Cardinals and Arbitration: To Offer or Not?

Free agent shortstop David Eckstein is an immediate question for the St. Louis Cardinals in terms of a contract for 2008 and a possible arbitration hearing to set its amount.

Recent news reports indicate that the St. Louis Cardinals may not offer arbitration to free-agent shortstop David Eckstein by the December 1 deadline. That means the Cardinals would pass on the opportunity to head toward a February arbitration hearing that would set the amount of a one-year deal for the player to return to St. Louis in 2008.

Even if offered by the Cardinals, the two would still not have gone down this path unless both sides agreed. Eckstein would also have had to commit by December 7 if that was the course he wanted to take.

Otherwise, had the Cardinals offered arbitration but the player refused the offer and signed elsewhere, then the Cardinals would be entitled to an extra compensatory draft pick in the June, 2008 First-Year Player Draft between the first and second rounds. This is often called a "sandwich" pick.

This sandwich pick would be the Cardinals' compensation for Eckstein because of the type of player he has been designated by the Elias rankings for his position. Players are assigned one of three levels or rankings based on their comparative stats over the last two seasons. Because Eckstein has been slowed by injuries, his recent numbers have been middle of the road.

Another key from all of this is that the Eckstein compensatory pick would be an extra one, not taken away from the signing team as a penalty for adding the new player as a free agent.

The only other Cardinals free agent eligible to be offered arbitration by the club that could generate any compensation in return this year is reliever Troy Percival, like Eckstein, a Type "B" free agent. Therefore, like Eckstein, if arbitration was to offered to Percival but declined by the player, the Cardinals would receive a sandwich pick in return.

Other picks "lost"
Some think the Cardinals will offer Eckstein arbitration simply to secure an extra draft pick, whether or not they really want the player to return next season. Given they have almost no other opportunities to pick up any extra selections, I can understand the logic. I don't see it that way, though.

Let's look at recent history. The Cardinals passed on the chance to try to get either four or five more picks just last year at this time, had they offered arbitration to one or more of these players:

Ronnie Belliard - first round or second round + sandwich pick
Jeff Weaver – sandwich
Jason Marquis – sandwich
Preston Wilson - sandwich

Two years ago, the Cardinals passed up the opportunity to rake in eight more picks in total for players Mark Grudzielanek, Al Reyes, Julian Tavarez, Reggie Sanders and John Mabry.

If they were solely focused on hoarding expensive-to-sign picks, they would have offered some or all of these guys. I believe the reality is that they will pursue arbitration only when they really want the player back at the current market price for a one-year deal.

On several occasions in the past, I have been told by GM John Mozeliak himself that is the case - the Cardinals do not offer arbitration to players they do not want to keep just to secure draft pick compensation. Unless that policy has changed since Walt Jocketty moved on, I would expect the Cardinals to follow a similar path as previous seasons.

For example, in the case of Marquis, the extra pick seemed there for the taking. There was no way Marquis would have accepted the arbitration offer to come back to the Cardinals for 2007 after the problems that culminated in him being left off the 2006 playoff rosters. The sandwich pick the Cardinals would have received had they offered and Marquis not accepted would have been a "free" one, not taken away from the signing team (eventually the Cubs). So, the Cardinals offering him would not have diminished his value in the open market, unlike the Belliard example cited above.

Last year, the Cardinals did receive two compensatory picks for the signing of an arbitration-eligible player, Jeff Suppan by Milwaukee. The selections were a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds plus the Brewers' own second-round pick. The players later taken in these spots were pitchers Clayton Mortensen and David Kopp. The two collegians signed for a total of $1.1 million.

As an aside, I also wanted to address an email question I received where a reader asked if the reason the Cards haven't made an offer to Eckstein is because of roster space concerns. (Roster moves are expected later this week to open up space on their 40-man, which is currently at its capacity.) My view is that if the two sides – the Cardinals and Eckstein - wanted each other, roster space would readily come available.

And that is really the point here. This is a decision about a player and his fit on next year's team.

Eck's desire
Eckstein seems to be looking for a multi-year deal for more money than the Cardinals want to pay. Rumors were that his starting point was at four years, $36 million, which is the crazy deal the Red Sox threw at Julio Lugo last off-season. For that, the world champs got slightly below-average defense (as measured by fielding percentage and range factor) and a putrid .237/.294/.349 line (BA/OBP/SLG) from their big investment.

But, that was a different market at a different time. It was also a deal made by a club that seems to love to throw money at shortstops. The Red Sox are still paying $8 million per year of Edgar Renteria's ill-fated contract from three years ago while their former phenom Hanley Ramirez has become a star in Florida. Big spending teams can afford big mistakes.

More recently, the Giants' Omar Vizquel, who remains above average defensively but will be 41 in April, signed for $5.3 million next season and the White Sox' Juan Uribe, now slated to be a reserve, received $4.5 million for 2008.

While Eckstein will surely not come as cheaply as his three year, $10.25 million deal signed three years ago, one factor that is not in his favor today is that few teams seem to be in the market for a starting shortstop.

On the other side of the bargaining table, the Cardinals may not want to get stuck in heading toward an arbitration hearing where they might have to give a 33-year-old injury-prone Eckstein more money even for one year than they think he is worth.

Coming into a hearing, they have no control over what value Eckstein selects, only their own. If it got to that, one amount or the other is selected by the arbiter. There is no in-between.

Hence for all the reasons above, the thinking goes that there will be no arbitration offer forthcoming for Eckstein. I don't think it is difficult to understand why the Cardinals may choose to cut ties nor is it much more complicated than explained here.

Impact on the draft
Even without any compensatory picks, due to the relatively-poor 2007 season won-loss perspective, the Cardinals will be in a decent position in the June, 2008 draft. Because top 15 picks cannot be taken away by free agent signings and trading of picks is not allowed, the Cardinals are assured of drafting from the #13 position come June.

The Cardinals have not drafted earlier in the last ten years, since selecting J.D. Drew #5 overall in 1998. The price of the success enjoyed during the Jocketty years meant they drafted from the bottom or near to it – from the #28 or #30 spot - five times during the most recent decade.

The #13 position makes all their 2008 picks potentially worth more than in recent years, but also means more money will potentially be spent to sign the players drafted.

But to repeat, I don't want my draft digression here to imply for one second that I think the cost of signing a compensatory draft pick or any increases in signing bonuses for 2008 draftees are the driving issues behind Eckstein receiving or not receiving arbitration.

Brian Walton can be reached via email at

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