Five Things We Learned from Arbitration Deadline Day

Last Friday was the deadline for all 155 arbitration-eligible players who have been tendered contracts to either agree to terms with their teams, or file desired salary figures ahead of an arbitration hearing. At the hearing, an arbitrator chooses either the figure submitted by the player or by the team; they cannot choose any other dollar amount. Those hearings will take place in the coming weeks. It might not be the most exciting day of the offseason, but it is a very necessary one as we move toward spring, and it certainly results in a high volume of transactions. By our count, 140 players reached agreements; you can see them all in our Offseason Tracker. Just click on the player to find out the amounts. Here’s what we learned from the contracts that did — and did not — get signed last Friday.

Some Clarity Emerged Surrounding Potential Trades

Trade rumors continue to circle Mookie Betts, Kris Bryant, and Francisco Lindor, and determining an official salary number for 2020 could be useful in setting up potential trades. Teams aren’t going to let a few million dollars stand in the way when negotiating the trade of a superstar, but knowing that Mookie Betts will make exactly $27 million (breaking Nolan Arenado’s final-year arbitration record of $26 million) provides some clarity. It also ensures that any team that trades for him would not have to go through the arbitration process with a player they just acquired. Francisco Lindor is still two years away from free agency and his $17.5 million salary is a bargain for Cleveland, just as it would be for any team looking to trade for him. Kris Bryant’s $18.6 million figure is an exception here. While we now know what he’ll be making in 2020, his grievance against the Cubs for service time manipulation has yet to be decided, and the chance that Bryant could be a free agent after 2020 instead of 2021 will likely continue to prevent meaningful negotiations.

File and Trial Produces Settlements and Unnecessary Arbitration

Several years ago, teams began to adopt an arbitration strategy where they would elect not to negotiate single-season salaries once arbitration figures had been exchanged. This strategy, called File and Trial, meant that any agreement needed to come before the arbitration deadline. Exchanging figures was no longer another step in an attempted settlement prior to a hearing, but instead, effectively ended negotiations. The strategy was designed to spur early settlements and extract lower figures from players, as they needed to ensure that they submitted a figure likely to result in an arbitrator siding with them in a hearing. The strategy has been successful, but its utility will come into question over the coming weeks.

Settlements mean fewer contentious arbitration hearings, but it also results in quite a few hearings that don’t really seem necessary. Of the 15 players to exchange arbitration numbers, five are within $500,000 of each other and another six are within $1 million. With continued negotiation, settlements should be easy, but instead players and teams will spend time and money arguing over relatively small amounts. Teams probably view the File and Trial strategy as being worth its use by gaining favorable settlements and lower exchanged figures, but the unnecessary hearings are a bad side-effect.

Contract Extensions Are Possible

A notable exception to the File and Trial strategy is teams coming to multi-year agreements with players. There are several candidates for a contract extension this season, either for a year or two of arbitration, or for something bigger that stretches into a player’s free agent seasons. José Berríos, who filed for $4.4 million to the Twins’ $4.025 million, is one player who might agree to a deal similar to the ones Luis Severino and Aaron Nola signed a year ago. Max Muncy ($4.675 million to $4 million) and Andrew Benintendi ($4.15 million to $3.4 million) are two hitters who might be interested in bigger guarantees to at least cover a few seasons of arbitration and get a little more security. The Phillies might be interested in locking up J.T. Realmuto long-term, keeping him away from free agency at the end of the season.

Peak Arbitrariness in Arbitration Comes From Relievers

Because traditional statistics like saves pay the best in arbitration, the salary numbers for relievers don’t always match up with real life production. A few years ago, Dellin Betances was one of the best relievers in all of baseball, but likely lost his hearing because he wasn’t a closer. Even teams and players have difficulty finding the right amount to pay relievers in arbitration. Of the 15 hearings expected this year, five feature relievers, including two of the six featuring the largest salary differentials. Josh Hader has asked for $6.4 million while the Brewers submitted $4.1 million. Hader’s case will be similar to Betances’, though he will at least have one season as full-time closer. Héctor Neris finds himself on the opposite end of things, having compiled a good number of saves as a slightly above-average reliever. He’s requested $5.2 million in arbitration after making $1.8 million last year, while the Phillies have countered with $4.25 million. Shane Greene, Archie Bradley, and Pedro Báez also exchanged figures.

The Most Interesting Cases Involve Soon-To-Be Free Agents

Two of the biggest differentials between exchanged numbers came from George Springer ($22.5 million compared to $17.5 million) and J.T. Realmuto ($12.4 million to $10 million). Springer was held down in the minors for a couple weeks the year before Kris Bryant was; that service time manipulation means that Springer is a free agent after this season instead of last one. It also means that Springer went through the arbitration process four times. A two-year deal in 2018 meant no arbitration a year ago, but in his final year, Springer and his representatives are using his 39 homers and his status as a center fielder to try to top $20 million ahead of free agency. Meanwhile, Realmuto’s status as the game’s best catcher is worth way more than even the $12.4 million he’s asking for. But it is difficult to accumulate big offensive numbers as a backstop, and it can be difficult to substantiate value defensively. Joc Pederson and the Dodgers ($9.5 million to $7.75 million) were also fairly far apart in Pederson’s walk year.

Friday wasn’t the most momentous day on the offseason calendar, but the lead up to it occupies a considerable amount of time and effort for front offices and players as they prepare. The offseason has been filled with free agent signings, but very few trades. With Friday’s deadline finally out of the way, that could change in the coming weeks.

We hoped you liked reading Five Things We Learned from Arbitration Deadline Day by Craig Edwards!

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Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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When will the Bryant service time situation be resolved?

Ryan King
Ryan King

Approximately never