Well, I must say that at least one of these decisions by GM John Mozeliak and his front office counterparts with the Cardinals was a surprise.
The Cards elected to decline to offer arbitration to any of their three “compensatory” free agents – Russ Springer, Braden Looper, and Jason Isringhausen. They also did not offer arbitration to any of their other unrestricted free agents, which was less of a surprise.
The decision on Springer was not terribly surprising, as the likelihood of a team ponying up the cash to sign Russ *AND* a compensatory draft pick was low. Likewise, by offering arbitration, the Cards would’ve bound themselves to Springer at a rate of no less than 80% of his 2008 $3.5m salary. Coming off of arguably his best two seasons in MLB at age 40, it’s possible that Springer would’ve been awarded a raise from that $3.5m by an arbitrator. Springer has indicated he would like to return with the Cardinals, so it would seem that the ball is in the court of the team. One down.
Isringhausen? Izzy made $8m in 2008, and there was never really a doubt that the Cardinals would decline to offer arbitration. There appear to be at least smoke screens of interest out there, but nothing significant enough for the Cardinals to risk over $6m for another season of Izzy. Not a lot of suspense here. Two down.
Looper, in my mind, was the big question mark. Having posted two very solid seasons as a back-end starting pitcher, Looper figures to land a multi-year contract, perhaps approaching $8m-$9m per season. Looper is a Type B free agent, so the Cardinals would be due a supplemental round pick if he were signed by another team. Looper carries a bit more interest to the Cards though, who by most fan accounts could stand to have some insurance in the starting rotation. Looper could’ve been offered arbitration, gotten a one-year, low-risk deal and provided an excellent option for taking the ball every five days. The Cards elected to decline arbitration.
I can see this several different ways. With the announcement coming today that the country is ‘officially in a recession’ (wow, brilliant, right?), and so few free agent signings having been made so far, I reach a few conclusions.
1. I think teams are going to be far more prudent and frugal with their free agent dollars than in past years. Sure CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira will get their silly money, but beyond the big names, I think the cash will dry up. The Cardinals don’t want to be caught holding the bag with a contract, even if only one-year, for Looper that is overpriced compared to the market they could’ve been playing in.
2. Because of the reason above, and because the market has been so slow to date, I believe the Cards were skeptical that a team would sign Looper if it meant the Cardinals would get a pick in return. Again referring to the issues above, if Looper had a big arbitration offer from the Cards, it could price other teams out of the market for him.
3. Adding onto the two items above further, Looper might elect to immediately take the Cards’ offer of arbitration before the market softened any more, again sticking the Cards with an above market deal.
4. Mozeliak may believe he can lure Looper back into the fold at a rate lower than what arbitration would’ve cost them. While I certainly haven’t heard of any contact between Looper’s folks and Mo, it wouldn’t surprise me if they’ve been talking.
5. If you believe Mozeliak, they just want to keep their options open, and perhaps wisely. As slowly as the market is moving to date, there could well be a Kyle Lohse-type deal available as late as Spring Training again. Why rush into what could be a market-high deal when patience and due diligence may allow you to reap benefits down the road?
Ok, sure. You’re right. I’m looking at this with rose-colored glasses. At any rate, the Cardinals are no worse off tonight than they were this morning. They could still use another starting pitcher from somewhere (Randy Wolf anyone?), they still need middle infielders (they did not offer arbitration to Felipe Lopez either, which is not a huge shock), and they still are messing around trying to get some left-handed relievers signed.
I’m willing to wait and watch – it’s not like anyone else is making huge moves just yet – but I am still holding out hope that Mozeliak isn’t getting much sleep these days between phone calls.