In what would have to be considered a minor surprise, on Wednesday the St. Louis Cardinals offered arbitration to only one free-agent eligible player, starting pitcher Matt Morris. Julian Tavarez, Reggie Sanders, Mark Grudzielanek and Einar Diaz were not offered, apparently sealing their 2006 employment elsewhere. Reliever Al Reyes was also not offered, but is injured and still could come back later.
Matt Morris in demand
This decision by the Cardinals to offer arbitration leaves Morris in the position to have to declare his intentions by December 19. Either he can accept the Cardinals offer of arbitration, or if he declines, he and the Cardinals can still negotiate until January 8. However, if Morris does not re-sign with the team by that date, he could not rejoin the Cardinals until May 1 or later.
Morris' critics might argue that the worst that could happen to the Cardinals is that he and the team go to arbitration and as a result, the team is bound to accept the arbitrator's ruling on the amount of a one-year deal to pitch for the team in 2006. This is possible, but less likely.
The higher-odds scenario is that the Cardinals made Wednesday's move to protect themselves. Morris is in high demand from other clubs in a year with a shallow free agent crop. If Morris signs with another team, the Cardinals are eligible to receive a first-round draft pick from that other club in compensation. This is because Morris' stats over the last two years qualify him in the top 30% of players at his position, otherwise called a "Type A" free agent.
The Cardinals are not assured of a first-round pick, however. If a team in the lower half of last year's aggregate standings signs Morris, the Cards' compensatory pick would be a second-rounder along with another pick between the first and second rounds.
But, the greatest surprise was the team not offering arbitration to any of their other eligible players – Julian Tavarez, Reggie Sanders and to a lesser extent, Al Reyes. The Grudzielanek and Diaz decisions were expected.
Julian Tavarez' Cardinals career over
Tavarez, represented by agent Scott Boras, is coming off a two-year, $4.6 million contract and is also a Type A free agent. With the high values relievers are fetching this off-season, I had expected the Cardinals to offer Julian arbitration – not as much because they wanted him, but more for his compensation value.
Based on the aftershock of his beaning of Mike Piazza during the 2005 season and his pine-tarred cap incident and phone-punching in 2004, I questioned whether Tavarez was truly a part of the Cardinals' future plans. This seemed to be confirmed over the weekend, when team officials were quoted as saying that Tavarez was wanted back, but not in his right-handed set up role, rather in long relief.
Considering the market conditions, that was as good as saying politely that the Cardinals were wishing Tavarez well with his new team. Wednesday's move of forfeiting two draft picks just to ensure that Tavarez does not return via arbitration, despite its seemingly low odds of happening, shows how much they want to be rid of him.
While I understand that, it is a relatively high price to pay to cut ones' losses. But, the deed is done and as a result, we'll have less to write about next season with the volatile Tavarez in a different uniform.
Injured Al Reyes' future cloudy
The decision with Al Reyes is a bit easier to understand, but still not what I would have done, with the facts that I have. However, the team surely has more information about Reyes' physical condition as well as his personal inclinations.
Reyes, who came off the scrap heap to become one of the most important Cardinal relievers in 2005 before blowing out his elbow at season's end, will not be able to pitch for months. Therefore, I assume the Cardinals do not want to risk being bound by an arbiter's decision on Reyes' salary for next season when he cannot pitch.
The team may still want to keep Reyes under contract while he rehabilitates, like they have done with Mike Lincoln last year. However, by not being offered, Reyes now has been given the right to seek employment elsewhere if he so chooses, and cannot re-sign with the Cardinals until May 1.
If that were to happen and Reyes returned to form for another club in 2007, for the Cardinals, it would not only be the loss of the two Type A picks, but also the loss of a valuable, but replaceable player. More realistically, had the Cardinals offered, no other team would take a chance on him now, given his cost in compensation.
I asked a Cardinals executive about Reyes and the answer was not very encouraging. "At this point, he is gone," was the succinct reply. I guess the team doesn't want to pay a player who was severely-injured to sit. At the time of Reyes' elbow surgery, Dr. George Paletta called the injury one of the worst he had seen, in comparison to over 200 others upon whom he had operated.
Looks like Reyes is on his own now.
Sanders' won't return
Even with Wednesday's trade with
Sanders, 38, is a Type B free agent, meaning his compensation could be as high as a first round pick if his new team is in the first half of the draft. Otherwise, the Cardinals would have been assured at least a second-rounder if Sanders signs elsewhere.
Sanders' name has been linked with a number of teams as he seeks a two-year deal. Rumors are that the Cardinals were offering a one-year deal with an option. However, it must have been a real low-ball bid.
Wednesday's decision not to offer Sanders arbitration clearly signals that the Cardinals do not want Sanders back for even one more season – at least at what they fear would be the salary that an arbitrator would award Reggie. $4 million to $5 million would not have been a surprising amount.
As a result, the odds of Sanders returning to the Cardinals is not zero, but it is close enough that we should assume that. He cannot re-sign with the team until May 1 or later.
Given his age and injury history, I understand the decision. But, I still would have liked to see the Cardinals receive a draft pick for him.
As expected, Grudz a goner
Mark Grudzielanek is another Cardinal who will be playing elsewhere in 2006. The second baseman's 2005 contract had a stipulation that the Cardinals could not offer him arbitration. Since Grudz did not sign with the team by Wednesday night's deadline, he is in the same situation as the others – he could not return until after May 1. Color him gone, too.
His interest is understood. Grudz is nearing the end of his career and has one last chance to get a nice multi-year contract elsewhere. I have no problem with him going for it and I have no major problem with the Cardinals moving on without him.
Perhaps the timing of Wednesday night's trade with
Einar Diaz' departure confirmed
2005 backup catcher Einar Diaz has already been replaced by the signings of Gary Bennett and Michel Hernandez. So, the decision not to offer Diaz was expected.
Wednesday's decisions demonstrate the Cardinals' clear intent. They took the safe route with these arbitration decisions, wanting to ensure they did not get stuck with players next season they no longer want. When I say "no longer want", it could very well be due to market conditions, not the character of the men. This is all about business.
They forfeited at least three early draft picks as a result – two from Tavarez and one from Sanders. That is the part I dislike.
The Cardinals want to get younger and perhaps pay less for a couple of right-handed relievers, a left fielder and a second baseman in 2006. The also want to keep the door open with Morris, either for his return, or at least to be compensated for his departure.
Before we draw final conclusions about any of this, however, we will have to see what other actions the team undertakes this off-season to fill their gaps. For example, if a starting pitcher still needs to be traded to get more offense, then Morris may re-enter the picture.
We're learning more each week about the makeup of the 2006 Cardinals. Wednesday's decisions ensured we'll see more new players wearing red come March.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.