The Cardinals put their ace in the hole over the weekend.
There’s a whole lot of backwards stuff about the way MLB contracts work, with arbitration and service time at the forefront of those issues. Over the weekend, the Cardinals’ handling of emerging ace Jack Flaherty provided the latest example of why the system needs fixing.
Some background: Players who are pre-arbitration eligible have zero leverage when it comes to their salary and contract talks regardless of performance the season prior. Teams essentially have the option to set the player’s salary at what it sees fit, as long as it’s above MLB minimum salary. There’s some negotiating, but not much. Oftentimes teams use “formulas” in order to decide what a pre-arb player is worth, and it’s seldom a lot above minimum salary. In 2020, that number is $563,500.
Enter Flaherty, with 2020 as his last pre-arbitration eligible season. Because of this, the Cardinals tendered Flaherty a contract, but the 24-year-old and the team couldn’t agree on a salary number for 2020, so St. Louis “renewed” his deal. In more simple terms, the Cardinals decided what Flaherty was going to make, and Flaherty had no say in it.
Consider this: Flaherty is coming off a season in which he helped the Redbirds get to the NLCS, and finished fourth — FOURTH! — in Cy Young voting as a 24-year-old. Seems like some grounds for a raise in some way.
The most petty part about this is? The Cardinals, who “stretched their formula,” per Derrick Goold, gave Flaherty a $10,000 (oh, goodie!) bonus given his fourth-place finish in the Cy Young voting — then penalized him $10,000 for not accepting his contract for the upcoming season. Seems fair.
Flaherty was graceful in his reasoning for rejecting the contract.
“It’s just kind of the product of the system that we have,” Flaherty said. “Can’t really do much. They’re going to play within what they’re allowed to do in the system. It’s not them. I can’t fault them for doing that. The system is what it is. And it’s not the best.”
You might remember a similar situation unfolded with the Mets and Noah Syndergaard leading up to the 2017 season. Syndergaard was hoping to make as much money as fellow Mets Jacob deGrom and Matt Harvey did in years prior, as Syndergaard was coming off his first full, very effective season as a major leaguer. He did not get the raise he’d hoped for, and the Mets renewed his contract.
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In all, it seems decidedly unfair that players who contribute to their major-league squads in a big way have zero say in the money they make for those teams just because they were in the majors ahead of schedule. Flaherty will be due for a big raise from his squad next offseason, his first year of salary arbitration. He also will be a candidate for one of those fancy early extensions young players who perform usually get.
Really, it’s not all on the Cardinals, who are just conducting business in line with the rest of MLB given the CBA. But this is the latest example of why players are unhappy with the business of the sport.
While Flaherty’s comments are dripping with resignation more than distrust, anger or disappointment, it’s Exhibit Z in why MLB needs to take a look at the way they structure salaries and service time for younger players moving forward.
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