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On going to an arbitration hearing with Carlos Martinez

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals
Look at that changeup grip, folks.
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

As first reported by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post Dispatch, general manager John Mozeliak and the Cardinals will enter arbitration hearings on both Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha (given the uncertainty of Wacha’s future role, I at least understand the decision on his case). For some necessary context, from the indispensable Brian Walton, these will be the Cardinals’ first arbitration hearings since 1999, and they haven’t “lost” one since Gregg Jefferies way back in 1994. Well, as tweeted out by Jon Heyman, the Cardinals filed at $3.9 million, as compared to $4.25 million by Martinez (and his representatives) — a difference of $325,000, or, in other words, roughly 64% of a league-minimum contract.

So, what does Martinez bring to the table you (or even an arbiter) may ask? He was a National League All Star in 2015. He was the Cardinals’ most valuable pitcher — by both fWAR (3.3) and bWAR (5.4) — in 2016. He projects to be (4.2 zWAR) the team’s most valuable pitcher again in 2017 — this time, by a wide margin (the next closest pitcher is Adam Wainwright at 2.1 zWAR). Centered on his work in the community and back home in Puerto Plata, he was just last night named the St. Louis Baseball Man of the Year, by the BBWAA.

At only 25 years of age, with two additional arbitration years remaining before free agency, Martinez is an ideal contract extension candidate, even when considering his (admittedly minor) injury history. Yet, in the weeks remaining before we begin to see pictures of moving trucks preparing for travel down to Jupiter for spring training, the front office of the Cardinals appears to have halted discussions with Martinez regarding a contract extension. Rather, they seem to be hunkering down for arbitration hearings, and in Mozeliak’s words directly, they “can find out how good [they] are at these.”

Now, I know it is tough to take what Mozeliak says to the media at face value. There is a reason why the term “Mospeak” exists in the first place. However, to me (and more than a handful of others) at least, it feels like the general manager is treating these hearings as if they are some sort of game — a game he hasn’t played in a while, so given the stakes (a small gap, or “delta” as Mozeliak called it), why not pick it up again now? If Martinez is on the same page as that notion, fine, but given how small the gap is between the two filings, they would have probably already settled somewhere in the middle, if they were on the same page even slightly.

Heck, considering the Cardinals’ modus operandi of locking up young, valuable, home-grown pitchers (i.e. Jaime Garcia in 2012, Lance Lynn in 2015), the fact that a deal is not already in place shows that the Cardinals and Martinez are not yet on the same page. Even if Martinez wants to “spend his whole career in St. Louis,” he’s not going to just lay down and accept a contract — certainly not with the way his value projects on the open market.

We have reached the point in this discussion where we need to remember that we are talking about a $325,000 difference — a whole lot of money for you and me, but mere pennies for a prosperous MLB franchise. Now, I understand that by setting the bar lower at year one of arbitration (i.e. the arbiter choosing the Cardinals’ $3.9 million filing), it’ll help limit the salary ceiling of future arbitration years.

It is not my money to spend, and even if the owners reference “payroll muscle,” they can choose to spend it how they please. However, Martinez’s 2017 performance (and the Cardinals are banking on him performing like an ace) will too have an effect on his salary in the remaining arbitration years — just ask other top pitchers like David Price ($19.75 million), Max Scherzer ($15.25 million), and Jake Arrieta ($15.64 million).

If a contract extension isn’t possible at this juncture, I truly believe the Cardinals meeting Martinez somewhere in the middle is in their best interest. I know I have mentioned $325,000 twice already, but from a “meeting exactly in the middle” standpoint, the extra money the Cardinals would be on the hook for is 162,500 — an amount that would barely even surface on one of their expense reports.

Of course, there is a good chance the arbitration hearing goes smoothly without any ill will surfacing, but in general, “going through a hearing is never a good thing.” Why even risk any leverage in future negotiations over so little? The Cardinals public handling of issues involving Martinez has been suspect in the past, and the current issue at hand is no different. As I write this post in my home office, I have a stack of 2016 Cardinals magazines sitting atop my desk. One is titled “The Pillars” and has Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina, and Adam Wainwright on the cover. With Holliday now in pinstripes and Wainwright angling toward twilight mode, Martinez has molded himself into being the organization’s next pillar — a quiet sturdy one, in fact. It is time for the Cardinals to start treating him like one.