Friday is the deadline for teams to tender a contract to their arbitration-eligible players. That’s the fancy, formal way of saying that teams have to decide, by Friday, if they’d like to keep their arbitration-eligible players (generally, guys with more than three years experience, but fewer than six years) by way of the arbitration process, which typically gives the players a raise over their salary from the previous year. The Cubs have five arbitration-eligible players – Matt Garza, Jeff Samardzija, James Russell, Luis Valbuena, and Ian Stewart – each of whom is relatively certain to be tendered a contract on Friday.
Except Stewart. The Cubs’ 2012 third baseman played just a couple months of defensively proficient, but offensively deficient, baseball before succumbing to a wrist injury that had troubled him for a good portion of 2011. He recently had successful surgery on the wrist, and recovering well. The Cubs are monitoring that recovery, and keeping a dialog open with him in advance of Friday’s deadline.
“We’re still talking to Ian,” Hoyer said, per Carrie Muskat. “We got a report today on his wrist and how he’s doing. He’s taking light batting practice, hitting balls off a tee and it seems like the wrist is progressing nicely. We’ll continue those conversations throughout the week. There’s a decision to be made at the end of the week. We’ve had a good dialogue with Ian and Larry Reynolds, his agent, and we’ll continue to do that for the next three or four days.”
All things considered, retaining Stewart’s services might not be as crazy as we once all thought. The Cubs don’t have a third baseman standing at the ready, and the market isn’t exactly overflowing with obviously better (similarly-priced) options.
But does that mean the Cubs have to tender him a contract on Friday? Not necessarily.
On the one hand, tendering him a contract guarantees that the Cubs will keep Stewart through 2013. On the other hand, it guarantees that he’ll make a healthy amount – relatively speaking – in arbitration. Stewart earned $2.24 million in 2012, and, because of the nature of arbitration, stands to earn a raise through that process in 2013. Technically, players’ salaries can be cut in arbitration up to 20%, but a reduction is extraordinarily rare. Stewart did not perform particularly well in 2012, but he gained service time, and would probably see an increase in salary to about $2.3 to $2.5 million.
If the Cubs non-tender Stewart, however, they can try and sign him to a lesser deal, but they’ll be competing with the market at large at that point. In other words, the moment he is non-tendered, he becomes a free agent. Are we certain that there isn’t a team out there, given the lack of third base options, willing to guarantee Stewart a couple million bucks? After all, he offers quality defense and, who knows, maybe the surgery finally did fix his wrist issue.
There is, fortunately, another option here. The Cubs could try and sign Stewart to a deal before Friday’s deadline. By taking that avenue, the Cubs do not risk losing Stewart to the open market, but could still try and shave some money off of what Stewart would receive if they tendered him a contract and went through the arbitration process. The offer could look something like this: “Ian, we’re prepared to offer you $1.25 million for 2013, or we’re going to non-tender you on Friday, and you’ll have to take your chances on the open market.” There’s risk there, sure, but at least then there’s a chance of holding onto a piece that could become an under-market asset. And Stewart did previously tweet that he’d take $1.5 million to return to the Cubs.
For what it’s worth, I’ve heard some chatter that this approach is one that the Cubs would like to take. That squares with the fact that the Cubs have kept him on the roster this long – if they weren’t at least thinking of keeping him, why not DFA him last week and protect another player from the Rule 5 Draft?
That all said, the money isn’t the only issue when it comes to tendering Stewart a contract. The 40-man roster remains an issue as well.
The Stewart decision (and potentially the Luis Valbuena decision) is complicated by the fact that the Cubs are reportedly pursuing Jeff Keppinger, who would presumably get a look at starting at third base for the Cubs to start out 2013. Not only would that make Stewart less viable as a return option, it would also make keeping him on the 40-man more difficult – it already stands at 40, including Stewart. To add Keppinger (and any other free agents), the Cubs would have to remove someone. However, if the Cubs can get Stewart to agree to a one-year deal before Friday’s deadline, for an amount less than what he would receive in arbitration, they might be wise to do so. Yes, the roster spot remains an issue, but one easily enough resolved by removing a fringy player or two.
In the end, given the dearth of talent on the third base market, the Cubs might not be willing to risk losing an upside player like Stewart. He remains just 27-years-old, and is coming off of a surgery that may have finally rectified the issues that plagued him the last two years. What are the Cubs really risking by keeping him? They aren’t blocking a better third base option. They aren’t tying up a huge chunk of funds.
That’s why, if the Cubs figure out a way to bring Stewart back – even if they tender him a contract on Friday – I’m probably not going to be too troubled by it. In fact, now that we have a better sense of the plans for 2013 and of the free agent market, it might be the best option.