photo: Jack Flaherty (Kim Klement/Imagn)
Fan reaction to the Saturday announcement that the contracts of St. Louis Cardinals one-year players Jack Flaherty and Jordan Hicks were renewed for 2019 has been mixed.
Several posters at The Cardinal Nation’s free forum used this as an opportunity to criticize the team’s front office, suggesting the move will “come back to bite them in the rear” later.
I see the two players making a point about a system that they feel does not pay young players adequately. The Cardinals were not about to break ranks with the rest of Major League Baseball and pay them significantly above scale when their peers are getting close to the defined MLB minimum salary, as collectively bargained by players and ownership.
Still, the Cardinals’ decision to dock Flaherty $10,000 for not agreeing to terms was a curious one. I suspect this is an attempt to send a signal to try to discourage such behavior in the future, but the negative implications seem to outweigh the positive ones. If anything, it could strengthen player resolve in a period of unsettled labor relations, not diminish it.
Flaherty and Hicks are not alone. Other young MLB stars, including reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell of Tampa Bay and Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman, also spoke out about the matter as their contracts were renewed this week.
While it is clear that the existing system holds down salaries of less-experienced players, it is not going to change until the next collective bargaining agreement between players and owners, which will take effect in 2022. Any potential ramifications from what happened in 2019 may be ancient history by then.
Looking ahead, here is an approximate time line relative to the two Cardinals:
- Spring 2019: Flaherty and Hicks have one year of service. Team sets salary.
- Spring 2020: Flaherty and Hicks have two years of service. Team sets salary.
- Spring 2021: Flaherty and Hicks have three years of service and become arbitration eligible for the first time.
- December 2021: The current CBA expires.
- Spring 2022: Flaherty and Hicks have four years of service, but under a new set of rules to be determined.
- Fall 2023: Flaherty and Hicks would become eligible for free agency under the current system.
Do the renewals have near-term implications?
Another poster questioned whether players whose contracts were renewed by the Cardinals are more likely to have arbitration hearings later. This was based on a view I stated in my initial article that I would not be surprised if Flaherty and Hicks go to hearings when they become eligible.
My take is that I am not really concerned one way or the other. So what if the players and the team go to arbitration in two years? The process is designed to ensure the players receive fair value at that point of their career – at three years of experience and beyond.
In reality, the Cardinals have had only one hearing in the last 20 or so years, Michael Wacha two years ago. That part of the current system seems to work as intended. Yet, that does not mean changes are not coming.
As I noted in my original article when this year’s renewals were announced, outfielder Tommy Pham did not agree to terms with the Cardinals last spring and he did go on to take his new club, the Tampa Bay Rays, to hearing this year. Then again, that was expected because Pham has long stated a view that he is underpaid relative to his abilities.
While some fans, as noted above, consider the decision by Flaherty and Hicks as a perceived example of cheap ownership, others feel the players are ungrateful, especially given their limited MLB track record at this point.
When all is said and done, the stance taken by Flaherty and Hicks seems little more a symbolic protest, albeit one that was likely applauded by their Union, the Major League Baseball Players Association, led by former player Tony Clark.
Yet, it may also serve as a signal toward the future. Because of the shifting and unsettled relations between players and teams, I don’t think looking back at past behavior will be a great predictor of what lies ahead. Just because the Cardinals have been relatively hearing-free does not mean that will continue.
In fact, even before the next agreement comes, this bubbling unrest could lead to small, but noticeable changes.
More arbitration hearings ahead?
I wonder (not looking backward, but looking forward) if the increased unhappiness about pre-arbitration salaries will lead to greater disagreement between players and teams on arbitration salary expectations.
In recent years, some teams including the Cardinals, have taken a hard stance that if the two sides do not come to terms before amounts are formally exchanged and the hearing date is set, they will proceed to the arbitration hearing. The generic label for this approach is “File and Trial”. So in this case, it could really be the team taking the player to hearing, though it may be represented in the press as the player doing so.
No matter who is the driver, players seem to be faring pretty well in the arbitration process. While most come to terms early, players won six of 10 arbitration hearings this spring, including the top three salaries secured by players in this group. Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole and Alex Wood all won their hearings, awarded almost $36 million for this season among them, according to data tracked by MLB Trade Rumors. For the trio, the total gaps between the two sides coming in was approximately $5 million.
That success may embolden the best eligible players to push harder for increased compensation next year and the year after.
If I had to guess where matters will be in two springs from now – the last before the new agreement – I would think players will continue to push the envelope where they can. Arbitration is one such area, so hearings could increase.
Candidates for future arbitration hearings or more
Specifically, my prediction is that Flaherty and Hicks will be either locked up in long term deals before then or they may prove to be tougher to sign for the 2021 season, when initially eligible for arbitration. I think given all that is going on around the game could increase their chances of going to hearing at that time.
It is worth noting an increased trend across MLB of players who are either just approaching arbitration or already in it signing multi-year contracts before reaching free agency. This is an approach the Cardinals have followed for select players for a number of years. Whether Flaherty and Hicks will eventually become a part of this remains to be seen, however.
Trying to guess what will happen beyond 2021 is futile, because the rules starting in 2022 are yet to be determined. As a result, there is no way to predict what stance the two may take at that point and beyond.
Yet the timing of where these players are in their careers suggest they could end up in the midst of major change across all of MLB.
For example, if free agency is negotiated to be granted prior to six years, Flaherty and Hicks could be among the first or second wave of players to take advantage.
So, while for this year and next, at least, the disagreement is mostly for show, the final chapter of this story is yet to be written.
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