Yesterday the Cubs officially announced that they would not be offering arbitration to four of your all-time favorite Caucasians. Gritty, bald, bad-backed centerfielder Reed Johnson; sometimes-dominant, of-injured pitcher Rich Harden; terrible mongoloid Kevin Gregg; and chronically injured, bullpen mascot Chad Fox have all been told that they don’t get to reap the benefits of baseball’s yearly arbi-palooza.
Nobody seems to care much that Gregg is gone, few even remembered that Fox was on the team last year, but there’s a lot of consternation about the Cubs telling Reed and Rich to get lost.
So let’s take a look at those two and try to figure out what the Cubs were thinking.
The Cubs picked Johnson up off the scrap heap at the end of spring training in 2008 after he’d been released by the Blue Jays. He was a perfect fit for a team in need of a crazy, bald man who could play all three outfield positions, run face first into walls, hit lefties and grow ridiculous facial hair, seemingly at a moment’s notice.
He hit .303 /.358/.420 in 2008 and only threw out his back once. After making $1.9 million in 2008 (most of it paid by Toronto) the Cubs gave him a raise to $3 million last year.
He hit .255/.330/.412 in only 65 games because he hurt his back…again…then broke his foot.
He’s going to be 33 next year. His back isn’t going to get better, it’s going to get worse. He was going to get a raise in arbitration because—surprise!—everybody gets a raise in arbitration.
Now, because he’s a part-time player, even when healthy, Reed didn’t make the “A” or “B” lists for free agents. The Cubs were due no compensation if they had offered him arbitration this offseason and he signed with someone else. That also means they can still sign him if they want. They’re probably not going to. But if they do, it won’t be for $3 million.
The Cubs acquired former AL-badass Rich Harden in July of 2008 in a trade that sent a pile of minor league flotsam from the Cubs (Ginger Murton, Eric Patterson, Josh Donaldson and Sean Gallagher–he still might end up being good) to the A’s for Rich and Chad Gaudin. It sent up a red flag at the time, that the A’s were so sick of babying Harden through his chronic arm injuries that they’d trade him for THAT, and throw another big league pitcher in the deal.
And Harden did for the Cubs what he did for Oakland. When he was able to take the mound he was good (better than good in 2008, actually– 5-1, 1.77 ERA). But last offseason when the Cubs were trying to decide whether or not to pick up his 2009 option they found tearing around his right labrum. They went ahead and gave him $7 million for 2009, but it didn’t portend well for a lengthy stay in Chicago for him.
So it’s not a surprise that they didn’t offer him arbitration. Even if he was 14-10 with a 3.31 ERA in 38 starts as a Cub with an impressive 260 K’s to 97 walks in 212 innings.
Actually, it is the 212 innings that is the problem. It’s hard to justify paying a guy the $9 or $10 million he’d get in arbitration to average less than 5 2/3 innings per start, no matter how good those innings are (and, last year they weren’t all that great).
He’s already had to stop throwing one of his pitches (his slider) because of his bum shoulder and while he can be awfully dominant at times with a fastball and changeup, way too often last year he couldn’t find a suitable velocity difference between the two.
Normally, when you look at a guy with two excellent pitches you figure you can make a reliever out of him, but that doesn’t seem to be much of an option for Harden. He’s so fragile, his makes Angel Guzman’s arm seem as rubbery as Terry Mulholland’s was.
And when you look around baseball, the Cubs weren’t alone in not offering arbitration to anybody. The Dodgers, Giants, Phillies, Orioles, Diamondbacks, Brewers, Marlins, and others didn’t offer to any of their eligible players.
Why would this be? It used to be automatic. You offered arbitration to any eligible player you had that you either wanted to keep, or you felt there was a market for. Either you kept them or somebody else signed them and you got a draft pick.
It’s not so automatic now, because with teams all trying to keep payroll down, the demand isn’t there for free agents. You’re far more likely to get stuck giving a raise to guy like Johnson or Harden when they realize they’re going to be due a lot more even in a losing arbitration hearing than they can get on the open market.
Some teams just want the player to go away and not yield them a draft pick. The Cubs don’t appear to be one of those (yet).
Why? Because it can be expensive to have multiple first round (or a first round and a sandwich pick) picks. You end up having to give a signing bonus to some pimple faced 19 year old because you were given an extra draft pick. Yay?
Anybody who thinks the Cubs wouldn’t like to have Rich Harden back is daft. But they don’t want to pay him what he’d get in arbitration. Because he’s so fragile, he ends up being your fifth starter, no matter how good a season he’s having. Because he’s the guy you end up skipping from time to time, or trying to build in extra days for.
Because of a glut of non-tendered and non-arbitrated (huh?) players heading out on the market this offseason, free agent prices for all but an elite few will go down like they did last year. The Cubs eschewed taking advantage of that market by signing players too early (Milton and Miles for example.)
While you won’t be likely to sign a pitcher as talented as Harden, you can almost certainly get one who will match the production that he plus whoever has to pick up the eight or ten starts he misses (in a relatively healthy year for him) for far less than the $9 million you’d have owed him if you’d given him arbitration and he accepted.
The Cubs are not operating with an infinite payroll (which makes the two-year deal they gave John Grabow all the more infuriating), and so choosing to find cheaper options for Reed and Rich makes sense.
Now, how well they do in trying to find those two guys is another story.
And should the Cubs have known they were going to let Harden go back when the Twins claimed him on waivers, and worked out a trade for him? Probably, especially considering they had to shut him down for the season a week later. Then again, they knew what kind of shape Harden’s arm was in, and maybe they figured all trading him to the Twins for a mid-level prospect was going to accomplish was getting a mediocre player and pissing off the Twins? They might need to trade with the Twins again someday. It’s not like it’s the Cardinals or White Sox, where you actually want to fuck them over.
And that, brings me to my final, rambling point. The Cubs know the condition of Rich Harden’s arm, and it can’t be good. He’s too good a talent to just let walk away with no compensation. Unless, of course, the real way to state that is that he was too good a talent.