Cardinals Six-Year Free Agents Explained

Brian Walton explains the free agent ranking system and process and then projects what will happen with each of the eleven Cardinals free agents and why.

Most folks understand the basics.  A player's contract is up.  He either signs a new one here or he goes there. 


But, as you might expect, in reality, it is quite a bit more complicated than that.  This article is intended to explain matters for those players with six years or more of service, who have the right through the Basic Agreement to become free agents when their current contracts are up. 


I will be back to discuss the players with three years and less of service time in a subsequent piece.


Free agent types

First of all, there are four types of free agents; Types A, B and C and "No compensation".  They have been designated in this manner since the settlement of the 1981 strike.  The intent is to ensure the former team is compensated for losing key players.


How players are rated

The Elias Sports Bureau runs statistical calculations for each league based on two-year results in areas like batting average, home runs, RBI and starts, innings, ERA, strikeouts and saves.  First, they place every player into one of five position groupings, then based on the comparative results of the calculations for each grouping, into one of the four Types; A, B, C or "No compensation".


Elias position groupings

First base / Outfield (plus Designated Hitter in AL)

Second base / Shortstop / Third Base


Starting Pitcher

Relief Pitcher


How the arbitration game is played

The former team has to offer arbitration to any Type A, B or C player in order to receive any compensation in return if the player signs elsewhere. However, the risk is that the player accepts the arbitration offer and wins a large contract from the former team as a result of the hearing.  As a result, many teams decline, making the player a free agent without compensation.


So, there is risk in both losing a player as well as a cost in signing a restricted free agent.  Keep the latter point in mind when drooling over other teams' free agents. They may come with a hefty additional cost down the road in lost draft picks. In fact, the Cards faced that situation in the past, losing potentially important draft selections for the signings of Jason Isringhausen from Oakland and Tino Martinez from the Yankees prior to the 2002 season.


Compensation by player Type


Compared to all players in that position grouping

New team compensation to former team if arbitration was offered (or if the player signs by December 7)

Additional compensation

Type A

Top 30%

First round pick or (if in first half of draft), a second round pick instead

Supplemental (or extra) pick at end of first round

Type B

31 – 50%

First round pick or (if in first half of draft), a second round pick instead


Type C

51 - 60%

Supplemental pick after second round



61 – 100%

No compensation



Cardinals free agents by Type

In terms of the Cardinals' free agent ratings, there were some surprises.  You'll note that next to the 11 qualifying players' names, I have added my forecast as to whether arbitration will be offered, and if so, accepted. 


Note that the total population in the "Elias NL Rank within Position Grouping" includes all players, not just those who are free agents.



Elias NL Rank within Position Grouping

Likely to be offered arbitration by Cardinals

Likely to accept arbitration if offered

Type A Free Agents

Mark Grudzielanek

Matt Morris

Al Reyes

Jeff Suppan

Julian Tavarez

Larry Walker


19 of 83

18 of 94

25 of 134

23 of 94

19 of 134

31 of 129















Type B Free Agents

Cal Eldred

Reggie Sanders


50 of 134

46 of 129







Type C Free Agents

John Mabry

Abraham Nunez


67 of 129

49 of 83







No Compensation

Einar Diaz


31 of 38






+ Team expected to exercise 2006 option

* Voluntarily retired

# Pre-existing agreement between player and team


Let's take each player one at a time.


Mark Grudzielanek to test the market

It is generally believed that part of the negotiations preceding second baseman Mark Grudzielanek signing a below-market deal of $1 million plus incentives for 2005 was that the Cardinals could not offer him arbitration for 2006.


The reason for that is to guarantee that the player will be able to test the free-agent waters. Look for Grudzielanek to parlay his solid 2005 season into a lot more cash, putting him a different uniform in 2006. Some team will surely ante up.


How badly does Matt Morris want to return?

The Cards would probably prefer to bring Morris back on another inexpensive, one-year, incentive-laden deal to give Anthony Reyes a year to ease into the rotation or to enable them to trade another starter for a bat. On the other hand, Morris will surely want a fatter multi-year contract, reflecting his status and his prime playing years. 


If the Cards offer Morris arbitration, he might win a bigger 2006 salary than they want to spend.  However, if they don't offer him arbitration, then they lose the chance to pick up basically two first-round picks in return.  On the other hand, with Morris being a Type A, other teams may be at least slightly less inclined to offer him a big contract, when they know they lose their first rounder as a result of signing a very good, but not great, player.


My educated guess is that the Cards offer Morris arbitration.  That way, they can be assured of getting him one more season, even if at a higher price than they may prefer to pay.  On the other hand, Morris could well be hoping they don't make the offer, so he can more easily chase a longer-term, bigger-buck contract elsewhere.  As a result, if Morris was offered arbitration, I think the most likely scenario is that he would decline the offer and leave St. Louis.  


Note: Even though arbitration is accepted, the team and player often try to work out a deal before the actual hearing occurs and could end up agreeing to a single or multi-year pact. I will post a story closer to the time that highlights Walt Jocketty's arbitration record. It will be a short piece, though!


Keeping an injured Al Reyes in house

Despite the severity of his elbow injury and the duration of his expected rehabilitation period, I predict the Cardinals will offer reliever Al Reyes arbitration and for him to accept. While his pre-injury value was high, the surgery should put enough doubt in everyone's minds to ensure they meet at the table and make a deal, likely with some incentives just in case he can get back.


And if for some reason, Reyes wanted to look around, the fact that he is a Type A free agent will guarantee that the Cards will not want to lose him without compensation. Reyes' very high ranking as 25th of the 134 National League relievers was the most surprising of all Cardinals' rankings to me.


No arbitration for Abraham Nunez?

Infielder Abraham Nunez, on the other hand, may not be offered arbitration, though I think he would accept it in a flash if he were given a chance.  The Cardinals may be too scared that as a starting third baseman who perhaps played over his head in 2005, Nunez could receive an arbitration award far more than his value as a projected 2006 reserve should dictate.


Instead, look for the Cards to try to sign Nunez prior to the arbitration period or allow him to test the market. There is a decent chance some other team will overpay to get Nunez. Do you think the Yankees regret paying Tony Womack $4 million or the Tigers are glad they gave Fernando Vina $6 million?


Yes and no for Julian Tavarez

On the other hand, reliever Julian Tavarez may be worth the gamble.  For that reason, I have forecast him as a player with whom the Cards might risk arbitration.  However, the desire for a multi-year deal and the knowledge that there are teams that may not bat an eyelash about giving away a first round pick for him should lead Tavarez to turn down an arbitration offer if tendered, in my estimation. That and the fact that his agent is Scott Boras.  As a result, Tavarez leaves and the Cardinals get the two picks, at least.


Of course, the risk is that Tavarez accepts and the Cards get stuck having to pay well over $3 million for a set-up man, which is pretty pricey territory. On the other hand, with so many question marks in the pen, worse things could happen to Jocketty.


Cal Eldred nearing the end

As fine of a Cardinal as reliever Cal Eldred has been, the only question is how near the end he is. I think both sides could decide to call it a career. Still, with Eldred as a Type B, the Cards cannot risk losing a first or second rounder by not offering him arbitration.


If Eldred is offered and wants to play in 2006, I predict he will accept arbitration, but sign before the hearing.


One more year of Reggie Sanders?

By offering outfielder Reggie Sanders arbitration, the Cardinals would definitely be taking a risk that he can stay healthy enough at age 38 that their investment would be recouped. However, with Larry Walker retired, no clear outfield prospects ready in the system and a tough free-agent market, I believe the Cards could do a lot worse.


Sanders could always opt to decline the offer and try to get one final two-year deal somewhere else. Certainly, his history demonstrates that he is not averse to changing teams. But, I think a one-year deal at a salary comparable to 2005 will get worked out prior to any hearing.


John Mabry reprises his role

I think utilityman John Mabry will be asked back, but the Cards will not want to bother with arbitration, knowing that there are other bench options out there if they can't come to terms. I predict Mabry will sign a deal comparable to 2005.


Einar Diaz is probably gone

There are a number of replaceable parts-type backup catchers out there. Tony La Russa showed little confidence in Einar Diaz in 2005. Color him gone.


The window is not closed - yet

Finally, remember that even if arbitration is not offered or offered and not accepted, the player can still return.  Of course, the player is also free to negotiate with any other team.  But, in the latter case, when offered but rejected, the two parties must hurry.  For example, if the Cards offer arbitration to Morris and he declines, they have only until January 8 to make a deal.  In this scenario, starting on January 9 and until May 1, Morris can only sign with another team, not the Cardinals.


Key upcoming dates

December 7 - Last day for teams to offer salary arbitration to their former players who become free agents.
December 19 - Last day for free agents offered salary arbitration to accept or reject the offers.
January 5 - 15 - Salary arbitration filing.
January 8 - Last day until May 1 for free agents who rejected arbitration offers to re-sign with their former teams.
January 18 - Exchange of salary arbitration figures.
February 1 - 21 - Salary arbitration hearings.


Don't expect signings until after December 7

Note the December 7 date mentioned twice above.  Don't expect most teams to sign another team's Type A or B free agents until after that date.  If they do, it is considered just as if the former team had already offered arbitration, and therefore, the new team is obligated to provide the draft pick(s). Instead, teams who will be buyers will wait to see what the former teams decide about arbitration before making their moves.


One exception to this practice in recent years has been the San Francisco Giants. Their general manager, Brian Sabean, has publicly stated that his organization does not value their first-round picks because of the high bonus amounts it requires to sign the draftees. As a result, last year for example, the Giants quickly signed shortstop Omar Vizquel in November to ensure they lost their first-rounder this June.


In closing

Congratulations if you got all the way through this story and understand it all.  On the other hand, if you just want the bottom line, keep coming back right here.  We'll keep you updated on Cardinals free agent matters all through the off-season.


Brian Walton can be reached via email at


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