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Birdos in Brief: Cardinals Arbitration Figures and a Tommy Edman Extension

A quick look at the arbitration figures and whether or not the club will pursue an extension with Tommy Edman.

Cincinnati Reds v St. Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Good Saturday morning, Viva El Birdos!

I don’t have a lot for you this morning. Don’t worry, though. We’ll have a lot for you as the weekend goes on. VEB writer Gabe is heading to the Winter Warm-Up! The Cardinals were kind enough to grant the site the rare boon of a press pass for the event. He’ll be covering it all weekend long. Check out his updates here in the comment sections of our posts and on the VEB Twitter (X) account.

Before that happens, we have a little news to discuss. MLB clubs had until Thursday to reach a contract agreement with their arbitration-eligible players before the two parties had to exchange numbers to present to an impartial arbiter. It’s not much of a deadline, as teams can still come to terms with players at any point up to the arbitration hearings, which typically happen during Spring Training.

The Cardinals, though, have added some teeth to the deadline by taking a “file and trial” approach. This means that if the player and the team can’t come to an agreement before the Thursday deadline, the team will cease negotiating with them on a one-year contract and allow the case to arbitration.

These kinds of hearings have proved contentious and eye-opening in the past. Recently Tyler O’Neill and Ryan Helsley have both walked away from their hearings less than enthused about the process. It sucks to have a team that you think values and respects you do whatever they can to prove to an independent arbiter that they shouldn’t have to pay you what you think you are worth. And you’re right there in the room listening to it.

I can’t blame any player for leaving a little money on the table to avoid that situation. The Cardinals were able to reach deals with five of their six arbitration-eligible players:

These deals were almost universally on the high side of projections. MLB Trade Rumors had Ryan Helsley pegged for a $3M arbitration deal. He settled $800K higher than that. Carlson made himself around half a mil. The newly acquired Kittredge, though, came in a little light.

These changes, along with a few other tweaks based on some minor contract updates, are enough to push the Cardinals’ payroll from $165M — where I had it a few days ago — to right at $167M.

The one player who did not reach an arbitration deal with the Cardinals was Tommy Edman. The team’s “do anything he’s asked to do” player asked for an extra $450K in salary this coming year ($6.95M). The team is holding steady at his projected arbitration amount — $6.5M.

It seems ridiculous for the club to quibble over such a relatively small amount. $450K represents exactly .269% of the club’s current payroll. Yes, point two seven percent. Why risk alienating and annoying a core member of your club over relative peanuts?

I would prefer to let that question stand alone. Any attempt I make at answering it feels like defending ownership for this decision. And, frankly, I don’t care to defend ownership for their stance on arbitration. Remember that before I start the next paragraph.

The reason DeWitt has taken a file-and-trial approach to these kinds of deals is that arbitration salaries have bubbled upward over the years. One arbitration overpay is not very significant, but the total cost of arbitration salaries for a draft-and-development oriented team starts to add up fast. The Cardinals will have between $16.5 and $17M committed to arbitration players this year. Half a mill of bubble here, $800k there, $250k elsewhere for many seasons become millions of dollars unnecessarily spent.

“File and trial” is a means of limiting arbitration salaries to figures the club believes are fair but not generous so that players don’t start thinking that generosity is what is fair.

But... seriously. $495K. For your starting center fielder. Just pay that man his money.

The club and Edman do have an out here. Instead of taking this to arbitration, they could reach a long-term extension and there has been some talk over the last year or so that such a move could be coming.

Edman has one more season of arbitration before becoming a free agent. Edman, who has enjoyed good health throughout his career, is entering his age 29 season and his first as a full-time center fielder. (At least until there is an infield injury.) He has the second-highest ZiPS WAR projection on the club at 3.1 fWAR. $6-7M this season seems likely to turn into a $10M+ figure next season and $15-20M once he hits free agency.

The Cardinals, who are surprisingly budget-aware this season as they wrestle with the uncertainty of their TV deal, could save some money over the next few years while locking up their most versatile defender into his early 30s. That’s typically how these arb-buyout deals work. The player exchanges their earning upside in the arbitration process for a guaranteed payout over multiple years. Multi-year contracts are guaranteed money. Arbitration projections aren’t. A fluke injury or a down year can tank a player’s earning potential. See Flaherty, Jack.

In the not-so-distant past, the Cardinals used this kind of arbitration extension early and often to lock away their young talent. Carlos Martinez received such a deal. So did Paul DeJong. Those deals didn’t always pan out well for the club, however, and they haven’t given a player such a deal since.

Will Edman be different? It’s hard to say. The club has committed to Tommy Edman as a core player and a key part of their culture. They say all the right things about him. Edman does all the right things on the field. With their renewed focus on clubhouse leadership, Edman seems like the exact kind of player the club would want to commit to.

That said, they’ve never really locked away a full-time position to Edman. He was the club’s second baseman until Donovan and Gorman came along. He was the club’s shortstop until Masyn Winn looked ready. Now he’s the club’s center fielder. But Dylan Carlson is still around. Lars Nootbaar can play center. Victor Scott is coming soon. There’s always someone cheaper and younger that the club wants to give a chance at Edman’s expense. Will the club pay Edman when they don’t know exactly where he’ll play in two seasons? What would they pay him as? A shortstop who flashes elite defense? A light-hitting center fielder? A lead-off hitter? A 9-spot hitter? One of the most versatile defensive players in the game? A weak-side platoon player? There’s a large salary range in those outcomes.

I don’t see the club offering him an extension this season. Maybe next year once a few more of these roster questions are settled and he’s looking at a real pay increase from his third arbitration cycle. It just seems to me like the club is hopeful that these other players, most of whom are still making the league minimum, can rise to the occasion. If they do and that pushes away the need to give a multi-year deal to a non-elite player, all the better for their budget.

I expect Edman to go to a hearing. I think he has a good chance of winning it. I also expect him to say all the right things and handle it with class. It’s still an unnecessary stress he’ll have to deal with.

The weather looks terrible this week. Stay warm, Cardinals fans.