The shrinking middle class
Let's get specific. If I asked you how many players have been in the major leagues from between three and ten years from among the 39 currently on the Cardinals' 40-man roster, how many would you guess?
Eight? 10? 12? 15?
Nope. The answer is just seven, of which only three have reached the six-year line to achieve free agency.
Molina may be best following the pattern as he experienced his best year offensively to date in 2011. On the other hand, Wainwright missed the entire season. In between was Holliday, who had a strong first half before mounting injuries slowed him post-break.
Of the three, only Holliday is under contract beyond 2013. Molina is in the final year of his current deal while Wainwright's options for 2012-13 were recently picked up by the Cardinals.
A number of fans want to see the Cardinals re-sign Molina and Wainwright to new long-term contracts, as they did back in early 2008.
Here's the problem. Back then, the players were more motivated to sign. They had not yet established financial security and probably did not want to deal with the annual arbitration process any more than the Cardinals.
It is a different story now. In their peak earning years, both players have their first and best chance to earn big money via free agency. This is not unlike the model Albert Pujols followed.
If I was the agent of either Wainwright or Molina, I would not advise my client to sign an extension before reaching free agency unless the Cardinals blew me away with an extraordinary offer. That is something the club has not been known for doing in the past.
|Middle class (3)||Service|
Note: Service time is measured in years.days, where a full season is 172 days.
The Cardinals have only four players from just under two to six years of service. These players are not yet allowed to seek free agency, but are eligible to have their salaries set via the arbitration process.
Two of the four, Skip Schumaker and Jaime Garcia, are under multi-year contracts that cover at least this year and next. Jason Motte and Kyle McClellan are under team control for next season, but their 2012 salary amounts have yet to be decided. Both could follow the annual arbitration process for several more years.
If Motte had a bit more closing experience, I would not be surprised to see the Cards try to lock him up with a multi-year deal. Then again, by rolling the dice now, they could probably get their closer at a lower price.
That doesn't mean these middle class players have to carry the load alone. The Cardinals have seven players with greater than ten years of major league service, including three-fifths of their rotation. This group includes stars Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman and recent signees Carlos Beltran and J.C. Romero, along with Rafael Furcal, Kyle Lohse and Jake Westbrook.
I find several interesting things about this group. First is that six of the seven are currently making less per year than they did during their peak earning seasons. The only one that is not yet there, Lohse, will almost certainly be joining the others soon. Starting in 2013, his salary is expected to drop as his current contract concludes.
In an indication of the free agent-driven nature of Major League Baseball today, it is worth noting that none of the seven are career Cardinals. Five of the seven joined St. Louis as free agents. The other two, Jake Westbrook and Rafael Furcal, first became Cardinals via trade, but then tested the free agent market before re-signing their current deals with St. Louis.
Long shots (14)
At the other end of the experience spectrum are a group of 14 players most likely to not open 2012 on the major league roster. Four of them have not yet made their MLB debuts. All except Rule 5 pick Erik Komatsu are products of the Cardinals farm system.
|Long shots (14)||Service|
Pre-arbitration players (11)
The final group consists of 11 players – those with less than three years of service whom I consider most likely to make the Cardinals 2012 roster. With the exception of reliever Marc Rzepczynski, acquired this past July, the entire group developed their skills in the Cardinals minor league system.
The former two, Jay and Freese, may especially receive a substantial increase in salary for the 2013 season. As such, they would seem likely candidates for the Cardinals to approach during the upcoming summer to probe the idea of a multi-year contract to cover some of all of their arbitration-eligible years.
As I mentioned in the case of Motte above, there is a balance to be considered. The longer the Cardinals wait to ensure Jay is a long-term non-platoon starter and Freese's injuries are truly behind him, the higher the players' price tags on long-term deals will be.
I can see some combination of Motte, Jay and especially Freese to be the next middle class, getting multi-year deals to ensure they remain Cardinals into their free agent-eligible years.
This would follow the blueprint set in the past with such players as Pujols (in 2004) and more recently, Wainwright and Molina (in 2008) and Garcia (in 2011).
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com. Also catch his Cardinals commentary daily at The Cardinal Nation blog. Look for his weekly minor league column during the season at FOXSportsMidwest.com. Follow Brian on Twitter.
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