Cardinals Face Six Possible Arbitration Cases for 2021

photo: Jack Flaherty (Jeff Curry/Imagn)

An important part of the annual player payroll establishment process for Major League Baseball teams is setting salaries for the players with between three and six years of service. These players are eligible to have their salary requests heard by arbiters if they are unable to come to agreement with their teams. The arbitration process allows them for the first time to have a say in how much they will be paid.

Key to the actual process is using comparisons to other players of similar experience and skill who came before them. However, a member of the staff at MLB Trade Rumors has refined a model to set estimates without direct review of comparable cases. With a high level of uniqueness and uncertainty in 2020, MLBTR has used three different processes to make their 2021 predictions.

  • Method 1: Applies model directly with actual statistics from this 60-game season
  • Method 2: Extrapolates all counting stats to would-be 162-game totals.  One home run becomes 2.7 home runs.
  • Method 3: For non-first-time eligibles, finds the raise they’d get in a 162 game season, then gives them 37% of that raise.

The quantity of eligible players, noted below as Arb 1, Arb 2 or Arb 3, varies by team. The first-time players, Arb 1, could remain under organization control for three more years, through 2023, Arb 2 for two more years and Arb 3 for just one more season prior to free agency eligibility.

Non-tenders ahead

The high mark across MLB is the 19 eligible players on the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 40-man roster, a clear indication of the relative inexperience of the Bucs’ team. The low is the three on the Toronto Blue Jays. The average across the game is nine, with the Cardinals at six.

Be aware that the MLB total of 256 is just a point-in-time count and will decline in the weeks ahead.

The total that will still be with these organizations will drop by the December 2 tender date, as some players deemed to be potentially too expensive via the arbitration process will simply be cut loose by their teams, instead.

This will be important to watch across MLB as these non-tendered, turned free agent players could be a source of less-expensive talent for clubs looking to improve their rosters for 2021.

Cardinals snapshot

Despite the general non-tender talk in MLB, in the case of the Cardinals, I predict that all six eligibles will receive an offer to remain with the team for 2021.

Arb eligible Pos Class Control thru Method 1 Method 2 Method 3 Average
John Gant RHR Arb 2 2022  $1.5MM  $1.9MM  $1.5MM $1.6MM
Jack Flaherty RHS Arb 1 2023  $2.2MM  $3.0MM  $2.2MM $2.5MM
Harrison Bader OF Arb 1 2023  $1.2MM  $1.7MM  $1.2MM $1.4MM
Alex Reyes RHR Arb 1 2023  $1.0MM  $1.2MM  $1.0MM $1.1MM
Jordan Hicks RHR Arb 1 2023  $900K  $900K  $900K  $900K
John Brebbia RHR Arb 1 2023  $800K  $800K  $800K  $800K
totals $7.6MM $9.5MM $7.6MM $8.3MM

As you can see, five of the six are first-timers in the arbitration process with John Gant the only multi-year participant. Outfielder Harrison Bader is the lone position player, joining four relievers and starter Jack Flaherty.

Jack Flaherty

Because of his mound success, Flaherty is not surprisingly expected to receive the most money of the Cardinals’ six, anywhere from $2.2 million to $3 million, per the MLBTR estimates. Given the right-hander’s ongoing concern about the entire player compensation process, further heightened by his first-time status, and occurring in a year during which a new labor agreement will be negotiated between players and owners, I expect Flaherty to not come to agreement with the team and instead exercise his right to plead his case in a February hearing.

The player at the opposite end of the Cardinals’ affordability scale is reliever John Brebbia. It is not a matter of limited talent, however. The right-hander was St. Louis’ best-performing pen member in 2018 and put up solid and consistent results in 2019, as well. However, the former Rule 5 pick is not expected back until mid-season following his recovery from Tommy John surgery.

John Brebbia

As I outlined for members of The Cardinal Nation in an earlier article series, St. Louis does have a 40-man roster crunch, leading some to predict the Cardinals will non-tender Brebbia. This despite the fact he will not become free agent eligible until after the 2022 season, leaving 1 ½ seasons of team control ahead.

I am not among the doubters, as my guess is that the club sees the value Brebbia brings, especially at a below-$1 MM salary. Even a minimum salary player who would potentially replace Brebbia on the roster would earn almost $600,000.

So if he is cut, it won’t be for money savings, but rather to reclaim his roster spot. However, I believe there are other candidates for that who are less valuable to the team.

Bottom line, I just don’t see a savings of $200,000 and gaining a half-season at most of a young replacement player who will likely be less effective is worth jettisoning Brebbia, given he still has a season and a half ahead under Cardinals control.

(P.S. To those who might suggest the Cardinals non-tender Brebbia and bring him back on a minor league contract, here is why that would probably not be palatable to the player. He would lose MLB service time, benefits and salary. If faced with that possibility, as a free agent, Brebbia could simply look to sign an MLB deal for $800,000 or more with another willing team. Teams looking for good relievers at a low price are almost certainly out there.)

The other four arbitration-eligible Cardinals – Bader plus relievers Gant, Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks – seem clear candidates to be brought back for 2021. I would be very surprised if any of them are non-tendered given their talent and relatively-modest salaries expected of less than $2 million each.

Overall to keep the six players, it is expected to cost the Cardinals less than $10 million in total and more specifically, somewhere in the range of $7.6 MM to $9.5 MM. From my perspective, this would appear to be money well-spent.

Key arbitration dates

December 2 – Non-tender date. Teams must declare whether or not they are making a one-year contract offer to all arbitration-eligible players.

January 15 – Eligible players who have not yet agreed on a 2021 salary and their team are both required to submit their desired salary amount. They are encouraged to continue negotiating and many come to terms once this point is reached and all the cards are on the table.

February – Individual player hearings are held if the two sides are still apart. If the arbitrator hears the case, he/she must decide between the two submitted amounts. There is no middle ground. In other words, once the hearing begins, there will be a clear winner and loser. The hearing result is binding, meaning that the arbitrator’s choice will be the player’s salary in 2021.

Related articles for members of The Cardinal Nation

The Calendar Works Against a Quick Return of Wainwright and Molina

Possible St. Louis Cardinals 40-Man Roster Relief

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