Providing a platform for Ankiel's mouthpiece, Scott Boras, Goold's article included a quote from the super-agent comparing Ankiel to Babe Ruth. While that is an interesting example of testing one's case in the court of public opinion, the reality is that any similarities between the two players end when advancing beyond the basic fact that they are both pitchers who later converted to the outfield.
It does, however, illustrate the challenge of determining the value of player as unique as Ankiel in the 2008 marketplace. That is the exercise here – to assess what amounts the two parties, club and agent, may be considering in the cases of all three eligible Cardinals players.
Before we get into that, here is a summary of the key dates:
January 15: Last day for players to declare arbitration
January 18: Both sides exchange salary amounts
February 1-20: Arbitration hearings are scheduled and held
The way the process is designed, the two sides are encouraged to come to agreement prior to a hearing. In fact, the Cardinals have not actually participated in an arbitration hearing this decade, but if it does progress that far, the arbitrator is required to decide on one declared amount or the other – no compromise is allowed.
What is more likely is that the two will settle on a one-year contract at roughly the midpoint between the two amounts or perhaps a multi-year deal instead. In the latter case, the club will be looking to buy up some or all of the player's remaining arbitration-eligible years.
In other cases, an even longer-term contract can be discussed, holding the player to club even into the player's free-agent years. Albert Pujols' seven-year deal signed in February, 2004, when Pujols first became eligible for arbitration, is a great example.
Back to the three players that are eligible here and now.
The main factor used in arguing arbitration cases is how the player compares to similar players in the same service class either in the same year or the previous year. That comparison is made both in salary and stats from last season and numbers over their careers.
We'll start with Yadier Molina.
In 2008, Molina is a player with more than three years and less than four years service time as a major leaguer, often denoted as "MLS-3". The only significant eligible MLS-3 catcher last year was Joe Mauer from the Minnesota Twins. Mauer is known for the bat while Molina's claim to fame is his glove, so he is not an ideal comp for the Cardinals backstop. Yet it is worth noting that after Mauer submitted $4.5 million and the Twins came in at $3.3 million, the two sides ended up agreeing on a four-year, $33 million contract that will run through what would have been Mauer's first free agent-eligible season in 2010.
The most comparable players offensively to Molina in last year's MLS-3 class might be outfielders Reed Johnson and Alex Rios of Toronto and second baseman Jose Castillo, then of Pittsburgh. When all was said and done, they were paid $3.075 million, $2.535 million and $1.9 million in 2007, respectively.
As one prepping for a hearing might do, I compared last year's MLS-3 players to this year's. Specifically, below I list 2006 and career (through 2006) numbers for the three comps along with Molina's 2007 and career numbers to see where he fits in.
|Pre MLS-3 Season||AB||Runs||HR||RBI||BA||OBP||SLG||Salary|
|Pre MLS-3 Career||AB||Runs||HR||RBI||BA||OBP||SLG|
It would seem that offensively, Castillo is closest to Molina's profile, though the second baseman actually has an edge in most categories. As a side point, Castillo lost his starting job in the Steel City and was released following the 2007 season. He has signed with the Florida Marlins for the 2008 campaign.
Now, now one must try to determine the delta between the defensive value of the Cardinals catcher and the second baseman Castillo. The challenge is that there is not really a standard accepted measure of defense that can be easily applied across players at different positions, with fielding percentage, range factor and zone rating only offering a place to start.
Molina's best-in-MLB caught stealing rate of 50% in 2007 (23-of-46) and his NL-leading assist rate would work in his favor in arguing that he might be more valuable than his offensive numbers indicate. This is especially so since he plays one of the most demanding positions on the field.
In past arbitration cases, Gold Glove votes, as opposed to awards, is one approach that has been used. Though Molina did not win in 2007, many observers felt the voting managers and coaches blew it big-time when the more offensively-oriented Russell Martin of the Dodgers was named instead.
Scott Boras won a case several years ago representing catcher Charles Johnson by building his case primarily on defense. One of his tactics was to bring star pitcher Kevin Brown into the hearing as a witness testifying that Johnson was better than (now 13-time AL GG winner) Ivan Rodriguez from a pitcher's standpoint. Brown had thrown to both clients previously.
Given that is all highly subjective, for now let's just say we tack on a an extra 25% or half a million per year for defense over Castillo's 2007 salary. That would put Molina's estimated market value at about $2.4 million, or two million more than his 2007 earnings. Considering that, the club might file at about $2.1 million, expecting Molina and his agent to come in around $2.7 million. Implicit in this is a hope they can agree at the midpoint prior to a hearing. A longer-term deal also seems a reasonable possibility.
Right handed swingman Todd Wellemeyer is an MLS-4. Even more complicated than trying to deal with his shifting between starting and relieving is the fact he was picked up as a released player during the 2007 season. Wellemeyer had considerably better results pitching as a Cardinal than at his other stops, especially in comparison to his time last season with the Royals, where he bombed.
|Pre MLS-4 Season||Wins||IP||ERA||K/9||BB/9||K/BB||Salary|
|# 2007 (StL+KC)|
|~ lost arb case $1.25M|
|Pre MLS-4 Career||Wins||IP||ERA||K/9||BB/9||K/BB|
There are no great comps, as none of these hurlers issue as many walks as Wellemeyer, though several are at least as proficient at getting the strikeout. None of them lug as high of an ERA around, either.
One year ago, Beimel, despite coming off a 2.96 ERA season, lost his arbitration hearing when his asking price was $1.25 million. Given all the comps and Wellemeyer's likely 2008 reprise as a swing man, I can't see why the Cardinals would come into the arbitration negotiations offering Wellemeyer more than $1 million.
If the player's agent asks for much more, it would seem to set them up for a loss later on. Wellemeyer settled for $635,000 last season, avoiding arbitration after the two sides submitted $565,000 and $740,000.
The process of elimination brings us back to Rick Ankiel. All this discussion of stats and salaries just won't work for him because there are no similar players. Simply put, valuing Ankiel is a complete crap-shoot.
Though his years as a pitcher built his service time, it is irrelevant to his current vocation as an outfielder. And, as a hitter, he must be the first arbitration-eligible position player ever with only about half a season of experience - just 259 career major league at-bats, a third of which were accrued in his former life as a pitcher.
With no precedent to fall back on, one might think the Cardinals would head try to this off by attempting to sign the outfielder before figures are exchanged later this week. Perhaps both sides would benefit by seeing a full year of Rick Ankiel the major league hitter in 2008 to help set a fair value for the talented enigma.
In closing, two special tips of the cap are hereby offered. One is to arbitration expert Bill Gilbert, who provided valuable consulting assistance in preparing this article. The other is to Lee Sinins' Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, the source for partial career data, as well as answers to a million other questions, too.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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