Cardinals’ lack of action could be their undoing

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It’s hard to blame the Cardinals for staying the course. Even with free agents Kyle Lohse and Lance Berkman set to depart, St. Louis ended 2012 with a roster that already looked like a winner entering 2013:

Rotation: Adam Wainwright, Chris Carpenter, Jaime Garcia, Lance Lynn, Jake Westbrook, Shelby Miller, Joe Kelly, Trevor Rosenthal

Bullpen: Jason Motte, Rosenthal, Edward Mujica, Fernando Salas, Mitchell Boggs, Kelly, Marc Rzepczynski, Eduardo Sanchez, Victor Marte

Lineup: CF Jon Jay, RF Carlos Beltran, LF Matt Holliday, 1B Allen Craig, C Yadier Molina, 3B David Freese, SS Rafael Furcal, 2B Matt Carpenter/Daniel Descalso

What did it make sense to do from there? Upgrade at second base? Perhaps, but it was probably the weakest position in free agency this winter. The Cardinals were rumored to have made a run at Marco Scutaro before he re-signed with the Giants.

Upgrade the rotation? Since the Cards seemed committed to Carpenter and Westbrook, that probably would have meant sending Lynn back to the bullpen and there simply weren’t many starters available in free agency that were better bets than Lynn and those few would have been expensive.

Adding to the bench should have been a priority, and the Cardinals did. Unfortunately, they did so with Ty Wigginton, a defensive liability no longer worthy of a roster spot. They also signed Ronny Cedeno as a shortstop fallback rather than trust an encore performance from late-season surprise Pete Kozma.

Besides those two, the only notable newcomer is lefty specialist Randy Choate.

That the Cardinals did so little might have been just fine if not for the events of the last month. Carpenter is expected to miss the season after his nerve problems returned with a vengeance. Miller, the early favorite to replace him in the rotation, is sidelined with shoulder tightness. And Furcal, the lineup’s biggest question mark, is still having problems with his throwing elbow.

The Cardinals are still fairly well protected in the rotation. Even if they have to dig down deeper as the season progresses, top prospects Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha could prove ready. Rosenthal should be a big weapon wherever he happens to be deployed.

The team is also very well set in the outfield, what with top prospect Oscar Taveras available to step in if Beltran goes down. The Cards can even put Craig back in a corner and call up power-hitting Matt Adams to play first base if needed.

The middle infield is a big issue, though, particularly in light of Furcal’s ill health. Ideally, Matt Carpenter will prove capable at second base and win the job there. However, if he can’t handle the defensive responsibilities, the Cards could be looking at spending big chunks of the season with the light-hitting Descalso covering one spot and Cedeno, Kozma and Ryan Jackson vying for the other.

At third base, Freese also has an extensive injury history, and while Carpenter is a fine fallback there, he can’t play second if he’s starting at the hot corner.

With spring training games having even yet to start, the Cardinals’ depth has been whittled away. If it stops now, the team is still in very good position, particularly since it should have plenty of flexibility to pull off in-season trades. Still, it’s fair to express disappointment that the team didn’t do better than Wigginton and Cedeno for the bench. A Scutaro to start at second or a Kelly Johnson to give added protection would look quite nice right now. The left-handed-hitting Eric Chavez would have made a lot more sense as a backup to two right-handed-hitting corner infielders than Wigginton does. Time will tell if those misfires come back to bite them.

“Bullpenning” creates a serious labor issue

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Last year, we devoted some space here to talking about “bullpenning.” I believe the term was coined by MLB Network’s Brian Kenny, who has been a very outspoken proponent of the strategy. Aside from the occasional “bullpen day,” we haven’t really seen teams give “bullpenning” a shot, so we don’t have much data to work with to say whether or not it’s a viable strategy.

The Rays made some headlines early this season, suggesting the club might use a four-man rotation all year. The Rays also made headlines over the weekend, choosing to start reliever Sergio Romo on back-to-back days against the Angels. That rankled Angels third baseman Zack Cozart, who said the Rays’ strategy is “bad for baseball.” The Rays’ thinking on Saturday was that the righty-heavy top of the Angels’ lineup was threatening for lefty starter Ryan Yarbrough, so having Romo start the first inning before handing the ball off to Yarbrough would prevent him from facing those right-handed hitters three times in a normal-length start.

Despite Cozart’s displeasure with the strategy, Romo is a fan of it:

In discussing the issue last night, I tried to imagine how Cozart’s claim holds up and came up empty. The strategy makes sense in a vacuum and, as SB Nation’s DRaysBay points out on Twitter, the strategy hasn’t led to overuse.

However, one problem that has often been overlooked when discussing “bullpenning” is the inevitable labor issue. Right now, starting pitchers make significantly more money than relief pitchers. In December 2016, Aroldis Chapman eviscerated the previous record contract for a reliever when he signed a five-year, $86 million deal with the Yankees. That doesn’t even crack the top-85 on the list of the most lucrative contracts in baseball history, per Cot’s Contracts. The largest contract by a starting pitcher was the seven-year, $217 million contract David Price signed with the Red Sox in December 2015. If you’re a pitcher and you want to make money, you should try to become a starter.

Teams will use whatever information they can to avoid having to pay a player more money. We see this when major league-ready players are held down in the minors longer than necessary, we see it when players go to arbitration, and we see it when free agents try to land contracts. On every stat-tracking site, there’s a column for pitchers labeled “GS” for games started. Right now, Yarbrough’s column has a three in it. He has appeared in 11 total games. He was effectively a starter on Saturday despite Romo getting credit for the start since he went 6 1/3 innings against the Angels, but he didn’t get the additional bump in the GS column, which has the potential to depress his salary throughout his career. Yarbrough has effectively “started,” lasting at least four innings in eight of those 11 games. But Andrew Kittredge got credit for the start several times, going two innings ahead of Yarbrough in a few of those games.

Yarbrough, a rookie, will have his contract automatically renewed by the Rays until he becomes eligible for salary arbitration. Until he reaches arbitration eligibility, the Rays will get to set his salary at whatever figure they want as long as it meets the major league minimum ($555,000 next year). Sometimes players perform well enough that the teams willingly choose to pay them more as a good will gesture, but usually teams hover at or just slightly above the minimum. Then Yarbrough will move into potential salary arbitration with the Rays in a few years. Should the two sides not reach an agreement in any of those three years, they will go before an independent arbitrator, who will hear arguments from Yarbrough’s agent and representatives for the Rays. The Rays will use statistics to argue that Yarbrough isn’t worth what he’s asking for. They will likely use the smaller number in the “GS” column, among other numbers, to do so. This would be the case for any player, particularly a younger player, who gets used in the “bullpenning” strategy.

Each previous salary becomes a jumping-off point for the next salary. Let’s say that Yarbrough filed for $6 million, the Rays countered at $3 million, and the arbitrator sided with the Rays. (Historically, arbitrators have tended to side with teams.) The next year that Yarbrough goes to arbitration, he’s arguing for a raise off of $3 million instead of $6 million. If Yarbrough had earned $6 million the previous year, it would be reasonable that he might request $10 million the next year. But if he requests $10 million after earning just $3 million, it seems less reasonable. These numbers are intentionally disparate, by the way. Usually the difference in figures filed is only in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Take Marcus Stroman as an example. He won his arbitration case with the Blue Jays going into the 2017 season, filing for $3.4 million against the Jays’ $3.1 million. He had a career year in 2017, finishing with a 3.09 ERA  in 33 starts. Stroman still lost his salary arbitration case heading into this season, filing for $6.9 million against the Jays’ $6.5 million.

If there’s any doubt that the Rays would fight tooth-and-nail to save a few hundred thousand bucks, consider that the Rays receive money both from revenue sharing and from BAMTech, a 33 percent share of which was sold to Disney in 2016 for $1 billion. Disney then bought a controlling share in BAMTech last August for $1.58 billion. As Craig mentioned at the time, that netted every owner about $68 million. And baseball’s 30 owners will continue to make more money off of BAMTech from their minority share. Yet the Rays’ Opening Day payroll has never topped $77 million. The club is often characterized as small-market and it’s relatively true, but it could have been out trying to sign big name free agents in recent years. Principal owner Stuart Sternberg has just chosen not to in an effort to maximize profits.

The solution to this labor issue shouldn’t be to prevent teams from utilizing strategies like “bullpenning.” We should seek to change the way we value players both systemically and statistically. If teams are artificially depressing important statistics for players — “games started” isn’t the only one; teams have also prevented their players from meeting performance bonuses (often based on appearances and/or innings pitched) in their contracts — then we need to amend the rules so that players don’t get the short end of the stick. This can’t be addressed until negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires on December 1, 2021. Hypothetically, the change made could be wholesale, but realistically, the change would need to be incremental, perhaps saying that a player’s playing time, amount of starts made, and other similar statistics can’t be held against him in arbitration since that’s almost entirely up to the team based on its personnel and other incentives. As for affecting change in how we value players statistically, that’s both a structural issue involving front offices and a social issue involving members of the media and fans. Batting average versus on-base percentage is a great example of this type of change, both structurally and socially.

We shouldn’t want to prevent teams from optimizing strategy since, in a vacuum, that’s healthy for the game. Having a stale “metagame” means the game is boring and figured out. Teams utilizing new strategies keeps the game fresh and interesting. Unfortunately, “bullpenning” represents an intersection of labor and strategy. It’s a serious issue the Major League Baseball Players Association should be keeping an eye on and working to solve.