Easy to overlook in his recap of the Cardinals arbitration decisions this weekend was a very interesting point made by the Post-Dispatch’s Joe Strauss:
“Mulder, who apparently agreed not to accept the team's offer of arbitration…”
Granted this was not expressed as a certainty, which makes sense, since technically Mulder and the rest of MLB’s free agents who were offered arbitration have until this Thursday, December 7 to make their formal decision whether or not to accept.
Yet, I am not doubting Strauss, who knows his stuff, has the contacts and isn’t known for editorializing or over-dramatizing the news.
The motivation for this apparent gentlemen’s agreement between the two sides – Mulder and the Cardinals - could be driven by a number of factors.
From General Manager Walt Jocketty and the Cardinals’ side, they likely first assessed the risk if Mulder was to change his mind and accept their offer. The lefty’s expected value has been muted by his season-ending surgery and likelihood that he won’t be ready to take the mound at the start of the 2007 season.
A recovering Mulder wouldn’t cost as much to retain if he did go to arbitration, but because there is a lot of interest in Mulder elsewhere, he would likely not accept, even without the pre-agreement – probably one reason Mulder readily accepted the idea.
In addition, the Cardinals probably want a few extra draft picks in their portfolio. The maximum quantity of extra picks they could amass this year is three - two for Jeff Suppan and one for Mulder. The Cardinals’ total number of picks could also decline however, if they sign any Type A free agents who were offered by their former teams.
You can keep track of which compensation picks have been made across MLB via this table.
Another consideration for Jocketty was that each of the other (now ex-) Cardinals free agents who could have also driven compensatory picks for the club represented a higher risk than Mulder had they been offered and accepted. They include Jason Marquis (inconsistency), Preston Wilson (past results), Ron Belliard (replacement already signed) and Jeff Weaver (agent Scott Boras).
As an aside, Jose Vizcaino was also eligible for arbitration. But, because he is a Type C, he would not drive any compensation if he signs elsewhere. So, the Cardinals not offering him was the obvious choice.
I originally thought the Cardinals would offer Weaver, based as much as anything on the news we received informally that he and the Cardinals were zeroing in on a new deal.
However, after no apparent progress was made in that area in the last week to ten days, the Cardinals must have decided to avoid the risk of getting locked into a long, dragged-out negotiation with Weaver and Boras. This way, the Cardinals can continue to explore other alternatives in parallel with trying to come to terms on a new deal for Weaver.
Now, back to Mulder. We can figure why Jocketty would ask him to decline the offer of arbitration. But, why would Mulder agree?
That’s simple. It doesn’t affect his free agent signability one iota and maybe he picks up a few “good guy” points on top of it. By definition, as a Type B, any organization that signs Mulder does not lose a draft pick of their own in penalty.
As a Type B free agent, the compensatory pick the Cardinals would receive if Mulder signs elsewhere is an extra pick between the first and second rounds, commonly called a “sandwich” pick.
Again, these sandwich picks are extra ones, not taken away from the signing team. This is different from previous years.
What changed and why?
In the 2002-2006 Collective Bargaining Agreement between players and owners, clubs that signed away Type B free agents who had been offered arbitration by their previous club but did not accept had to forfeit an early pick of their own to that former club, usually either a first or second-rounder.
Because of this, in the past, there were complaints from players and agents that this penalty for signing Type B's was too harsh, making it more difficult for these free agents to close new deals.
So, they "fixed" it in the new labor agreement. But, as often happens when changes are made, the pendulum can swing too far, resulting in unexpected ramifications. Such may be the case with Mulder and the Cardinals.
Let me be clear. What the Cardinals and Mulder did is apparently not against the rules, but might be considered to be against the spirit of the change to the labor agreement and likely not an intended outcome.
You might think this is much ado over nothing, as no one is hurt.
Mulder continues to work his best deal and for the Cardinals, even if they lose Mulder via free agency, they at least get one draft pick to slightly mitigate what was otherwise an awful trade with the Oakland A’s. That deal led to two subpar seasons for Mulder in a Cardinals uniform while Dan Haren, Kiko Calero and Daric Barton thrive on the West Coast.
What’s the problem?
Here’s the rub. There are potential victims here. A lot of them.
For every sandwich pick added to the draft, that means every other lower-priority sandwich pick and every second, third, fourth, etc. pick earned by each club is now slightly devalued, being one place later than it would have been before.
Think of it like someone cutting in front of you in a ticket line. Chances are that you will still get in to see the show, but it will take a little longer to do so and you may not get as good of a seat as you would have otherwise. And, in a rare case, you might get shut out from seeing the show you wanted.
Or with the analogy stripped away, with their new Mulder-induced sandwich pick, the Cardinals might be positioned to take a player that another organization drafting just behind them wanted instead.
“So what?”, Cardinals fans might say. Good for our team!
Well, maybe so the first year.
What are the potential ramifications?
Now every other club will figure out the same maneuver. In 2007 and beyond, what's to stop every organization from asking every one of their future Type B’s to make the same agreement as Mulder did with the Cardinals? After all, if the other clubs don’t take advantage, the Jockettys of the world will be sticking it to them.
The end result could be a huge sandwich round, causing indigestion for all.
Looking at 2006, up to 49 extra sandwich picks could have been possible if every club had followed the Jocketty-Mulder model for Type B’s. And that doesn’t include the sandwich picks already added for the Type A’s who were offered and signed elsewhere.
I do understand that some Type B’s return to their previous teams, which would exclude them, but hopefully, you get the point.
To return to the analogy, you might get over it quickly enough if one person cuts in line, but you would object long before 49 people barged in, right?
If you are interested, you can see the current sandwich pick status and overall 2007 draft order here.
Bottom line, this does not at all seem to be what was intended when the change was made to the new labor agreement.
How is this different?
It’s not as if players and clubs haven’t made pre-agreements in the past. They have.
For example, two years ago, Mark Grudzielanek’s deal to sign a one-year, below market value deal with the Cardinals included an up-front assurance that the Cards would not offer the second baseman arbitration the following winter, giving the player a better chance to seek a bigger paycheck elsewhere.
In that case, it worked as intended, as Grudz headed for Kansas City after the Cards got a decent 2005 season from him. But here, the benefit was on the player’s side, not the club’s. And no other organizations were affected by the agreement.
What could be done?
Now, don’t get me wrong. I give Jocketty creativity points for figuring this out and taking advantage. If was him and had thought of it, I would have tried it, too. Gaming the system, or more politically correctly, using the rules to one’s advantage, is a technique as old as the game.
But, let’s face it. In all likelihood, Jocketty simply would not have offered Mulder if he wasn’t assured ahead of time that the answer would be a non-accept.
And, that’s the point. It is a loophole in the new agreement and probably should be addressed before it is widely abused.
One answer would be to re-instate a direct draft pick penalty for signing an offered Type B, but make it a lower round, say third. There are probably even better solutions out there if someone in a position of authority decides to take a look. However, since the new labor agreement that runs through 2011 is already in place, we just may be stuck with this loophole.
When all is said and done, in the specific case of Mulder and the Cardinals, none of this matters if he returns to St. Louis for 2007. But, left unchecked, there could be a rash of other general managers mimicking Jocketty’s maneuver in 2007 and beyond.
Brian Walton can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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