For the most part, teams and players settle at a midpoint after they exchange arbitration figures.
It’s usually a fairly ho-hum process, unless you have a player like Mookie Betts, the highest-profile arbitration case this year, who sometime in the next two years (that’s how long the Red Sox have him under control before free agency) will hit the jackpot and likely get into that absurd $300 million-$400 million price range.
What’s interesting about this one is that the Red Sox decided to go through with an arbitration hearing last February. They lost with their $7.5 million figure. Betts was awarded $10.5 million.
So with the deadline to exchange figures coming up Friday, the options are the same: 1. sign Betts to a long-term deal; 2. work out a midpoint; 3. go to another hearing.
There’s always a perception that going to a hearing creates bad blood between the team and the player, but it didn’t seem to get contentious last year with Betts, who either did a great job of hiding his anger or understood that arbitration is to his benefit and that the team needs to defend the number it submits, sometimes with negative numbers or comments in the hearing.
One player who took things personally last year was Toronto pitcher Marcus Stroman. He was seeking $6.9 million. The Jays offered $6.5 million. Stroman lost. After the hearing, he tweeted, “The negative things that were said against me, by my own team, will never leave my mind. I’m thick-skinned so it will only fuel the fire.”
The “fire” it fueled led to a 4-9 record with a 5.54 ERA in 19 starts in an injury-filled season. Stroman didn’t seem very “thick-skinned.”
Economist Matt Swartz, who has a model for estimating arbitration salaries for MLBTradeRumors.com, pegs Betts’s jump this year from $10.5 million to $18.7 million. So if Betts doesn’t want to negotiate a long-term deal before he hits free agency, which has been the case so far, he would likely be happy with that figure.
Not sure the Red Sox want to go into a hearing with Betts anyway. The circumstances are different now. Betts wasn’t coming off his best season in 2017. But now it’s hard to argue against the league MVP on a team that won the World Series. But we don’t yet know what Betts’s figure is.
Suffice to say, the Red Sox have other big fish in arbitration.
According to Swartz’s projections, Xander Bogaerts could go from $7.05 million to $11.9 million; Jackie Bradley Jr. from $6.1 million to $7.9 million; Eduardo Rodriguez from $2.375 million to $4.8 million; Brock Holt from $2.225 million to $3.4 million; Sandy Leon from $1.95 million to $2.3 million; Matt Barnes from $605,000 to $1.5 million; Brandon Workman from $835,000 to $1.4 million; Steven Wright from $1.1 million to $1.4 million; and Blake Swihart from $563,500 to $1.1 million.
That would be payroll hell for the Red Sox — more than $20 million of additional salary.
Now, the Sox will likely try to negotiate longer-term deals with Bogaerts and perhaps Bradley. And, again, most players settle.
The highest salaries given to avoid a hearing belong to Braves third baseman Josh Donaldson, who was paid $23 million by the Blue Jays last year, and Bryce Harper, who got $21.65 million from the Nationals.
David Price got $19.75 million from the Tigers in 2015, which at the time was a record. Prince Fielder got $15.5 million from the Brewers in 2011 and Max Scherzer got $15.25 million from the Tigers in 2014.
So yes, arbitration can be expensive. And then comes free agency.
It’s interesting to note what the collective bargaining agreement says about what criteria can be used in a hearing:
“The quality of the Player’s contribution to his Club during the past season (including but not limited to his overall performance, special qualities of leadership and public appeal), the length and consistency of his career contribution, the record of the Player’s past compensation, comparative baseball salaries, the existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the Player, and the recent performance record of the Club including but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance.
“Except as set forth in subsections 10(b) and 10(c), any evidence may be submitted which is relevant to the above criteria, and the arbitration panel shall assign such weight to the evidence as shall appear appropriate under the circumstances.
“The arbitration panel shall, except for a Player with five or more years of Major League service, give particular attention, for comparative salary purposes, to the contracts of Players with Major League service not exceeding one annual service group above the Player’s annual service group.
“This shall not limit the ability of a Player or his representative, because of special accomplishment, to argue the equal relevance of salaries of Players without regard to service, and the arbitration panel shall give whatever weight to such argument as is deemed appropriate.
“Evidence of the following shall not be admissible: The financial position of the Player and the Club; Press comments, testimonials or similar material bearing on the performance of either the Player or the Club, except that recognized annual Player awards for playing excellence shall not be excluded. Offers made by either Player or Club prior to arbitration. The cost to the parties of their representatives, attorneys, etc. Salaries in other sports or occupations; admissible statistics; only publicly available statistics shall be admissible. For purposes of this provision, publicly available statistics shall include data available through subscription-only websites (e.g. Baseball Prospectus). Statistics and data generated through the use of performance technology, wearable technology, or ‘STATCAST,’ whether publicly available or not, shall not be admissible.”
Neither teams nor agents really like having to go to a hearing, though paying outside counsel for them has become less expensive than it was, say, five years ago because teams now have large analytics staffs.
We’ll see where the Betts hearing goes. But there will likely be no downside for him.