One of the more underrated and under-appreciated aspects of the MLB offseason is arbitration — when a team and a player each submit an annual salary number and an independent party decides which salary correctly values the player. The process can be costly in terms of money and the team’s relationship with the player as well. The Cards have five players arbitration-eligible in the 2012-13 offseason: relievers Marc Rzepczynski, Edward Mujica, Mitchell Boggs, and Jason Motte, and third baseman David Freese. The question with these players won’t be whether the Cardinals should retain them for the 2013 season, but rather which players they should negotiate with before heading to arbitration.

David Freese (’12 salary: $508,000): Freese has by far the most to gain from going to arbitration. His strong 2012 season — Freese hit .293 with 20 homers, 79 RBIs, and a .372 OBP — combined with an extraordinary 2011 postseason in which he was the NLCS MVP and World Series MVP will give Freese a great chance of winning his arbitration hearing. In other words, as long as the salary figure submitted by Freese isn’t obscenely unreasonable, he will most likely win the case and be awarded the salary that he wants. Thus, the Cards have a large incentive to negotiate with Freese before heading to arbitration — doing so would allow the Cards to pay Freese a salary that is more club-friendly.

Jason Motte (’12 salary: $1,950,000): Motte’s 42 saves and 2.75 ERA reveal a solid 2012 campaign for the Cards closer. However, he did blow seven saves and is already being paid a respectable salary for a 30-year-old reliever who has closed for less than two seasons. Motte could gain from going to arbitration, but if he does his salary is unlikely to be considerably higher than what it was last season.

Mitchell Boggs (’12 salary: $506,000): Boggs was a lights-out setup reliever for the majority of the 2012 season. Boggs’ emergence solidified a questionable Cardinal bullpen, as he recorded 34 holds over 78 appearances that included a 23-game scoreless streak. Boggs can earn a significant salary increase in arbitration, but he is still relatively unproven despite his breakout ’12 season — Boggs hadn’t pitched to less than a 3.56 ERA in any of his previous three big league seasons. The Cards can afford for Boggs to go to arbitration because even if his salary does go up significantly compared to last season’s, it will still be relatively reasonable.

Edward Mujica (’12 salary: $1,625,000): Mujica was fantastic after coming over from Miami at the trade deadline. Mujica recorded 18 holds and a 1.03 ERA over 29 appearances for the Cards. Mujica is a legitimate big-league pitcher and showed his value to the Cards as a reliable 7th-inning reliever. However, the Cards shouldn’t sweat going to arbitration over Mujica — despite his impressive stats with the Cards, Mujica is still just a middle inning reliever, meaning he will realistically be eligible for less of a raise than an every day player, starting pitcher, or closer would be.

Marc Rzepczynski (’12 salary: $501,000): Rzepczynski has the least leverage of any arbitration-eligible Cardinal. Rzepczynski had a disappointing 2012 season to the tune of a 4.24 ERA. Rzepczynski is mostly a situational reliever brought in to face just left-handed hitters. While a situational lefty is a valuable commodity for any team, it is also a role that can be easily replicated either via free agency or within the Cardinal organization. Sam Freeman and prospect John Gast may compete with Rzepczynski for the lefty specialist role in Spring Training regardless of what happens at arbitration. Thus, the Cards may be willing to head to arbitration with Rzepczynski in order to settle on a salary that might be cheaper than what they would get by negotiating. The Cards want to go to arbitration, but Rzepczynski will probably want to negotiate instead.