Acknowledging the flaws in the system, Cardinals’ Helsley takes arbitration loss in stride

The Cardinals’ closer will earn $2.15 million in 2023.
Ryan Helsley meets with reporters to discuss the outcome of his arbitration hearing against the...
Ryan Helsley meets with reporters to discuss the outcome of his arbitration hearing against the St. Louis Cardinals, February 17, 2023.(Brenden Schaeffer)
Published: Feb. 17, 2023 at 12:11 AM CST
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JUPITER, Fla. (KMOV) - On the same day that former Cy Young Award winner Corbin Burnes made waves in Brewers camp by voicing his displeasure with the way his salary arbitration situation played out, a prominent Cardinal lost his own arbitration hearing.

Ryan Helsley lost his hearing against St. Louis in his first year of salary arbitration Thursday. He will earn $2.15 million for the upcoming season after filing unsuccessfully at $3 million.

Despite a 9-1 record, 19 saves and a 1.25 ERA for Helsley last season, the Cardinals were evidently able to successfully argue their case as to why one of the best relievers in baseball in 2022 isn’t worth the $3 million that his representation sought in the arbitration process.

Speaking with reporters at spring training in Jupiter on Friday, Helsley took the arbitration loss in stride.

“If the worst thing that happens to me is that I make $2 million and not three, I’ll be all right,” Helsley said. “I just try to be thankful for the opportunities that I have and cherish them all while I have them.”

The only issue for Helsley⁠—as has been the case for many players who have gone through the arbitration system⁠—was the uncomfortable nature of the head-to-head hearing process that pits teams against their players.

“It’s definitely tough,” Helsley said. “You don’t understand it until you experience it, like a lot of things in life.”

After the upcoming season, Helsley has two more years of arbitration eligibility before free agency. The Milwaukee ace Burnes⁠—who lost his case to the Brewers and will earn $750,000 less in salary this season as a result⁠—is a bit closer to free agency than Helsley.

After Thursday, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Burnes take advantage of that opportunity when it arrives. He shared with reporters that part of the Brewers’ strategy in the hearing included assigning blame to Burnes for the team missing the playoffs last season.

That, of course, is one of the craziest accusations imaginable. Was it Burnes’ sub-3.00 ERA, league-leading strikeout total, or his 200-inning workload that cost the Brewers the NL Central?

“I don’t know how a guy like him loses a case like that,” Helsley said. “He’s been a Cy Young guy for three years, how does a guy like him walk in there and lose? I had one great year but that guy’s been on top of the world for three years. So it’s a crazy system. I don’t understand it and unfortunately, it doesn’t benefit the players. But it is what it is and you just have to roll with it.”

Helsley acknowledged that he had a pretty good idea going into the hearing what some of the bullet points were that the team might use against him in their argument.

“I feel like in life you’ve got to be a pretty good self-evaluator. So just looking back and thinking about some of the negatives on my career so far, I kind of knew where they were going to come from.

“They’re just really good at diving into those types of things,” he added with a chuckle.

Helsley explained that concerns over his durability came up in the hearing. The Cardinals were particular about his usage in 2022 with an eye on preserving his physical health for the long haul.

The current system opens the door for teams to turn around and use those types of strategies against the player when it pertains to his salary for the following year.

“I definitely think there are things that could be avoided,” Helsley said. “It’s a relationship, right? It’s a business and you don’t want to make your employees mad no matter what business you’re in, so that’s definitely tough. I think there are some ways they could go about it. Maybe not attack players so personally, for sure.”

Helsley wondered if the league and the players could come up with a system involving an algorithm based on performance and service time to determine salaries for arbitration-eligible players⁠—thus avoiding that uncomfortable confrontation between player and team.

At the end of the day, though, Helsley articulated that there were no hard feelings on his end. He wants to focus on the things he can control. After addressing the elephant in the room with reporters at Friday’s camp, Helsley is ready to focus on following up his tremendous 2022 with another strong campaign this season.

“Yesterday is history, right?” Helsley said. “So just take each day as a new opportunity. I’m committed to this team, to go out there and help us win games. That’s all you can ask for. I’m just excited to get out and help the guys this year.”