Questions About The Freese Arbitration Settlement
With less than two weeks before an arbiter would choose a contract figure, the Cardinals and David Freese closed their considerable gap and agreed on a one-year contract worth just over $3M for 2012.
This is a good thing, if only to maintain a sense of peace and harmony within the Cardinals’ clubhouse. The difference between Freese’s demands ($3.75M) and the Cardinals’ offer ($2.4M) was significant enough ($1.35M) that an arbitration hearing over that gulf could potentially create hard feelings and a chilly player/team/fan relationship. Given that the Cardinals have steadfastly avoided arbitration hearings since 1999, there was little doubt that the two sides would come to some agreement before then.
By sextupling Freese’s 2012 salary, the Cardinals have once again shown a willingness to be generous to a fault. This is one of the largest raises the Cardinals have granted a first-year-eligible player since Ryan Ludwick in 2009.
Much like Ludwick did in 2008, Freese placed in the top 10 of all third basemen in most offensive categories during 2012, including average (6th), hits (10th), RBI (10th), slugging (7th), and WAR (8th). He also just missed the top 10 in home runs (11th). Added to that performance is Freese’s legendary 2011 postseason, still referenced with awe by an adoring fan base.
Funny thing about the Ludwick comparison, though. After giving Ludwick that large pay raise (due to his overachieving 2008 performance), the Cardinals shipped him off to the Padres for Jake Westbrook.
I’m not suggesting that the Cardinals would do the same thing with Freese that they did with the popular Ludwick, nor do I necessarily recommend it. Unlike Ludwick, Freese has some PR value for the team as a hometown boy and timely postseason hero. I find it hard to believe that the Cardinals could look at all of those Freese jerseys in the stands and realistically consider trading him right now.
But two things are bugging me about this agreement.
First of all, the Cardinals made an original offer that seems reasonable (a raise of nearly $1M), but also considerably undercuts Freese’s overall value. Fangraphs calculates that Freese’s 2012 performance was worth $18.4M, and his 2011 performance was worth $12M. That means the Cardinals received more than $30M in performance at third base from Freese for approximately $900,000 over those two years.
Given that Freese is a 30 year-old arbitration virgin, nobody would expect the Cardinals to pay Freese his fair market value. However, it seems that the team had little inclination to shower him with riches. Compare that offer with the contract lavished on Jaime Garcia in 2011, or the generous deal offered to Jason Motte this winter. See the difference?
The other thing interesting about this agreement is the lack of any apparent discussion of a long-term deal.
The Cardinals have made a habit of locking up players they think have lasting value. The aforementioned Garcia contract happened during Jaime’s first arbitration year. The team did the same thing for Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright in their first arbitration-eligible seasons. However, they didn’t do that with Freese.
Some of that involves the fact that Freese will be 30 years old in 2013 and will be a very ripe 33 year-old when he finally reaches free agency. I think another aspect involves Freese’s unpleasant injury history; he currently pivots at third base on ankles made out of angel farts. I also suspect that the Cardinals are secretly troubled by Freese’s addiction to hard partying and reckless driving. I think Freese is a nice guy and he’s a photogenic face for the franchise, but this is an organization that places a high priority on lifestyle and attitude.
I don’t think it was an accident that the team drafted three third basemen in 2012. Of their choices, Carson Kelly and Stephen Piscotty project Freese-like numbers (or better in the case of Kelly). These prospects are possibly two years away.
While I certainly understand that the fans adore Freese for what he did two years ago and for his “aw, shucks” smile, the Cardinals will be looking at him only in terms of pure numbers and risk analysis. A long-term contract for a surgically-repaired player in his thirties is a gamble, particularly when that player could be expensive and replaced easily by cost-controlled rookies.
Unless Freese produces something really incredible in 2013, I suspect that his time left in St. Louis is limited. The Cardinals are not acting like a team that wants to invest in him for many more years.