After the St. Louis Cardinals traded Shelby Miller and Tyrell Jenkins to the Atlanta Braves last week in exchange for Jason Heyward and Jordan Walden, I took a look at how the deal impacted the Cardinals' 2015 payroll and 25-man roster. In trying to put together the 25-man roster matrix, it became evident that there are quite a few question marks regarding the Cards' 2015 opening-day roster. So, with the tender deadline for arbitration-eligible players on the near horizon (December 3), I thought it would be instructive to take a step back and look at how free agency, trades, and salary arbitration have shaped the Cardinals' current 40-man roster (while keeping in mind that free-agent signings and trades that have not yet occurred could further impact the roster).
MLB Salary Structure
First, a review of salary arbitration under the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA). The CBA provides three different classifications of MLB players for salary purposes. Like so many collectively bargained salary structures, the more seniority a MLB player has, the higher his pay.
Under the CBA, a player's seniority is based on the accrual of MLB service time, which is time spent on a club's 25-man active MLB roster. One year of MLB service times is defined in the CBA as 172 days on a major-league club's 25-man roster during a "championship season," which in turn is defined to start on a team's opening day and end with its final game in the regular season. MLB salary-arbitration eligibility is sandwiched in between two other player-salary classifications. The three MLB salary classifications are:
1) League-Minimum Eligibility
MLB clubs need only pay a big-leaguer the league minimum until the season after he accrues three years of MLB service time. Clubs have the discretion to pay a league-minimum eligible player more than the league minimum and many clubs choose to do so. The Cardinals do this and use a formula based on MLB service time; the more time a Cardinal who is eligible for only the league minimum, the higher his salary. In 2014, the CBA set the league-minimum salary at $500,000. The Cardinals paid rookie Kolten Wong the minimum, $500,000, but paid Lance Lynn, who was in his fourth MLB season (but did not notch three years of MLB service until mid-2014) $535,000. While the CBA set the league-minimum-salary at $480,000 for 2012, $490,000 in 2013, and $500,000 in 2014, it does not set an exact league minimum for 2015. Instead, the 2015 league minimum will be calculated at the 2014 salary level of $500,000 plus a cost-of-living adjustment; the 2015 league minimum cannot be lower than it was in 2014 even if adding the cost-of-living adjustment would mean such a result.
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2) Salary-Arbitration Eligibility
With one exception, a major-leaguer first becomes eligible to earn more than the league minimum in the offseason after the championship season during which he reaches three years of MLB service time. The exception applies to Super Two players. Under the CBA, players with at least two but less than three years of MLB service time will be eligible for salary arbitration if they have accrued at least 86 days of MLB service time during the championship season immediately preceding that offseason and are among the top 22% (rounded to the nearest whole number) in MLB service time among players with more than two but less than three years of MLB service time. Super Two players get four years of salary arbitration as compared to the three years the players with between two but less than three years of service time who rank in the bottom 68% in seniority get.
MLB clubs initiate the salary-arbitration process. For each arbitration-eligible player on its roster, an MLB club must decide whether to tender a contract for the following season or not. If a team elects not to tender a contract, they player and team do not go to salary arbitration and the player becomes a free agent. If a team elects to tender a contract, the player and team go to salary arbitration.
The salary-arbitration process begins with the player and club submitting salary proposals. Typically, the player's proposed salary is higher than the club's. The vast majority of the time, the two sides bridge the gap through negotiations and sign a one-year contract that falls somewhere in between the player and team's proposals. But sometimes the two sides go to binding arbitrations, which involves an independent arbitrator deciding whether the player will earn his proposed salary figure or the team's. Per the CBA, the arbitrator bases his or her decision on the following factors:
- the player’s contribution to the club during the past season (including but not limited to his overall performance, special qualities of leadership and public appeal)
- the length and consistency of the player's career contribution to the club
- the record of the player’s past compensation
- comparative baseball salaries
- the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the player
- the recent performance record of the MLB club including but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance
However, the following information is deemed inadmissible evidence by the CBA:
- the financial position of the player
- the financial position of the club
- press comments, testimonials or similar material bearing on the performance of either the player or the club, except that recognized annual player awards for playing excellence shall not be excluded
- offers made by either player or club prior to arbitration
- the cost to the parties of their representatives, attorneys, etc.
- salaries in other sports or occupations
As a general rule, arbitration-eligible players receive a salary the approximate equivalent to 40% of what they would be able to sign for as a free agent on the open market during their first season of arbitration eligibility; approximately 60% in year two; and around 80% in their season of salary arbitration.
2014 Cardinals Eligible for Salary Arbitration
After 2014, the Cardinals had the following six players eligible for salary arbitration:
- Jon Jay (ARB 2)
- Peter Bourjos (ARB 2)
- Daniel Descalso (ARB 2)
- Lance Lynn (ARB 1)
- Tony Cruz (ARB 1)
- Shane Robinson (ARB 1)
3) Free-Agent Eligibility
After a player reaches six years of MLB service time, he is eligible to become a free agent during the offseason that follows. This means that, if he chooses, he is eligible to negotiate with any and all MLB clubs regarding a contract to play for them during the following season (and, perhaps, beyond). There is no mechanism that limits an individual player's salary in free agency like there is for players between zero and three years of MLB service time or those with three to six years of MLB service time.
2014 Cardinals Who Are Now Free Agents
The Cardinals had five veterans with more than six years of MLB service time on their 25-man roster become free agents the morning after the final out of the World Series:
- Pat Neshek
- Jason Motte
- A.J. Pierzynski
- Mark Ellis
- Justin Masterson
The Cardinals apparently do not plan to re-sign any of these players.
2015 St. Louis Cardinals 40-Man Roster Matrix
The Cardinals have ten players already under guaranteed contract right now for 2015 and they're shown in red. Even though Heyward is technically in his final year of salary-arbitration eligibility, his contract for next season is guaranteed because of the two-year deal he signed with the Braves last offseason, which bought out his this remaining two arbitration years, which includes 2015. Also on a guaranteed MLB deal is Anna and former Cuban free agent Aledmys Diaz. (Although, Diaz won't make the 25-man active roster out of spring training.) The guaranteed salary information comes from Cot's Baseball Contracts, a Baseball Prospectus property.
The arbitration-eligible players are shown in blue. Their listed salaries are based on the salary-arbitration projections from MLB Trade Rumors.
After that are the league-minimum players, in green, and the minor-leaguers, in gray. Any minor-leaguer on 40-man roster who makes an appearance for St. Louis in 2015 will earn the league-minimum of course. For example, Tyler Lyons earned the league minimum when he pitched for St. Louis in 2013 and 2014, yet I have him as a minor-leaguer. The distinction between green and gray is entirely subjective and slightly unrealistic (especially in terms of the pitchers). The players on the outside of the 25-man roster and looking in are in gray.
The Cardinals won't have seven starting pitchers on opening day. Jaime Garcia likely won't be active and only one of Carlos Martinez or Marco Gonzales will be in the rotation—assuming the Cards don't sign a free-agent starter and no injuries strike the rotation during spring training. One of Martinez or Gonzales will be in the bullpen. If it's Gonzales, the Cards are highly unlikely to have four lefties in Randy Choate, Sam Freeman, Kevin Siegrist, and Gonzales; they are unlikely to have more than two southpaws. To me, the bullpen is the most in flux part of the roster at present and, thus, most likely to change before opening day. As an example, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Sam Tuivailala in the opening day relief corps.
The salaries provided for the players set to make the league minimum are estimates based on (1) my guess at the 2015 MLB league minimum (around $510K), and (2) the Cardinals seniority-based method for paying players eligible for the league minimum. Even if my estimates are off, almost all of these players will make between $500,000 and $550,000.