Before introducing the centerpiece of their offseason and new focal point of their lineup to the home crowd this weekend at the Winter Warm-Up, the Cardinals reached an agreement with Marcell Ozuna on his salary for the coming season just before Friday’s arbitration deadline struck.
The Cardinals, who have adopted a “file and trial” approach to arbitration negotiations the past two years, finalized contracts with Ozuna and two other eligible players Friday and will avoid going to a hearings next month. Ozuna and pitchers Michael Wacha and Tyler Lyons all agreed to one-year deals. Randal Grichuk had finalized his one-year, $2.6 million deal Thursday.
Acquired last month from Miami, Ozuna received the largest raise of the group with a $9 million salary for the coming year, according to a source. The agreement represents a $5.5 million bump for the two-time All-Star after his breakout season with a career-high 37 homers and 124 RBIs, and it was in line with the raises other sluggers with similar service time received. Wacha, in his second bite at arbitration, agreed to a $5.3 million deal, and Lyons, a first-time arbitration player, received a $1.2 million agreement.
The Cardinals only discussed one-year deals with the players.
For Ozuna and the Cardinals, the arbitration process could have represented a curious start to a new and important relationship, especially if the two sides did not come to an agreement before Friday’s deadline. At that point, the team and the agent would have exchanged salary figures and — even if they were close — the Cardinals would have, by policy, gone to a hearing.
“Marcell had a great year, and it really is an easy conversation to be had when we all agree with that beginning point — that Marcell had a great year,” Cardinals general manager Michael Girsch said. “So it’s just a matter then of where he slots in to the arbitration process. The conversation really is easy at this point because it is about a great year and then how he fits.”
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Ozuna and Wacha, both of whom were second-time eligible, had their salaries based on their recent season, while Lyons, as a first-timer, was able to use his entire career so far to establish his salary. Ozuna won both the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove for left field — awards he’ll receive Sunday at the 60th annual St. Louis Baseball Writers’ Dinner — and he hit .312 with a career-best .548 slugging percentage. Wacha established himself with a 30-start season, a 4.13 ERA and a 12-9 record. His durability and 165 2/3 innings helped his case.
A year ago, Wacha was involved in the Cardinals’ first arbitration hearing since 1999. The team won, arguing that Wacha’s salary should be $2.775 million.
He was the player who signaled a pivot for a team that had previously been willing to negotiate even after salaries were exchanged. Internally, the Cardinals call the approach “file and go,” and they are now one of the dozen or so teams that have a strict policy of going to hearings if they don’t have an agreement before exchanging salaries. An exception was made a year ago because a multi-year deal had been negotiated with pitcher Carlos Martinez.
Girsch said at this point “file and go” is the team’s standard policy.
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Throughout baseball, Friday was a record-setting day. Josh Donaldson, whom the Cardinals have pursued via trade this winter, agreed to a one-year, $23 million deal with Toronto. That is record high for an arbitration-eligible player. Cubs third baseman and former MVP Kris Bryant also set an arbitration record with a one-year, $10.85 million contract. That surpassed the previous record for a first-time arbitration player of $10 million, set by St. Louis native Ryan Howard before the 2008 season. Ozuna was able to compare himself favorably to Oakland slugger Khris Davis and, statistically, Baltimore infielder Manny Machado. Ozuna’s $5.5 million raise was exactly that same as Davis received earlier in the week, up to $10.5 million.
By agreeing to deals before Friday’s deadline, the Cardinals have certainty in their payroll. Girsch said it puts the number, right now, “in bold,” but that the arbitration-based salaries were not so significant that the team needed finality to pursue other options.
The Cardinals remain aware of the free-agent market and could be moved to make a play for a pitcher. The team has had discussions with the agent for starter Jake Arrieta, though the Cardinals’ interest in the former Cy Young Award winner appears to be based on him accepting a shorter-term contract that he’s chasing with other suitors. The Cardinals are also open to adding a late-inning reliever before spring training. The Cardinals did explore trades for third basemen this winter, and Friday on MLB Network former Tampa Bay third baseman Evan Longoria said trade discussions involving him came down to the Giants and Cardinals.
The Rays completed a deal with San Francisco.
“We’re still trying to get better,” Girsch said. “Really, that doesn’t ever stop until the second trade deadline (in August) because you’re always looking for that next way to improve the team. We are still looking.”
The removal of 1,000 seats from the right-field tiers at Busch Stadium has cleared the way for the Budweiser Terrace, the Cardinals announced formally Friday. The construction project and plan to create a wide-open mixing area for fans had been reported last month by the Post-Dispatch, before the Cardinals had a title sponsor finalized for the area.
The multi-level, 20,000-square-foot open area is inspired by similar and successful open seating areas at Denver’s Coors Field and San Diego’s Petco Park. Like those parks, the Busch Stadium terrace will include full-service bars, tabletops and lounges for gathering, and even an urban garden, according to the team. The terrace will be open to all fans and it will not require a special ticket.