Breaking Down the Cards' Free Agent Picture

With Tuesday's release by MLB of the yearly Elias Player Rankings, the compensation for 11 Cardinals free agents is clear, as well as what it would take to sign other teams' free agents. Cardinals Assistant General Manager John Mozeliak comments on the tradeoffs teams like his face and Brian Walton forecasts what may happen this winter.

Every year at this time, Major League Baseball releases some very important information, prepared for them by the Elias Scouting Bureau. These Elias Player Rankings are used for several purposes; likely the most important is to determine compensation for free agents moving between teams. As such, the release of these rankings represents one of the first indications that the off-season has begun in earnest.

Based on a comparison of players' statistics over the past two seasons, all players are ranked as one of four Types – A, B, C or no compensation (nc). This method of player designation has been used since the settlement of the 1981 strike. One major intent is to ensure a former team is compensated when losing a key player via free agency.

Elias runs statistical calculations for all players each league, free agent or not, based on two-year results in areas like plate appearances, batting average, on-base percentage, home runs and runs batted in for position players and starts, innings, ERA, strikeouts and saves for pitchers.

Each player is scored relative to their position, or more accurately in some cases, groupings of positions. There are five groupings: catcher; first base and outfield; second base, third base and shortstop; starting pitcher and relief pitcher.

With MLB's new labor agreement, the lines between these classes of players are changing, both this year and next. But, the basic premise of the top players being Type A, the next statistically best as Type B and so on remains.

The key point to note is that only the free agents who fall in the groupings that are in bold and italics below will generate compensation if they choose to sign with a new team for 2007 and beyond.

Player Rankings

Pre-2006

2006

2007-2013

Type A Top 30% Top 30% Top 20%
Type B 31-50% 31-50% 21-40%
Type C (1st-time FA) 51-60% 51-60% eliminated
No compensation 61-100% 61-100% 41-100%

As you can see, the number of players in the Type A and B groupings will diminish starting next year. In addition, compensation was eliminated for first-time Type C free agents here in 2006 and beyond.

Another major change in the new labor agreement is a change in Type B compensation. Previously, when a Type B was signed, a pick was taken from the signing club and awarded to the previous club. Starting in 2006, just a sandwich pick is provided to the former team instead. (Note: Sandwich picks are added between rounds as extra picks, not taken away from the signing club.)

  Pre-2006 2006-2013
Type A First-round pick from the signing club or (if in first half of draft) a second-round pick from the signing club instead plus a sandwich pick at end of first round Same
Type B First-round pick from the signing club or (if in first half of draft), a second-round pick instead Sandwich pick only (between first and second rounds) 
Type C Sandwich pick after second round No compensation
Others No compensation No compensation

So what does this all mean to the Cardinals?

Well, here is the status of their possible free agents, including Jim Edmonds and Preston Wilson. While the Cardinals have options on both players for 2007, Wilson's is far too expensive (a remnant from his Houston deal signed a year ago) and an argument could be put forward that Edmonds is in the same situation.

Starting Pitchers    
Rank*  Name Score Type
21 Jeff Suppan 75.735 A
32 Mark Mulder 63.889 B
35 Jeff Weaver 60.049 B
37t Jason Marquis 59.641 B
 
2B/3B/SS  
18 Ronnie Belliard 71.645 A
74 Jose Vizcaino 23.28 no comp
82 Scott Spiezio 15.528 no comp
   
Outfield  
24t Jim Edmonds 72 A
42 Preston Wilson 60.778 B
63 So Taguchi 48.333 C (nc)
   
Catcher  
36 Gary Bennett 23.626 no comp
39 Mike Rose 3.846 no comp
* within position grouping

Type A Cardinals – Suppan, Belliard, Edmonds
The cost of another team signing away Jeff Suppan and Ron Belliard will be expensive – if the Cardinals offer the players arbitration, that is.

Even given the Cardinals' dire straits with their rotation, I predict they will decline to offer Suppan arbitration but continue to attempt to negotiate a multi-year deal with him. I think the Cardinals would like him back, but would not risk going to arbitration with him. Nor ultimately, will the Cardinals pay Suppan's price, in my estimation.

Cardinals Assistant General Manager John Mozeliak spoke to me about this situation this week, though not necessarily in the context of Suppan. They are not about to make an offer of arbitration just to get compensation back.

"It seems like such a simple thing (whether or not to offer arbitration). But, you have to have to understand the exposure if the player was to accept arbitration. I think that is the most important part of this process – understanding "What if they don't become a free agent and they just want to negotiate?"

"That was the Greg Maddux scenario with Atlanta way back. They presumed someone would give him a multi-year deal and instead he accepted their offer. And, that's the scary part. I do think that whenever you engage in this, you really have to look at your exposure should it go to arbitration," explained Mozeliak.

I don't think the Cards would offer, because of a fear that Suppan may be well-positioned to get more money than he may be worth.

Even if they did offer, I think Suppan would likely decline. His value may never be higher than it is right now and after two years of good, but not great salaries, Suppan could go after a big multi-year deal and he may just get it – likely not from St. Louis, though.

It's all quite amazing to me, as over the last few months, Suppan evolved from the most likely (non-Marquis) free agent-to be member of the rotation to return to the least. Realistically, to keep Suppan, General Manager Walt Jocketty would have needed to make his pre-emptive move a long time ago.

The Belliard situation is similar in terms of risk. Despite the numbers, one could argue that when considering everything, the Ron Belliard that played in St. Louis for three months might be a Type A player defensively, but not offensively.

Considering Belliard made $4 million in 2006 and given that Type A status, he might make as much as $6 million or more if he went to a hearing. Considering their past history of rotating players through second base and their salary frugality with the position, the Cardinals may decide to let Belliard walk without compensation.

Of all the pending free agent Cardinals, Jim Edmonds' situation has been analyzed and re-analyzed in detail. Suffice it to say that I think the two sides will come to terms on an extension that incorporates or overrides his current $10 million option for 2007 with a $3 million buyout before either the Cardinals have to decide about whether or not to pay the buyout. That means as soon as in the next two weeks, as the Cards have to make their decision on the option or buyout by the 15th.

Type B Cardinals – Mulder, Weaver, Marquis, Wilson
This is the area where the biggest change occurred in the new agreement, which has also increased the Cardinals' risk during this off-season.

As noted above, teams previously forfeited their first or second round pick when signing a Type B free agent. But, players and their agents had complained for some time that penalty restricted teams' interest in them.

Under the new rules, the lay of the land has changed dramatically. The signing team of a Type B no longer loses a pick of their own. The former team is given a sandwich pick instead. This has created a new strain of "Killer B", if you will.

With three members of the Cardinals 2005 rotation in this situation – Mulder, Weaver and Marquis, their attractiveness on the open market increased solely by their being Type Bs.

While Marquis is not coming back, retaining Mulder and Weaver may get more expensive – again assuming the Cardinals offer them arbitration.

Given the club's unsettled rotation for 2007, the considerable risk of losing Suppan and the potential price of other free agents on the market, I think they will offer Weaver.

The Cardinals only had to pay about $1.65 million for half a season of Weaver, but his deal signed with the Angels was for $8.325 million in total. For 2007, the most likely scenario could be a multi-year deal rather than arbitration. After all, no free agent anywhere in MLB has actually made it to an arbitration hearing since 1991.

I am considerably less confident about Mulder. Even if he checks out physically, with few sure options, the Cardinals would have to offer something comparable to his 2006 salary of $7.75 million. That is going to be more than the Cardinals will want to commit directly, without incentives. Mulder should generate a lot of interest in the market.

In addition, any offer would also assume that any lingering Marquis-like frustration in Mulder by Dave Duncan and crew was eliminated when the lefty decided to go under the knife to fix his ailing shoulder.

As opposed to the past, however, the Cardinals will only have an exclusive negotiating window with these players for ten days more and the players are not obligated to accept the offer of arbitration.

In fact, if offered, Weaver would likely turn down any offer of arbitration. He may be more motivated to explore his value on the open market, recognizing that he can still negotiate at any time to return to the Cardinals – a change with the new agreement.

In the event the players are offered but sign elsewhere, the Cardinals would secure one or more sandwich picks between the first and second rounds, a place from which they have drafted quite often in recent years.

Preston Wilson did well enough in his limited time with St. Louis that I predict the team will try to re-sign him after declining his option. Last December, Wilson signed a one-year/four-year deal for $4.5 million in 2006 with Houston that could have escalated to $28 million total over four years. Even at the time, many including this writer predicted those option years would never be picked up. Still feel that way.

Type C and no compensation Cardinals
This situation seems very clear. The Cardinals could offer arbitration to So Taguchi, Scott Spiezio and the others, but why risk getting saddled with an expensive contract based on the uncertainty of arbitration?

In other words, forget about these guys being offered. On the other hand, that doesn't mean they could not re-sign, however.

Without saying so specifically, Mozeliak still drives home the point. "You have to know the market, so that when you offer, you know what it will take (to sign the player prior to an arbitration hearing). Likely to do this, it would be someone very important to a club."

In summary
I know I cannot leave this article behind without predicting specifically what I think will happen with each of these free agents. So, given all the information above, here are my best, albeit perhaps slightly optimistic guesses.

In other words, several of the players I forecast as returning could prove me wrong and not come back, but I am pretty sure that when all is said and done, the ones I am forecasting as leaving will do just that.

Starting Pitchers    
Name Type Arb Forecast Ultimate
    Team/Player Forecast
Jeff Suppan A Not offered Signs elsewhere
Mark Mulder B Not offered Re-signs
Jeff Weaver B Offer/Decline Re-signs
Jason Marquis B Not offered Signs elsewhere
     
2B, 3B, SS    
Ronnie Belliard A Not offered Signs elsewhere
Jose Vizcaino nc Not offered Signs elsewhere
Scott Spiezio nc Not offered Re-signs
     
Outfield    
Jim Edmonds A * N/A Re-signs
Preston Wilson B # N/A Re-signs
So Taguchi C (nc) Not offered Re-signs
     
Catcher    
Gary Bennett nc Not offered Signs elsewhere
Mike Rose nc Not offered Signs elsewhere
* signs extension
# signs new two or three-year deal

First of all, as noted above, I don't think any of the free agents who may be offered arbitration will actually accept the Cardinals' offers.

Among the starting pitchers, I think Suppan and Marquis will depart, but Mulder and Weaver could ultimately come back – Mulder if he is willing to take a highly-leveraged one-year deal plus if the Cardinals think he is sound physically, and Weaver on a multi-year deal.

Suppan's performance on the playoff stage in 2006, combined with his Type A compensation situation signals to me that he is a goner.

On the infield, I think Belliard is adios. But, while perhaps it is wishful thinking, I can't help but wonder if Spiezio experienced enough pain when previously chasing the money in his disastrous move from the Angels to Seattle to being unwanted that he could decide to come back to St. Louis.

Behind the plate, I expect the Cardinals will sign another backup to replace Gary Bennett behind Yadier Molina. Given Yadi's youth and durability, this is an area where the Cardinals may try to economize a bit.

I think Edmonds will be back on a multi-year deal, probably two years in the $12 million range plus the buyout. That is a lot of money until you start considering the alternatives. If Preston Wilson is willing to take a Juan Encarnacion-kind of deal, he could return, too. And, despite my personal dislike of it, So Taguchi may have bought himself another year in St. Louis based on the combination of his post-season play and Tony La Russa's decision to return in 2007.

So, that's it. At this time, my guess is that at least six players will leave and no more than six will return.

Come back tomorrow when we will look at where all the Cardinals players, free agent and not, stand in the Elias Player Rankings.

(Note: Story updated to correct salary rules for free agents offered arbitration.)



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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