Cardinals Pass on Arbitration for Isringhausen and More

Dec 2, 2008 at 1:42 pm
At 11:00 p.m. central time on Monday, baseball's arbitration deadline passed. And one of the most puzzling storylines of the off-season began.

The Cardinals declined to offer arbitration to any of their eligible free agents. Most notable of these were Russ Springer, Jason Isringhausen, and the big one, Braden Looper.

I can understand the first two, at least a little bit. Springer is somewhat surprising to me, as I thought the Cards would want Russ around for another round. Manager Tony La Russa values that veteran hand in the bullpen, and Springer has been rock-solid the past two seasons. I certainly thought the Cards would put in the arbitration offer, and then just sign Springer to a one-year deal before the thing actually got to the point of having a hearing. If another team just had to have Russ Springer so badly they were willing to knock his socks off with an un-turn-downable deal, the Cardinals could have just taken the draft pick and walked away happy.

Izzy I'm not real surprised on. As public as Isringhausen has been in the past about wanting to play in St. Louis, going so far as to state he would use his no-trade clause to block any potential deal, I think the chances were awfully high that Izzy would have just accepted arbitration. Seeing as how arbitration relies heavily on service time and comparable players to determine salary, while placing much less value on actual player performance than you would hope, Isringhausen probably would have ended up with a salary that in non way reflected his actual value to the team. If the Cardinals didn't want Jason Isringhausen back at right around the same pay scale as this season, arbitration probably wasn't an option.

But Looper really, really puzzles me. Looper was classified as a Type B free agent, meaning that if the Cardinals had offered arbitration, Looper had declined it, and another team then signed Braden to a multi-year deal (which I have to believe someone will), the Cardinals would have received a supplemental first round pick in the 2009 draft. How much is a supplemental pick worth? Well, Chris Perez was taken in the supplemental round in '06. Clayton Mortensen, the sinkerballer who made it to Triple A in his first full pro season, was a supplemental pick in 2007. Even if neither one of those players ever turns out to be much more than roster filler for a couple of years, cheap roster filler is still cheap roster filler.

Paying a fifth starter or a setup reliever league minimum is far more palatable than having to go out on the market and give Joel Pineiro $13 million. If either player turns into something better than roster filler, then the value of that draft pick just skyrockets.

By not offering Looper arbitration, though, the Cardinals lost out on any chance at that sort of a draft pick. And why? Well, to be honest, I'm at sort of a loss here to explain it.

You look at the rotation for next year, and it isn't exactly an inspiring sight. I'm not counting on anything out of Chris Carpenter (and if the Cardinals have any sort of brains they won't either), so the rotation looks something like this:

Adam Wainwright
Todd Wellemeyer
Kyle Lohse
Joel Pineiro
Mitchell Boggs/ Brad Thompson/ Random Non-Roster Free Agent Guy/ Spring Surprise/ Homeless Man

I don't know about you, but I don't find that group all that reassuring. Don't get me wrong; I think that homeless guy who lives outside the stadium just may have finally put it all together over the off-season, but he still has some issues, notably a lack of an out pitch, command of his fastball, and bladder control.

The worst thing that could have happened, I suppose, if you offer Looper arbitration, is that he accepts, and slides right in there at the bottom of the rotation. See, I really like Mitchell Boggs long term, but I'm not all that high on relying on him to be a contributing member of the rotation in 2009.

Hey, if Carpenter is healthy enough to pitch, and Looper accepts arby, then Mr. Pineiro is suddenly no longer a necessary part of the Cards' plans in '09. And to me, that's damn near a Christmas miracle.

So why, exactly, would the Cardinals not offer arbitration to Looper? I'm certain someone would have offered him at least a two or three year deal, and I'm almost as sure that he probably would have taken it. Can it possibly be that the Cardinals are really that concerned about the payroll that Braden Looper would have tied up that they felt they couldn't risk him coming back, no matter the percentages, nor the potential payoff?

You know, I always, always, always preach financial responsibility when I discuss the Cardinals. This is a mid-market team, and they simply can't afford to spend like the big boys (and I mean the really big boys, like the Sawx, Yankees, Cubs, those sorts of teams), without crippling the team long term.

I've been a huge proponent of the new build-from-the-farm system paradigm, because I've felt it's really the only way to efficiently construct a winning baseball team in MLB these days. I preach to anyone who will listen the need to find cost-effective solutions to the team's needs so you can afford to pay the Alberts of the world.

But if the Cardinals were really so worried about Braden Looper's potential payday that they couldn't risk paying him for the extra draft pick, then I'm done defending. The hole out beyond the outfield wall certainly isn't getting any money poured into it; they should at least put some cash in the product itself.

Maybe I'm wrong, and GM John Mozeliak has got something great up his sleeve that he's waiting to pull out. Maybe he simply couldn't afford to take the risk of having yet another roster spot tied up, and a rotation slot at that, with Braden Looper. Maybe the Cards have found a way to pick up a real solution for the rotation, maybe someone young, and cost controlled, with some real upside. But somehow, I'm just not feeling the love.

I don't think the Cards have decided to go get CC Sabathia. I don't think they can, nor should they, swing the kind of package San Diego wants for Jake Peavey. Personally, I don't think A.J. Burnett is going to be worth the deal that he gets, either in terms of health or quality.

So who exactly is out there that's just going to be the solution? Somehow, I doubt that San Francisco is going to deal us Matt Cain for the remains of Chris Duncan, no matter how many trophies they have that could use a good crotch polishing.

- Aaron Schafer