Cardinals renew Flaherty again

As he nears salary arbitration, the stage is set for intrigue

Cardinals pitcher Jack Flaherty (Redbird Dugout illustration)

The St. Louis Cardinals announced yesterday that they have agreed to terms with all 25 of their team controlled players, except one. Jack Flaherty.

For players with fewer than three years of Major League service time, teams hold rights of renewal on a player’s contract and have the right to impose a salary on a player, provided it meets the league’s minimum salary. Teams usually have systems to determine how they pay players during those first three seasons and typically players will accept those numbers assigned to them by the team because they have no bargaining power. For the second year in a row, the Cardinals were forced to renew Flaherty’s contract rather than him signing the contract.

After the renewal, Flaherty is expected to make around $604,000 per Derrick Goold. He earned a $10,000 bonus for his fourth place finish in the 2019 Cy Young Award voting, but also received a $10,000 penalty for making them renew the deal by force instead of signing it.

To be clear here: The Cardinals did what they were supposed to do and in articles about the renewal from last year, Flaherty understands that this is how the system is designed to work and says he doesn’t blame the team. But how can you not?

The Cardinals use an internal formula to determine the salaries of their players during their first three seasons of team control. That formula produced the salary numbers that are provided to those players. Flaherty refused to accept the offer the formula gave him. Last year Jordan Hicks did as well. Two years ago, so did Tommy Pham.

For the rank-and-file players inside this system, it works and provides the last amount of drama for the team. “This is what the computer says you should get paid.” I can imagine the front office saying that to an agent. There’s little room for argument, but there are players who deserve to have exceptions made, and you’d have a hard time denying that Flaherty is one of those players.

Back in 2017, the Cardinals began using a “file-and-trial” approach to salary arbitration cases. For players with at least three years of Major League service and less than six, you are eligible for salary arbitration. Instead of a team imposed salary, both sides file salary figures in January that they believe they should be paid. If you haven’t been able to reach an agreement, a hearing with an arbiter is scheduled in February to determine which salary the player will receive.

A “file-and-trial” system is that once salary figures are exchanged in January, the team will stop negotiating and then take you to the arbitration hearing. The first year they put the plan in place, the Cardinals failed to reach agreements with two of their players. Michael Wacha was taken the trial while Carlos Martinez signed a 5 year, $51 million extension.

In Martinez’s case, the Cardinals made an exception to the rule for a special talent. And they should have done the same for Flaherty.

You can argue that Flaherty is the most important team control Cardinals’ player since Albert Pujols was when he entered the 2003 season, 17 years ago. The team agreed with Pujols on a then-MLB record $900,000 salary in his third season of team control. The Cardinals had an Opening Day payroll of $83.5 million that year. Flaherty will earn two-thirds of Pujols’ third year salary on a payroll that’s now twice the size. I can see why Flaherty wouldn’t want to sign that offer.

I think it would have been nice and a gesture of good faith to see the Cardinals give him some significant extra money. This is a player that will be looking for an extension in just a few years.

This is where I’d have liked to see more context to understanding just how “business as usual” the Cardinals were. Because if Flaherty wanted $750,000, that’s one thing. If Flaherty wanted $10 million, that’s another. And if Flaherty just declined to engage the system as a stand against it, that’s another. There’s reason to believe it’s the last one, but I’d still like to know for sure.

“It’s nothing on the Cardinals. They play within what the system is. Their process is great and it makes sense, but in the grand scheme of things the system itself that everybody plays under just isn’t — it’s not a great system for everybody,” Flaherty told the Post Dispatch last year.

Fundamentally this should expose the team control system completely where players play the first five or six seasons of their career at vastly below market value rates before hitting free agency. Especially now as teams have become more reluctant to commit money and years to veteran players in free agency. The system works acceptably, though imperfectly, for most. Then there are standout players like Flaherty for whom it doesn’t work at all.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe we’ll see the type of renovation this system really needs to see in collective bargaining negotiations, but here’s the outline of what I’d really like to see Major League Baseball move towards.

First, a sliding minimum salary scale. For example, a $500,000 minimum for players with less than one year of service time, a $750,000 minimum salary for players with one to two years of service time, and a $1,000,000 minimum salary for players with two or more years of service time.

Second, restricted free agency. Following their first three years of service time, provided they are within eight years of their draft season (a caveat to discourage teams from manipulating service time), a player becomes a restricted free agent. A player may engage the other 29 teams for a market value deal and their old team gets an opportunity to match the contract and bring him back or let him go and receive a compensatory pick based on the overall value of the deal.

Instead of players reaching free agency in their early 30s, players would routinely start reaching restricted free agency in their mid-20s and have their salaries set by the market rather than arbitration panels at reduced rates.

Regardless of what I’d like to see in a new system, Flaherty is in his final year of team control and will become eligible for salary arbitration next season. I fully expect that Flaherty will take the Cardinals year-to-year to maximize his earnings rather than trade security for a less than maximum salary.

The good news for the Cardinals is that they have four years to figure out how to keep him.

Flaherty will be a free agent following the 2023 season and will be a year younger than Gerrit Cole was this winter when he signed a 9 year, $324 million deal with the Yankees. Flaherty currently edges Cole in career ERA+ and entering their age 24 seasons, Flaherty holds an even more decisive edge.

The only pitchers under the age of 28 with at least 300 innings pitcher who have outperformed Flaherty the last three seasons are Mike Clevenger and 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell. Both a year ahead of Flaherty in service time, and specifically Clevenger may represent the best comp to look at for Flaherty. Clevenger will be 29 this year, but he has a 152 ERA+ in the last three seasons for the Indians and he’ll make $4.1 million in his first year of arbitration.

The Cardinals have just one contractual obligation on the books beyond the 2023 season. One year of a 36-year-old Paul Goldschmidt at $26 million. They’ll also hold a pair of option years on the 30-year-old Paul DeJong with 35-year-old Miles Mikolas and 32-year-old Carlos Martinez also headed for free agency leaving three potential holes in the rotation.

The point? The Cardinals have ample opportunity to create the budget space necessary to retain Flaherty, but he’ll be their biggest challenge to retain since Pujols because on the open market, there’s always that one team willing to go bigger than the Cardinals.

Jon Doble has been writing about the St. Louis Cardinals since 2010. You can find him on Twitter at @GroundRuleDoble. Thank you for reading.

Retired-ish blogger. I’ve written about the Cardinals and baseball since 2010. World record holder for most hitless at-bats in an inning.

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