive that as I wrote earlier this year, only Giancarlo Stanton and Nolan Arenado have hit extra base hits at a greater rate than him since his arrival in the big leagues.

Yes, he doesn’t walk. But for all the talk about how bad his 2017 was supposed to have been, his rate numbers were virtually identical to the 2016 season we praised. That those rate numbers have remained steady makes me think that we now know what Grichuk is. And so I have to ask myself. Am I happy with a guy who, in a 600 plate appearance season, projects to hit .240 with 38 doubles, 6 triples, and 29 home runs? Yes, yes I am.

With the outfield logjam, it’s very possible that Grichuk is traded, but I still firmly believe that that would be a mistake. He’s the kind of guy you put at the back of a lineup and let him loose. Plus defender, plus power. And for a projected $2.8 million next year? A steal.

RHP Michael Wacha. Michael Wacha will be the club’s only second year arbitration eligible player. Last winter Wacha made a little bit of history after the club initiated their new “file and trial” policy where, once arbitration numbers are filed, they intend to take the player to the arbitration hearing. The Cardinals filed at $2.775 million, Wacha filed at $3.2 million, and the Cardinals won. It was the first time the organization had taken a player to arbitration since 1999.

Most important for Wacha this season was to prove that he was able to stay healthy for an entire season. He did that with 30 starts, however is performance left something lacking. His 103 ERA+ demonstrates that he was just slightly above league average. His overall numbers were a 4.13 ERA, 12-9 record, over 165.2 innings.

With the Cardinals’ moves in the rotation, Wacha aims to be leaned on more heavily in 2018. MLB Trade Rumors projects that Wacha will get $5.9 million in arbitration this winter, which I feel is high given his injury history and average performance. I also question Wacha’s place in St. Louis beyond 2019 when he becomes eligible for free agency. With two years of team control remaining coming off a season where he stayed healthy, his trade value may never be higher.

RHP Trevor Rosenthal. Trevor Rosenthal will be eligible for arbitration for the third time this winter, which means he will be a free agent following the 2018 season. Rosenthal made $6.4 million this past season and posted a 3.40 ERA over 47.2 innings before his season was ended by Tommy John surgery in late August. The standard timetable without any setbacks could put him back on the mound in August, the question is whether the Cardinals would want to pay the price to hope for that.

That’s where it gets complicated. By the CBA, players under team control cannot have their salaries drop by more than 80% without entering free agency. For Rosenthal, that means his minimum salary next year is $5.12 million. And even if they could get Rosenthal and his agent Scott Boras to agree to terms at that price, I imagine it is unlikely.

MLB Trade Rumors projects that Rosenthal will command $7.9 million in arbitration and that’s a lot of money to drop on a player for a month or two of pitching. Because of that, I do not expect the club to tender him a contract and make him a free agent.

INF Aledmys Diaz. The last player I’ll talk about isn’t arbitration eligible, but he’s in a weird situation. His initial four year contract ends at the end of the 2017 season, but he does not yet have enough service time to be arbitration eligible. That means that the Cardinals are in position to set his salary for 2018. The same 80% reduction limit applies, so Diaz’s minimum salary for next year would be $2 million unless the team non-tenders him into free agency.

Last year I suggested that the Cardinals would avoid this by buying out an arbitration year or two and include this pre-arbitration season in it, but given what we saw in 2017, things have changed.

Diaz hit .250/.290/.392 with 7 home runs in 79 games with the Cardinals and scored himself a mid-season demotion to the minors after losing his starting job at shortstop to Paul DeJong. Diaz diversified his defensive positions to include third base and second base during his time in the minors, but his future with the team is anything but certain. There is barely a niche for him on the roster now, but if the Cardinals acquire a starting infielder, I expect that there is no place for him on their roster.

For that reason, I expect that the club will either trade him before the deadline or non-tender him this winter. I think he’s shown enough that there will be a team willing to take a chance on him, but I don’t believe it will be the Cardinals.