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St. Louis Cardinals' Marcell Ozuna is congratulated by teammates after scoring during the eighth inning of a baseball game against the Atlanta Braves, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Todd Kirkland)

Our earlier story:

In an attempt to use a deadline to spur agreement or leave salaries in the hands of three arbiters, the Cardinals have adopted the popular “file-and-trial” approach to negotiations with arbitration-eligible players. It’s a strategic shift the team made a few years ago, and it means if a deal isn’t complete sometime Friday afternoon, they’ll invite the risk of a hearing.

Should make for an active morning.

Outfielder Marcell Ozuna, pitcher Michael Wacha, and reliever Dominic Leone are all eligible for arbitration this season and have until Friday to reach agreement with the Cardinals or exchange salary figures that will be used in an arbitration hearing. The deadline is noon St. Louis time. The Cardinals are hopeful to complete one-year deals with Ozuna and Wacha and a deal with Leone before needing to exchange figures. Conversations with representatives for all three players were ongoing Thursday.

Ozuna and Wacha are entering their final year of arbitration eligibility and can be free agents next offseason. Leone is entering his second year of arbitration.

What little drama Friday’s deadline could create for the Cardinals contrasts with significant, even record-setting negotiations happening elsewhere in the majors. Colorado third baseman and perennial Gold Glove-winner Nolan Arenado is poised to score the highest arbitration salary, besting Josh Donaldson’s $23-million award and pushing arbitration figures ever higher for elite players. Arenado could command in excess of $25 million – and then become a free agent in the fall. Chicago’s Javier Baez and Cleveland’s Francisco Lindor headline a class of first-time arbitration-eligible and star-studded shortstops that also has Houston’s Carlos Correa and Colorado’s Trevor Story. National League Cy Young Award-winner Jacob deGrom is also arbitration-eligible and due a significant raise.

In this chilly market for free agents, baseball’s arbitration remains an arena where salaries can soar, even if the process itself is lumbering toward the modern game.

For a long time, teams and players would exchange salaries at the deadline and inevitably agreements would be found at the midpoint. Hearings were rare, especially in St. Louis. The Cardinals had not had one since Darren Oliver’s in 1999. The Cardinals abruptly shifted their approach before the 2017 season and adopted the “file-and-trial” stance. Their run without a hearing ended as Wacha took them to arbitration, where the Cardinals won.

A leading reason for the change was to guard against midpoint inflation – that is, agents filing a number for arbitration that they couldn’t necessarily defend in a hearing but could count on raising a midpoint deal. A majority, if not all 30 teams, have a similar strategy now, and this has the added and baseball-approved impact of slowing arbitration salary growth.

In a market where precedent sets price, that matters.

Last year there were more hearings than there had been in 20 years.

The Cardinals avoided hearings with all eligible players a year ago, finalizing deals with them on the day of the deadline. Discussions will continue past noon if necessary, but the Cardinals will go to “trial” if salary figures are exchanged.

All three of the Cardinals’ arbitration-eligible players had their most recent seasons complicated by injuries. A month after arriving via trade with Miami, Ozuna agreed to a $9-million deal to avoid a hearing a year ago, and he could see a 50-percent raise for 2019 despite shoulder trouble softening his statistics. Arbitration values everyday players, and Ozuna, 28, appeared in 148 games to go with his 23 homers, .758 OPS, and 88 RBIs. Wacha and Leone each had lengthy injuries chew into their seasons. An oblique strain cost Wacha, 27, half the year and left him with 15 starts. He agreed to a $5.3-million deal a year ago, and his 30 starts in 2017 will help assure he’ll get a significant raise.

Leone, 27, had a nerve issue that sidelined him for much of the season. He appeared in 29 games and had a 4.50 ERA in 24 innings. He will see a bump from his $1.085-million salary this past season, but not as significant because he isn’t as established in the arbitration process as the other two Cardinals.

If no agreement is reached before the deadline, the players’ agents and the Cardinals will submit salary figures to the union and Major League Baseball, respectively. Those figures will be shared with the other party. An arbitration hearing will be set in the coming month and a three-person panel will hear arguments before they can only choose one of the two salary figures.

The Cardinals had a fourth arbitration-eligible player on the active roster but they agreed to a one-year, $900,000 contract with lefty Chasen Shreve in early December.

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Derrick Goold

@dgoold on Twitter

dgoold@post-dispatch.com

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