Bernie: Jack Flaherty Is Willing To Bet On Himself And His Future. That’s Admirable. And Risky.

I have a few thoughts on ace starter Jack Flaherty, his 2020 contract, the St. Louis Cardinals, and what’s to come.

First, let’s review the somewhat boring basics, which are important.

The Cardinals and Flaherty could not agree on a salary for 2020. When a team and its young, pre-arbitration player can’t settle on mutually agreeable terms, the team has 100 percent of the leverage. The team has the authority to unilaterally assign a salary. (“Impose” a salary is probably a more accurate characterization.)

That’s how it works in the Collective Bargaining Agreement between the owners and the MLB Players Association.

That may seem harsh, but the players’ union signed off on a system that leaves pre-arb players without control over the process. Except for this: refuse to accept the team’s salary offer for the coming season as a form of protest. And at that point, the team can impose a salary and attach a penalty.

Flaherty has rejected the Cardinals’ proposed salary for two consecutive springs. In each instance, the Cardinals stayed within the CBA guidelines to earmark a salary of their choosing. And in both cases they subtracted $10,000 from Flaherty’s salary as a penalty for rejecting their offer.

This time, however, the Cardinals added a $10,000 bonus for Flaherty’s fourth-place finish in the 2019 NL Cy Young voting — which erases the penalty amount — and Flaherty will make $604,500 this season.

The good news for Flaherty: he won’t have to go through this next spring. Flaherty is arbitration eligible in 2021, 2022 and 2023. His salaries will escalate. And he’ll be eligible for unfettered free agency before the 2024 season.

Unless, of course, Flaherty signs an early contract extension that covers his final year of arbitration — or buys out his first opportunity to test free agency.

OK, here’s what I think …

1. Flaherty has the right to reject the Cardinals’ offer. And he explained that he did so out of “principle” as to register his opposition to the current system. For two years in a row, Flaherty wanted to make sure everyone understands that he doesn’t blame the Cardinals for operating within the established framework of the CBA agreement. His complaint is directed at the current system.

2. With all due respect to Flaherty — and I absolutely respect his dissent — he needs to band together with other young players and push the MLB Players Association to come up with a more advantageous labor agreement that will provide enhanced salaries … salaries that come a lot closer to representing the proper value for their performance. If the MLBPA wants to keep going along with tight salary restrictions on young players, then Flaherty (and others) must make their feelings known. Don’t speak out against the system; take a stand and change the system. The current CBA expires after the 2021 season.

3. The Cardinals’ established policy of deducting $10,000 from a young player’s salary seems petty to me. Especially when it concerns a starting pitcher who enhanced the Cardinals with 347 innings, a 3.01 ERA, 30 percent strikeout rate and 7.0 WAR over the past two seasons.

4. Penalty aside, the Cardinals hardly stand alone in imposing salaries. It just happened with the Washington Nationals and their star outfielder, Juan Soto. When the two sides couldn’t agree on terms for 2020, the Nats meted out a $629,400 salary for Soto. Isn’t that lowball pay for a sensational all-around talent that gave the Nationals 34 homers, 32 doubles, 110 RBIs and a .949 OPS last season. And didn’t Soto put up five homers, 14 RBIs and a .967 OPS during the Nationals’ October march to the World Series title? Why, yes. Soto did all of that. But the current CBA enables teams to keep a tight lock on re-arb salaries. Again: if that’s unacceptable, then the players’ union has to fight for enhanced terms during the next CBA negotiations.

5. After a team imposes a one-year salary on a young player, it’s still possible for the team and player to work out a long-term contract extension ahead of schedule — years in advance of free agency. Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. had his contract renewed at $560,000 before signing an eight-year, $100 million extension with the Braves. Houston renewed Alex Bregman at $640,500, then negotiated a six-year, $100 million extension with the Astros.

6. The Cardinals have a credible track record in this area, having doled out lucrative early-career extensions for Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina, Adam Wainwright, Kolten Wong, Lance Lynn, Carlos Martinez, Paul DeJong, Matt Carpenter and Stephen Piscotty.

7. Cardinals management is certainly interested in reaching such a deal with Flaherty. But those preliminary discussions didn’t advance. (And I have no idea what kind of money we’re talking about.) But Flaherty obviously thought he could do better by investing in his talent. Instead of settling now — and relinquishing the chance to dive into free agency at the earliest possible date — it’s safe to assume he’s willing to bet on himself. And that a massive contract will come his way, when he has the first chance to grab it. After watching Gerrit Cole sign a free-agent deal with the Yankees for $324 million this past offseason, we can understand why Flaherty wants to play the long game and maximize his value.

8. That said, there’s a lot of pitches to be thrown between now and the conclusion of the 2023 season, And that’s a big risk for Flaherty. Including his arbitration-eligible years, he’ll be under the Cardinals’ contractual control for four seasons. I hate to say this, but what if Flaherty is halted by shoulder or elbow injuries? Unfortunately, all pitchers face these potential career hazards.

9. For every Gerrit Cole and his incredible jackpot, there are dozens and dozens of Michael Wacha cautionary tales. Remember what Wacha did for the Cardinals as a rookie in 2013? He extended his late-season surge by delivering one of the best postseason pitching performances in franchise history.

But Wacha was under club control for six seasons after that. After making $490,000 in 2013, his salary was bumped to $510,000 in 2014, then $520,000 in 2015, and $539,000 in 2016. In his three arbitration seasons Wacha averaged around $4.9 million per year. That’s obviously good money — but it isn’t the point. Beginning in 2014, Wacha was frequently bothered by weakness in his right shoulder blade, and never could match his peak-form 2013. Eligible for free agency after last season, Wacha signed with the Mets for 2020, accepting a one-year deal for $3 million.

Again: plenty of money. But when we watched Wacha’s spectacular performance in 2013, we were left with at least three impressions: (1) this dude could develop into one of all-time greats for the Cardinals; (2) he’ll make a large fortune when he reaches the free-agent market, and (3) the Cardinals have to work fast and get Wacha signed to an enormous deal that will keep him in St. Louis for a very long time.

Sadly, it didn’t work out that way for Wacha. A chronic shoulder issue prevented him from being right there with Gerrit Cole at the front of the free-agent line for starting pitchers this past offseason.

10. Final thing: the Flaherty-Cardinals situation shouldn’t lead to long-term tension or the souring of a relationship. To repeat: Flaherty is frustrated by the system. And as noted earlier, Flaherty is betting on his future. If he stays healthy and maintains his dominant form over the next four seasons, he can name his price as a first-time free-agent. At that point, the Cardinals will have to pay Flaherty or lose Flaherty.  He’ll have all of the leverage.

If it comes to that … I have to say, the idea that Flaherty would settle for considerably less money from St. Louis and turn down substantially higher free-agent offers just because the Cardinals gave him a little extra salary sweetener in his early years … well, that’s laughable.

Thanks for reading…

–Bernie