Craig and other Cardinals long-term contracts
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Craig and other Cardinals long-term contracts

Allen Craig just agreed to a five-year contract. How have the St. Louis Cardinals approached arbitration-eligible players with long-term deals?

When a standout player approaches his arbitration-eligible years, any club has a decision to make. Should it offer the player a long-term contract or go year-to-year?

The St. Louis Cardinals eliminated any question about how they feel about Allen Craig when they announced Friday that they have reached agreement with the first baseman/outfielder on a five-year contract through the 2017 season with a club option for 2018.

Now 28, Craig will remain under contract for his prime seasons, until age 33 or 34. The deal covers his final pre-arbitration season, his three arbitration years and if the option is picked up, two of his free agent seasons.

The deal is for $31 million and could be worth $43 million if the option year is picked up, according to the AP. Craig will receive $1.75 million this year, $2.75 million in 2014, $5.5 million in 2015, $9 million in 2016 and $11 million in 2017. The Cardinals have a $13 million option for 2018 with a $1 million buyout.

Selected by the Cardinals in the eighth round of the June 2006 from the University of California-Berkeley, Craig has become a major force in the Cardinals lineup. The clean-up hitter has compiled a .300 batting mark with 37 home runs and 150 RBI in 238 games since making his big league debut in 2010.

Craig is not the first Cardinals core player to receive such a commitment. Let's look at the particulars.

The benefits

From the club's perspective, the idea is to save money overall by committing multiple years before it is required. If the player is a very good one, chances are that he will outperform the value of his contract. In some cases, the club is anxious to go beyond the three arbitration years and also lock up a year or two of the player's free-agent eligible years.

From the player's side, receiving considerable financial security relatively early on in one's career can be very appealing. Knowing a multi-year contract is in place means the potential of messy contract negotiations leading up to an annual arbitration hearing can be avoided.

The risks

The risk from the team view is if the player becomes less productive and/or is often injured, unable to live up to the projected value of the deal.

One potential downside from the player's perspective is the chance of leaving money on the table, especially in future years. Reaching the free agent market may eventually be delayed.

Jury out on Garcia's deal
Past history

In the last decade, the Cardinals have negotiated at least four such contract deals with front-line players. Albert Pujols, Adam Wainwright, Yadier Molina and Jaime Garcia each agreed to a multi-year deal that kept them out of the arbitration process entirely and gave the Cardinals some very good value years.

Of the four, two are still in these deals and two have graduated. Pujols and Molina are in the latter category.

In the 2011-2012 off-season, Pujols became a free agent for the first time. He had 11 years of service time after signing what became an eight-year deal at three years of service. In other words, the Cardinals avoided his free agency for five years.

At 3.123 (years.days) of service, Molina came to terms with the Cardinals on a contract that became five years in duration and worth $22.5 million. It covered the 2008-2012 seasons, with the latter two free agent-eligible years. Molina now is just starting a new, five-year, $75 million deal agreed-to last spring.

The two pitchers both signed their deals well before they first became eligible for arbitration.

In 2013, Wainwright is in the final year of his six-year, $36 million deal signed before the 2008 season. At that point, the right-hander was still a year away from being able to enter the arbitration process. Ultimately, the right-hander gave up two potential free agent years in the contact when the Cardinals exercised options for years five and six.

The jury remains out on Garcia's contract due to ongoing concerns about his shoulder. The left-hander signed his extension in July 2011, a half-season before he was to become arbitration-eligible for the first time. Garcia contract is for four years, $27 million plus there are two additional team option years. So, three potential free agent years could be averted down the line.

Freese is year-to-year
Recent history

This past winter, the Cardinals had three first-time arbitration-eligible players. They are pitchers Marc Rzepczynski and Mitchell Boggs and third baseman David Freese. The first two quickly settled for one-year contracts.

Freese, however, came fairly close to an arbitration hearing before agreeing to a one-year contract for $3.15 million. Either the club did not make him a long-term offer or if they did, it was unacceptable to the Freese camp. Given Freese's health history and age (30 in April), perhaps the Cardinals are wary of a multi-year commitment and prefer to go year-by-year. This is in stark contrast to Craig's deal.

Closer Jason Motte was in his second arbitration-eligible period this past off-season. With a full season of closing success under his belt, he was able to negotiate a two-year contract for $12 million that covers this season and next.

In other words, while his remaining arbitration years are covered, none of Motte's free agent seasons were bought out. With their wealth of young pitching, the Cards may want to have the option of replacing Motte with a less expensive arm when he gets substantially more expensive - starting in 2015.

Is Jay next?
Looking ahead

Now that Craig is under contract, three other Cardinals are expected to become first-time arbitration-eligible this coming off-season. They are Daniel Descalso, Fernando Salas and Jon Jay. Of the three, Jay would seem to be the best bet for a standout career and therefore should be the top priority if the Cards want to consider another long-term deal.

I would not expect the Cardinals to consider offering Jay a multi-year contract until at least next winter. While he might come cheaper now, the Cardinals may prefer to see a full season of a healthy and productive Jay before talking about a multi-year commitment.

Current course and speed, I could see the potential of a Motte-like deal happening to avoid arbitration, but perhaps stop short of buying any of Jay's free agent years.



As I know the contract topics can be confusing, feel free to post questions and join in the discussion at The Cardinal Nation's insiders message board. This forum is exclusively for subscribers, so please take advantage.



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Brian Walton can be reached via email at brian@thecardinalnationblog.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Follow Brian on Twitter.

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