Cards' Free Agents and the Elias Rankings

With MLB's release 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 four 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 newest labor agreement enacted in the fall of 2006, the lines between these classes of players changed. 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%

A major change enacted in the last 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.) Also, the Type C designation was eliminated completely.

  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?

Following is the status of their eight remaining possible free agents, including the five who have already declared: Russ Springer, Cesar Izturis, Braden Looper, Felipe Lopez and Ron Villone. (Note that Jason LaRue has already come to terms on a 2009 contract to return to St. Louis.)

With Mark Mulder, the Cardinals had an option for 2009, but previously declined that. Juan Encarnacion is eligible for free agency, but due to his eye injury, he is not expected to play professionally again.

The final player in the mix is long-time closer Jason Isringhausen, who suffered through an ineffective and injury-prone 2008. There are rumors he will be offered a deal to return, perhaps in a more limited role.

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 Braden Looper agrees to terms with another club between November 16 and December 1, the Cardinals receive compensation just the same as if they had offered him arbitration. Between now and November 15, 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.

Type A Cardinals –Springer
That's right. According to the formulas, Russ Springer has been more valuable than Jason Isringhausen over the last two seasons. That includes both Izzy's excellent 2007 and subpar 2008 while Springer was far more consistent.

Type B Cardinals – Isringhausen, Looper
The new agreement 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 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 to let them go. I predict neither will be offered arbitration.

No compensation Cardinals – Encarnacion, Izturis, Lopez, Villone
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. Izturis and/or Lopez are possibles.

Option declined – Mulder
He's already on his own to cut his own deal and is not expected back.

In conclusion, as opposed to some past years, the remaining free agent class holds little suspense in terms of what the Cardinals should do.

In an upcoming installment, we will delve into the potential cost of free agents in whom the Cardinals may be interested.

I do want to mention this now, however. Because of their 86-76 record and its relative standing in the top half of MLB, the Cardinals would lose their first round pick if they sign a Type A free agent. On the other hand, the 15 poorest teams 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

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