UCB Fall Roundtable: Buying out arbitration and free agency years

by on October 23, 2009 · 4 comments

Once again the United Cardinal Bloggers are undertaking our fall Roundtable discussions via e-mail.

Josh will be moderating a discussion on a question of his own in a few days, so keep an eye out for that.

My question to the group has already made the rounds, and there were some interesting (and some predictable) answers.

PH8:  If the Cardinals hope to retain their superstar players (and their contracts), particularly extending Albert Pujols, they must achieve cost certainty in other spots on the roster.

One way the Cards have tried to achieve that certainty is through a willingness to pay a bit more to young players up front to buy out their arbitration and early free agent seasons (Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina).

If you’re John Mozeliak, who arethe next bunch of players you approach with this offer, and when?

Is this approach viable long-term as a franchise-building strategy to keep the Cards in play for big contracts despite the relatively limited payroll stance or will it be necessary eventually to constantly churn new prospects through St Louis?

And the responses…

Daniel, C70 at the Bat: Let me hit the last part of that question first.  I do think it’s a viable strategy, though that doesn’t preclude having to churn prospects through anyway.  There will come a time, as these young guys age and their contracts either expire or continue to climb into those backloaded years, that you will need fresh young cheap talent.

I think it’s really the best and only strategy that a team like St. Louis can pursue and stay regularly successful.  They can’t go out into free agency and get a franchise-type player every year, but they can get into the FA pool and pick up that last piece or that risk/reward guy that could put them over the top.

That said, right now I’m not sure that there is anyone (save Colby Rasmus) that you really start talking to.  Having Wainwright and Molina under wraps for a while gives you some time to focus on development and seeing how the youngsters pan out.

If you are two-three years from now, though, I’d expect Rasmus, Jamie Garcia and perhaps a guy like Lance Lynn or Daryl Jones to be in that discussion, but right now, I don’t think there are any.

Trey, The Cardinal Virtue: I think it’s a good question, but one without any clear answers. The reason for this it that I don’t think we have any young players right now who have proven too be consistent contributors to the team. The closest things are Rasmus and Ryan, but they were only really everyday players the last couple of months of the season. I’d say it’s questionable at best whether it would be worth it to buy-out their arbitration years at this point. This kind of goes back to the discussion on whether we should have LaRussa back. Certainly one knock against him has been that he doesn’t develop young talent well, especially when it comes to everyday players. Really, Molina and Pujols are about the only two “homemade” stars we’ve had in the last ten years when it comes to position players at least. They are great players obviously, but you’d have to say their prodigious talent likely overcame the general way the Cardinals have developed players recently. Is this an indictment of LaRussa or the farm system? It’s hard to say for sure, but right now, we just don’t have the young guys to invest in. The Phillies are good example of what we would like to have, with Utley, Werth, Rollins, Howard and Ruiz all being really good players they’ve developed. Victorino didn’t come from their system (they got him from Houston or maybe the Dodgers, can’t remember for sure), but they gave him his first chance to play everyday in the bigs. It seems that the new management wants to head in that direction, though the deals made this season contradict that somewhat. Anyway, and interesting question, but one that will hopefully have some better answers in a year or two.

PH8: Trey- What about a Ludwick or Schumaker?  Kyle McClellan?

Just throwing names out there…not necessarily opining that these guys should get new deals, but interested to see what others think.

Trey, The Cardinal Virtue: Ludwick, possibly, is worth extending.  His injury history has to be a major concern though.  Shu and McClellen, though I like them, I would vote no.  Shu, for all his qualites, is really just an average MLB player.  Good defender, hits around .300, versatile, but little speed or power.  There are a lot of other guys out there just like him.  Not a guy you are looking to lock-up.  McClellen, likewise, has been just an average middle reliever.  He’s been effective, but not the big power arm you are looking to build your bullpen around.  You can find guys with his talent level pretty readily.

Michael, Whiteyball: All of the Cardinals focus will (and should be) on Holliday, Pujols and a 4th starter.  Saying that, Ludwick and Schumaker would be great to sign long term.  They’ve proven their worth over multiple years and would more likely see their value go up if Ludwick could repeat 2008 or Schumaker gets better at second base.  It’s not a bad idea to approach those two players before arbitration.

Mike, Stan Musial’s Stance: Brendan Ryan certainly proved himself capable of holding down the SS position for a number of years, so I think he’s definitely one the organization should consider buying out arbitration years on the Wainwright model.

Rasmus had a good rookie year, although limited somewhat by injury in the second half (at least, I think that was the reason his production slipped). If the Cardinals are serious about making him the everyday CF for years going forward, he’s a good candidate too.

Ludwick’s already in his arbirtation years. My read of Cot’s baseball contracts indicates he can be a free agent in 2012. He’s also 31 and has a history of injury trouble. I’m not sure he’d be willing to forgo future earnings for a longer deal because he’s so close, and I’m not sure it’s a wise investment based on his injury history.

Assuming the team intends to keep Schumaker at second, I’d offer him a longer-term contract as well.

McClellan, and also Josh Kinney, currently project as nothing more than middle relievers – those guys can be affordably had at any time in their careers, so I don’t consider them good alternatives for a longer-term contract.

Pip, Fungoes: The answer seems a matter of risk-management and replaceability.

The young pitchers simply haven’t proved enough at the major-league level to warrant even a little extra risk on the club’s part. The one pitcher who has some experience, Kyle McClellan, has shown himself to be a $1-2 million/year middle reliever, not exactly the stuff that requires long-term commitment, given replaceability. The other young pitchers who relieved in 2009 — Mitchell Boggs and Blake Hawksworth — are possible starters. But they are a little too green to commit to, and there’s no risk in waiting another year or two with them.

As for non-pitchers, the main guys without long-term deals who figure to be around at least another year are Colby Rasmus, Brendan Ryan, Skip Schumaker and Ryan Ludwick. That’s half the regulars from a 90-win team, representing 8.4 WAR (or the equivalent of Albert Pujols). As the youngest, both in age and ML experience, Rasmus seems the likeliest candidate for a Wainwright-Molina-type deal. But even Wainwright and Molina had played two and three full seasons, respectively, before signing their nearly identical four-year, $15 million contracts. So Rasmus is probably still a year away, too.

Though the Cardinals have some players who could bubble up to the majors at second base soon (e.g., Daniel Descalso and Jarrett Hoffpauir), Schumaker turned in an above-expectations .363 OBP last year and improved with the glove. Though it’s hard to imagine he’ll get any better from where he ended the season, he projects to age somewhat gracefully. If he can put in a couple more seasons like the one Bill James projects for his 2010 campaign — .353 OBP — would deserve a buyout of his two remaining arbitration years, if not his first year of FA. He has certainly earned consideration.

Ryan is the most curious case. He had the fifth-highest WAR (3.2, for a value of $14.3 million) among NL shortstops last year, and yet his manager won’t commit to giving him the job in 2010. The club has seen firsthand over the last several years how difficult it is to find (and keep) good players at the position. Free agents in the next couple of years are either going to cost a lot (Edgar Renteria), not offer much production (Jack Wilson), or both (Orlando Cabrera). The Cardinals’ farm doesn’t offer any near-term fruit, certainly not of Ryan’s quality.
Ryan, however, is still another year from his first arbitration eligibility, despite being older than Yadier Molina, and will be 28 next opening day. If he puts together another super season, he should be at the top of the buyout list.

Ludwick is enigmatic, in that he’ll turn 31 next season and we’ve already begun to see his decline (his RC/G numbers the last four years: 5.5, 5.8, 8.2, 5.4). James doesn’t see him tapering off next year, though, and he produced (1.7 WAR/$7.6 million) double his contract in 2009 ($3.7). Buying out his final two years of arbitration (’10, ’11) may be worth it, but the fear is that he, with a history of injuries and at his age and position, will decline more rapidly than one might expect. Also, the Cardinals have at least one corner outfielder in the system who could produce in two years. If Ludwick wanted $4.25 million in arbitration coming off a stellar 2008 season, the Cardinals probably don’t have much to lose by going to arbitration this year.

—–

I will take the easy way out and agree with everything said above.  Most of the answers were very similar.  McClellan isn’t worth it because he’s not dominant.  Ludwick is no spring chicken and has been injury-prone.  Brendan Ryan might be the most worth it of anyone right now, but still doesn’t have any guarantees of being the shortstop full-time.  Skip Schumaker continues to be perhaps a bit underrated.  Rasmus will be the one to watch if he can come on with a sophomore season that starts to fulfill some of his great potential.

One way or another, I do feel that this method of achieving cost-certainty will become a necessity for the Cardinals, if it hasn’t already.  All it takes is one breakout season from a guy like Rasmus to put his arbitration numbers through the roof and add another eight-figure salary to the bottom line.

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Writing about the Cardinals and other loosely associated topics since 2008, I've grown tired of the April run-out only to disappoint Cardinal fans everywhere by mid-May. I do not believe in surrendering free outs.
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Josh October 25, 2009

Wow, this is a tough one to answer. You want all the young players to do well, but that just drives up their price. To me one pitcher and one franchise CF will be at the front of the line to get extensions.

Garcia and Rasmus should both have very important roles on the 2010 squad and will have nice pay bumps to go with it (health, of course, will determine everything)

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