photo: John Brebbia (Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports Images)
Wednesday, December 2 at 7:00 p.m. CT marks one of the biggest deadlines of the 2020-2021 offseason for Major League Baseball. That is point at which all 30 teams were required to essentially inform each of their players with from approximately three to six years of major league service if they will be brought back for 2021.
The formal explanation is that the clubs tender (or offer) the player a contract for next season, with the amount still to be determined. Those who do not receive such an offer are non-tendered. The key point is that they immediately join the more veteran players already in the free agent pool, free to seek new baseball employment with no salary restrictions.
Of the six eligible members of the St. Louis Cardinals’ 40-man roster, five are coming back. The exception is pitcher John Brebbia. In addition, the team dropped a pre-arbitration player, first baseman-outfielder Rangel Ravelo.
The club made the announcement via social media.
We have tendered 2021 contracts to 29 of the 31 unsigned players on our 40-man roster, while declining to tender contracts to RHP John Brebbia and 1B/OF Rangel Ravelo.
Our 40-man Major League roster currently stands at 37.
— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) December 3, 2020
Following MLB’s financial challenges in 2020, clubs were expected to non-tender a higher percentage of the approximately 250 eligible players than ever before. It isn’t necessarily that the players are not wanted, but instead, the teams want to avoid having to pay the players more than they would like.
A tendered player has the right to take his team to arbitration if he cannot come to a salary agreement with them. There is a formal process to compare the arbitration-eligible player to others of similar results who preceded him. The salary proposal of either the player or his team will be accepted. Once the hearing begins, there can be no middle ground.
With the belt-tightening that has already begun across the game, players who might have seemed a lock to be tendered in normal times may instead be cut loose. Because their salary histories are shorter and lower, these less-experienced players may be more advantageous to bargain-shopping front offices looking to be opportunistic.
The count 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.
As noted, the Cardinals had six such players. Five 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.
MLB Trade Rumors has built and refined models to make arbitration salary estimates. However, with the high level of uniqueness and uncertainty in the current market, MLBTR used three different processes to make their 2021 predictions. They follow.
|Arb eligible||Pos||Class||Ctrl thru||Method 1||Method 2||Method 3||Average||Tender?|
|John Gant||RHR||Arb 2||2022||$1.5MM||$1.9MM||$1.5MM||$1.6MM||yes|
|Jack Flaherty||RHS||Arb 1||2023||$2.2MM||$3.0MM||$2.2MM||$2.5MM||yes|
|Harrison Bader||OF||Arb 1||2023||$1.2MM||$1.7MM||$1.2MM||$1.4MM||yes|
|Alex Reyes||RHR||Arb 1||2023||$1.0MM||$1.2MM||$1.0MM||$1.1MM||yes|
|Jordan Hicks||RHR||Arb 1||2023||$900K||$900K||$900K||$900K||yes|
|John Brebbia||RHR||Arb 1||2023||$800K||$800K||$800K||$800K||no|
Of the six, Brebbia was clearly on the shakiest ground. The right-hander had been 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 in 2015 is coming back from June 2020 Tommy John surgery. How soon in 2021 he can effectively pitch in game action is dependent on a rehab process that is ongoing.
Even so, given that the Cardinals still would have Brebbia under control in 2022 and 2023 as well, the decision to let him go seems a penny-pinching move.
A potential negative is cutting loose an experienced and productive veteran pitcher – to save an estimated $200,000. My math is this. The estimated salary of Brebbia via arbitration would be $800,000. Even if his replacement on the roster receives the minimum salary, it would still be almost $600,000. (This $200,000 gap would grow into the regular season the longer Brebbia remains on the injured list.)
To those who might suggest the Cardinals bring Brebbia back on a minor league contract, here is why that may or may not be preferable to the player. He would lose MLB service time, benefits and salary in the interim.
If faced with that possibility, as a free agent, Brebbia could simply look to sign an MLB deal with another willing team instead of a minor league deal with the Cardinals. Teams looking for proven relievers at a low price are almost certainly out there. Maybe another club would take the gamble and give Brebbia a guaranteed MLB contract.
The dropping of Ravelo was a bit of a surprise. Not necessarily the fact that the outfielder-first baseman has been pushed off the roster, but the timing was unexpected. As a pre-arbitration player, he could have been released at any time. (The other pre-arb players mentioned as a group in the above Tweet are basically required to accept whatever offer the team makes, as long as it is above the MLB minimum.)
With Ravelo out of minor league options, the Cardinals lacked roster flexibility with him. Further, he turns 29 years of age in April. St. Louis has been committed to give at-bats to younger outfielders and still may add another proven outfield bat from the outside this winter.
Others who can fill in at first base as needed behind iron man Paul Goldschmidt are Matt Carpenter, Austin Dean and John Nogowski. (The latter two have minor league options.) If/when the designated hitter returns for 2021, Carpenter would be the primary candidate to fill that role.
Interestingly, last winter, the Cardinals had to revoke permission for Ravelo to leave the organization to play in Korea after they traded away outfielders Adolis Garcia, Jose Martinez and Randy Arozarena and Marcell Ozuna departed as a free agent.
The native of Cuba grew up in Florida and spent four years in the Cardinals organization after earlier playing in the White Sox and A’s organizations. Ravelo spent most of 2017-2019 with Triple-A Memphis, and made his MLB debut in June 2019. He was with St. Louis for the entire shortened 2020 season.
The other five arbitration-eligible Cardinals – outfielder Harrison Bader, starting pitcher Jack Flaherty plus relievers John Gant, Alex Reyes and Jordan Hicks – are returning for 2021.
Looking ahead, I predict that Flaherty is the most likely member of the group to not come to agreement with the team and instead exercise his right to plead his case in a February hearing.
The right-hander did not accept his pre-arbitration offer in each of the last two seasons, requiring the team to renew his contract, anyway. For the first time in 2021, Flaherty will have a voice in the matter.
Back to Brebbia for a moment. I am unsure the risk-reward is such that letting him go is the best idea. But the justification may be more about reusing his roster spot during this offseason than it is about the money.
Still, if the Cardinals want to use their pitching surplus to make trades to improve the offense, then why let a reasonably-priced arm walk away for nothing in return? Hopefully 2021 will be nothing like 2020, but is there any doubt that without that pitching depth to fall back upon, the Cardinals would not have made the post-season?
A positive by-product of the non-tenders is immediately freeing up two 40-man roster spots, most likely to be used on upcoming free agent signings or trades. Based on Wednesday’s moves, the roster is now at 37.
Perhaps the club could take a shot on a player in next week’s Rule 5 draft. Then there are free agents Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright to consider as well as any external roster improvements that could use some or all of those three openings.
Overall, to have kept the six arbitration-eligible players, it is expected to have cost the Cardinals less than $10 million in total – more specifically, somewhere in the range of $7.6 MM to $9.5 MM – less than the salary of Kolten Wong, who was cut loose earlier this offseason.
From my perspective, tendering all six would have been money well-spent. Five will be returning for sure.
Here are the raw numbers across MLB.
OK, official count on non-tenders: 59, up slightly from 56 last year.
There were also 59 pre-tender agreements, up from 30 last year. So that's the big change from a year ago: guys choosing to sign contracts rather than being non-tendered, perhaps.
— Jared Diamond (@jareddiamond) December 3, 2020
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.
(P.S. A mild apology is offered to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jackson Browne fans for this article’s title.)
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