Elias Rankings and the Cards' Free Agents

With Wednesday's release by MLB of the yearly Elias Player Rankings, the potential compensation for the eight remaining potential Cardinals free agents is clear, as well as what it would take to sign other teams' free agents.

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 three Types – A, B 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 enacted last fall, the lines between these classes of players changed, both this year and last. But, the basic premise that the top players are called Type A and the next statistically best group are Type B remains.

The key point to note is that only the free agents who fall in the positional groupings that are in bold and italics below will generate compensation if they choose to sign with a new team for 2008 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 diminished this year. In addition, compensation was eliminated for first-time Type C free agents. The designation is now irrelevant and therefore, no longer used.

Another major change enacted 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 in 2006, eliminated starting 2007
Others No compensation No compensation

So what does this all mean to the Cardinals?

Well, here is the status of their eight remaining possible free agents, including the five who have already declared: David Eckstein, Troy Percival, Miguel Cairo, Kip Wells and Russell Branyan.

As with the 2008 option for Jason Isringhausen that was already picked up, the Cardinals have an option on back up catcher Gary Bennett for next season, but the team may decide to save money and go younger, so he is included here.

While the Cards also have an option on So Taguchi for next season, he lacks the six years of service time to be eligible for free agency. In his case, the Cards must decide whether or not they want to keep him. If they decide "yes", the only open question is the amount of his salary.

With a crowded outfield, where there are currently 11 men on the 40-man roster who theoretically would compete for just five spots coming out of spring training, Taguchi might be cut loose. Aaron Miles faces a lesser, but similar risk in the middle infield.

It should also be noted that pitchers Joel Pineiro and Russ Springer have already been re-signed for 2008, however, they are included below for reference purposes, as is Isringhausen, whose 2008 option was picked up by the club recently.

The table following shows all 11 players, how they rank within their position grouping within the National League and the type of compensation each could fetch. The score is based on the stats noted above on a scale of 100.

Remember that to secure any compensation for a Type A or B, the Cardinals must first offer arbitration to the free agent and then the player must turn down the opportunity.

As a potentially-important aside, compensation is also awarded if the player signs elsewhere prior to the arbitration deadline. For example, if David Eckstein agrees to terms with another club between November 12 and December 1, the Cardinals receive compensation just the same as if they had offered him arbitration. Between now and November 12, the Cardinals retain exclusive negotiating rights with their free agents.

There is inherent risk built into the system, as the club may not want to chance getting tied down to keeping a player when all they really wanted was a draft pick. As a result, expect fewer players to be offered rather than more.

Relievers Option? Status Score Rank* Type
Jason Isringhausen yes signed 74.014 24 A
Troy Percival declared 60.993 43 B
Joel Pineiro signed 46.346 81 nc
Russ Springer signed 80.851 13 A
Kip Wells declared 32.051 76t nc
Gary Bennett yes 28.764 30 nc
Kelly Stinnett not incl nc
2B, 3B, SS
Miguel Cairo declared not incl nc
David Eckstein declared 60.440 31 B
1B, Outfield
Russell Branyan declared 31.236 92 nc
Preston Wilson 39.775 81 nc
*within position grouping

Type A Cardinals – Isringhausen, Springer
That's right. You are reading the data correctly. According to the formulas, Russ Springer has been more valuable than Jason Isringhausen over the last two seasons. Guess we should feel better about Springer's new deal, eh?

In all seriousness, it does illustrate the fallacy of any ratings system. What better example to remind us that it is a guide, but hardly an absolute?

Type B Cardinals – Percival, Eckstein
This is the area where the biggest change occurred in the new agreement, which has increased the Cardinals' risk if they want to keep these two.

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 awarded an extra sandwich pick instead.

This increases each player's attractiveness on the open market solely by their being Type Bs and also may help the Cardinals decide whether to get the compensatory pick or let them go.

No compensation Cardinals – Pineiro, Wells, Bennett, Stinnett, Cairo, Branyan, Wilson
This situation seems very clear. The Cardinals could offer arbitration to any one of them, 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.

Frankly, other than picking up Gary Bennett's option perhaps, I don't think that will happen as all these players are expendable. Even Bennett is ranked 30th among NL catchers. Assuming every team needs two, that puts him two from the bottom - 30th of 32. Not exactly a strong endorsement.

It is also worth noting how lowly Joel Pineiro ranked – a reminder that his success in St. Louis was relatively short compared to his overall woes in 2006-2007.

In conclusion, as opposed to last off-season, when four members of the starting rotation along with Jim Edmonds, Scott Spiezio and others were eligible, this year's remaining free agent class holds little suspense in terms of what the Cardinals should do.

In the next installment, we will look at where all the Cardinals players, free agent and not, stand in the Elias Player Rankings as an academic exercise as much as anything.

We will also delve into the potential cost of free agents in whom the Cardinals may be interested. For now, suffice it to say that the draft pick compensation would be lower than in the past.

Usually, the Cardinals would lose their first round pick if they signed a Type A free agent. However, based on their meager 2007 showing, the Cardinals will have one of the top 15 picks in the 2008 draft. As a result, they would lose their second round pick instead of their first round pick for any Type A signing.

As already noted, any Type B signings would be "free" to the Cardinals – at least in terms of draft pick compensation. Salary is another matter entirely, though!

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

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