Last week, the Chicago Cubs made the mildly surprising decision to offer arbitration to free agent first baseman Carlos Pena. Recall, the offer of arbitration to a free agent is the vehicle by which a team secures draft pick compensation should the player elect to sign elsewhere. But, the offer comes with the risk that the player will accept the offer, netting a one-year deal for money typically comparable to, or slightly higher than, what he made the previous year.
The offer to Pena was mildly surprising because it is unknown what the Cubs would like to do at first base next year. Top free agent options Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder remain on the market, and many trade avenues remain unexplored. Further, Pena has repeatedly said he loved his time in Chicago, and would like to return. He made $10 million in 2011, and might be happy to make a hair more in 2012 with the Cubs.
Adding to the mild surprise: in years past, former Cubs’ brass made it a practice of not offering arbitration to guys just like Pena, believing the risk of acceptance outweighed the possible benefit of the draft pick.
It’s possible the Cubs genuinely want Pena, 33, back. He is among the best defensive first basemen in the game, and is as good as it gets in the clubhouse – both are qualities Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have said they desire. Pena was also productive in 2011, hitting .225/.357/.462, with 28 homers and a healthy 123 OPS+.
Still, the Cubs were likely simply hoping that all of those things that make him a potentially attractive return candidate also make him a highly attractive free agent candidate – one worthy of a multiyear deal (and, knowing Pena’s agent – Scott Boras – you’ve got to believe Pena will be pushed to get as much money as he can on the market). If so, the offer of arbitration was neither risky, nor surprising. It was simply a new way of doing business.
And, it sounds like, in this instance, it was the right way of doing business.
SI’s Jon Heyman says Pena is “unlikely to accept [the Cubs'] arbitration offer,” instead believing he can cash in on his 2011 season in free agency. If Pena indeed departs, by chancing the arbitration offer, the Cubs will receive a draft pick between the first and second round in 2012.
The deadline for Pena to decide on the offer of arbitration is midnight ET on December 7, if he hasn’t already signed with another team by then. Pena is not expected to sign, however, until after Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are off the board. Even if Pena accepts the offer of arbitration, the Cubs could theoretically cut him in March (arbitration contracts are not fully guaranteed), paying him just 30 days’ pay (about $2 million, depending on his 2012 salary).
If, as expected, Pena declines the offer of arbitration, the Cubs could still negotiate a new deal with Pena. They will, after all, have a hole at first base to fill.