The Cardinals recently finalised contracts with all their young players. Mostly, the deals were unremarkable. The Cards did hand Jose Martinez an extension to keep him from being tempted by overseas offers, but other than that the contractual motions being gone through went basically as one might expect. Couple guys got a little extra, but not all. We are talking, after all, about players under the arbitration threshold; they have no real leverage, and anything extra they and their agents can extract from the team has to be considered a victory, if only a tiny one.
In this choreographed dance of small-stakes pokerfacing, however, there are two players who most definitely warrant, perhaps even require, some further discussion. Jack Flaherty and Jordan Hicks both had their contracts renewed, by the club, at a forced salary. Teams have that right when it comes to dealing with these pre-arbitration players; at any point, the organisation can simply choose to enforce a salary, and the player has no real recourse.
Scoot wrote about this a couple days ago, when the news broke, and she noted that the players refused to sign contracts, or negotiate for a higher number, as an act of protest. Not against the Cardinals specifically, but against a system which locks players into an organisation for six plus years, pays them peanuts — relatively speaking, yes; I would personally love to make half a million dollars a year, and if you feel the need to bring up in the comments that these men are making that money for playing a child’s game, a) you really need to come up with some new material, or maybe just a better understanding of economics, and b) piss off — for the first several years of their careers, and promises access to the free market only after their period of indentured servitude is over.
In the past, this system didn’t maybe always work, but it mostly kept things running more or less smoothly for this game of ours. The players toiled for modest spoils early in their careers, with the promise of grander spoils later on once they reached free agency, took their destinies into their own hands, and got the power to really begin extracting value in exchange for their absurdly rare skillsets and abilities.
Now, though, with the breakdown that has occurred as organisations increasingly turn away from ever spending those big dollars, and players see their promised paydays evaporating, we are beginning to reap the harvest of the crop planted by team owners. Enter Flaherty and Hicks, who see where things are going, and are giving up something like probably 30-50K this year as a means of protest.
At some point down the road, there will be a reckoning for all this, and it’s going to be ugly. But for now, I’m really not looking to take the long view from 30,000 feet; rather, I’m interested in what sort of position this whole thing puts the Cardinals in with regards to the players in question.
The Redbirds are, without a doubt, one of the least guilty parties in baseball when it comes to this current freezeout of players from getting paid. I know there are plenty of people who would argue the Cardinals have been too hesitant to spend, and I would even tend to agree with that sentiment in a lot of ways. But when we look around the baseball landscape, and consider the lengths to which some clubs have gone to avoid spending money, it becomes clear the Cards remain one of baseball’s more consistent spenders and good faith operators, if admittedly on occasion a frustratingly conservative one. If anything, one could argue the Redbirds have hurt themselves by not engaging more fully with baseball’s new boom and bust model and continuing to spend on free agents in an attempt to compete; the Pittsburgh Pirates may be one of the more galling current examples of an organisation refusing to pour profits back into the product, preferring instead to operate as a very uncomfortable subsidy-laundering firm, but hey, at least they aren’t paying Brett Cecil and Dexter Fowler, right?
It’s really no wonder these young players are choosing to disengage with the process as a way of protesting it. In the cases of Hicks and, especially, Flaherty, though, it is most definitely an organisational concern that these two particular players seem so very ambivalent about playing the economic game MLB has set up.
The fact is, right about now is when the Cardinals should at least be starting up conversations with these players about their long-term futures with the organisation. In the case of Hicks, it’s probably a year too early to start talking extension, but if the spring of 2020 might be time to look at putting some surety into the relationship, then spring of 2019 is when the feeling-out process should really begin. A position player in this same spot might very well already be talking extension; the higher risk that comes with being a pitcher probably makes the organisation a little more hesitant to jump right in to the deep end financially.
On the other hand, when it comes to Jack Flaherty, now feels like a very good time to explore setting down a path for player and organisation to say together for awhile. He came up in 2017 and was fine as a late-season audition-slash-emergency callup, and then broke out last year in a serious way. I think a lot of fans are sleeping on just how impressive Flaherty was in his first full season last year; Flaherty just posted a strikeout rate of nearly 30%, as a starter, in his first full year at the big league level, at age 22. Yes, the walks were a touch high, and he fought the occasional bout of homeritis, but the pure swing and miss available to Flaherty in his repertoire points to what could be a truly special pitcher.
It might be a little early to talk extension with Flaherty, as well, to be fair; he’s only 23 years old, has topped out at 151 innings in the big leagues in a season, and hasn’t yet shown an ability to really get deep into games to be the sort of workhorse starter that even modern baseball teams tend to need at the front of the rotation. Then again, this time next year we might be talking about one of the top starters in the National League, and the club could be negotiating with a player who holds far, far more leverage than he does now.
Carlos Martinez signed his extension after his second year as a full-time starter; that’s probably about the time the club would start looking to get Flaherty on board long term as well, I would tend to think. So yes, all of this is really probably a discussion we should more properly have next spring, after Flaherty’s third place Cy Young finish and after Jordan Hicks puts up 35 holds and a 1.80 ERA this season.
Really, if things go well for the Cardinals, next offseason will be a time to make a big outlay of cash and commitment to lock in the next few years worth of core production. Paul Goldschmidt will need to be signed to continue anchoring the lineup. Jack Flaherty would seem like an ideal investment to co-head the rotation with Miles Mikolas. Hicks could probably be safely strung along year to year, considering the volatility of his place on the team, but I could also see the club hoping to lock in the most electric arm in baseball for at least a few seasons. It may be time to look at either Harrison Bader or Tyler O’Neill for a Paul DeJong extension, in order to cement a young, talented player’s place on the team going forward. A decision will need to be made about Marcell Ozuna, though I think at this point it’s fairly obvious what that decision is going to be, in which case you’ll need to figure out some other solution for left field going forward.
All of that, however, is contingent upon the organisation feeling they can reasonably expect a player like Jack Flaherty to be willing to discuss sticking around long term, and then putting pen to paper to stick around long term. I made the comparison a moment ago to the time at which Carlos Martinez signed his extension; I’m sure there are fans out there who currently think that deal looks like a clear loss for the Redbirds, but that’s incredibly shortsighted. For all the struggles Carlos went through trying to stay healthy last season, the Cardinals have still received right around 5 WAR from him over the first two years of his contract, at a cost of less than $15 million total. He’s locked in for the next three seasons at about a one WAR per year rate on the open market (though that number is, admittedly, subject to some variation as we figure out where the economic landscape is heading). That contract, even if it goes south, is exactly the sort of move every team serious about winning needs to sign.
And that brings us back to Jack Flaherty and Jordan Hicks. I know that the players were both quick to point out that their economic protests were not directed toward the Cardinals specifically, but rather the system as a whole. But how much does that really matter if the end result is still players not interested in establishing the kind of long-term relationships with the club that are the lifeblood of the Cards’ model of perennial contention? It’s not that I’m worried about the organisation’s bottom line; the Cardinals can afford to pay more for their production, if that’s what it takes. What’s more worrisome is the uncertainty that this whole situation brings. For now, it doesn’t really matter. The Cards have Flaherty and Hicks under club control for multiple years still to come, and there’s really not much that can change that. But longer term, if the Cardinals are going to continue to compete year in and year out the way they up until now, they’re going to need Jack Flaherty in the fold. It would be incredibly helpful to have Jordan Hicks around and pitching like a young Mark Wohlers as well. If things keep going the way they are now, though, neither of those things seem at all certain.
These are storm clouds off on the horizon for now, I admit. But baseball is beginning to see the real start of serious labour unrest, not in a theoretical way, but in a concrete way that could affect not just the future of the league, but even the future of clubs themselves to make plans for their own specific roadmaps to contention. It isn’t time yet for the Cardinals to try and sign up Jordan Hicks for the long haul, nor probably even Jack Flaherty, at least for a little while still. But make no mistake, these are the players about whom decisions will need to be made, probably sooner than we might realise. And these are exactly the players who right now are taking a stand against the way the league has done and is doing business.
Storm clouds on the horizon. And they’re moving this way.