Americans love looking ahead. Magazines come out a month before their printed date. People put up Christmas decorations the day after Halloween. Prediction models like Baseball Prospectus’ famed PECOTA have never been more popular. In that spirit, it is not too early to look at “non-free agent” arbitration eligible players, or players that have between two and six years of service time. Entering the off-season, there were 165 such players eligible for arbitration (Danys Baez was another with less than six years of service time, but he was a free agent, so we won’t include him). Since that time, several players have been retained in one way or another by their former clubs - Jason Jennings, Miguel Ojeda, Damaso Marte, John Parrish, Ross Gload, Ramon Santiago, and Brian Shouse. As such, there are now only 158 potential arbitration cases this winter. The coming weeks will some players non-tendered and see most of the remaining players agree to terms with their employers.
Before we get to the players, let’s go through a couple of the need-to-knows about arbitration.
In a player's first time through the arbitration process, his career is weighted almost as heavily as his platform year, with his platform year defined as the most recent season. However, in each subsequent time through arbitration the platform season is considered almost exclusively. In addition, few things matter more than playing time. If a player is sent to the minors, traded, or lands on the disabled list, those situations are generally marks against the player. The other key to keep in mind is that the arbitration process is governed by what front offices call “comps”, or comparable players. Each side, team and agent, is trying to find the most favorable comps that they can use to their advantage. Finally, the comps generally do not go back further than four to five years. Arbiters want to be able to use comparisons from the same time period, as there are different elements that comprise each era of the game. As such, you will not see Barry Bonds used as a comp for Miguel Cabrera or see Mike Piazza used as a comp for Joe Mauer. As valid as those comparisons may be in the real world, they matter little in the arbitration room. For a more detailed description of the ins and outs of the process, see Tom Gorman’s piece over at BP (subscription required)
Here is a quick breakdown of the number of remaining arbitration eligible players:
By Service Time:
- 2-3 yrs – 13
- 3-4 yrs – 62
- 4-5 yrs – 50
- 5-6 yrs – 33
- Relief Pitcher – 53
- Corner (1B, DH, 3B, LF, RF) – 40
- Starting Pitcher – 29
- Middle (2B, SS, CF) – 25
- Catcher – 11
29 of the 30 teams have arbitration eligible players this season. Can you guess which team doesn’t? If you guessed the geriatric Giants, well you’d be right! Even the aging Yankees, have one player eligible (Aaron Guiel). Other teams at the bottom of the spectrum include the Cubs, Reds, and Marlins (3 each), and the Red Sox and Padres (2 each). Teams with the most opportunities to see the arbitration room are the A’s (11 players), D’Backs (10), Astros (9), the Pirates (8) and Orioles (7). Below is an overview of some of the arbitration eligible players, broken down into specific groups.
The “No Comp” Group:
This is the most exclusive group, consisting of only two players – Miguel Cabrera (3.101 years service time) and Joe Mauer (3.000). The “best” comparable players for Cabrera are guys like Adam Dunn, Morgan Ensberg, and J.D. Drew. However, none of them can match Cabrera’s combination of GP, AB, 2B, HR, R, RBI, AVG, OBP, and SLG. The only weakness in Cabrera’s game is stolen bases, but the overall strength of his game is head and shoulders above the rest. The one player that would theoretically compare would be Albert Pujols, as their numbers are very close. However, Pujols basically gets thrown out the window due to the fact that he signed his huge seven year, $100 million contract extension and thus never went through the arbitration process. Cabrera could very well hit the $7 million mark, a figure almost unheard of for a 3+ player.
Mauer is otherworldly as well, though his numbers are held down by a lack of games played in relation to his three “best” comps – A.J. Pierzynski, Jason LaRue, and Brian Schneider. Mauer has played in only 306 games, as opposed to 430, 419, and 388 games for the other three respectively. However, looking at rate stats we see Mauer has a .870 OPS, while the other three are between .720 and .788, almost a full 100 point gap. And while Pierzynski had a .301 AVG at the same point in his career, LaRue clocked in at .236 and Schneider .252. Finally, Mauer is the complete package, as he plays excellent defense. This is an important consideration for Mauer, as catcher is the only position where arbiters are used to hearing arguments based on the player’s defense.
Both of these cases are interesting to everyone in the game not only because they will help set a new benchmark for corner players and catchers, but also because both have a decent chance to end up in the arb room. With the free agent explosion, it is less likely that Cabrera and Mauer will reach accords for long-term deals. Long-term deals would be more likely to reflect current market conditions. That leaves the possibility of working out a one year contract to avoid arbitration, but given the case that both players have, they have little incentive to make a deal that might cost them millions.
The Elite Group:
A number of players will be getting a pretty hefty raise this off-season, whether or not they see the arbitration room. Players like Dontrelle Willis (3.143), Carlos Zambrano (5.042), Justin Morneau (2.168), Matt Holliday (3.000), and Chase Utley (3.027) have had elite seasons and above average careers to date. While these players are standouts in one area or another, their careers are not so far above their peers that they do not have players to which they compare. Willis is in the same neck of the woods as Freddy Garcia and Carlos Zambrano. Morneau is of particular interest, as he is not only a “Super 2” player but he also won the MVP award in his platform season, a rare feat. But he also just one season removed from his paltry .239/.304/.437 line of 2005. He and Holliday fit into the group of comps discussed above for Miguel Cabrera. Utley doesn’t quite have the perfect comp from a career perspective. He has more discipline than Alfonso Soriano, and more power than guys like Brian Roberts and Jimmy Rollins. He is better than these players in certain career categories (OPS, RBI) but not in others. Soriano has more career homers, while Soriano, Roberts, and Rollins have more hits and steals, and Soriano and Roberts also have more runs scored. Morgan Ensberg (4.095) might have fit with this group after his 2005 campaign, but after seeing his 2006 production, 2005 may well turn out to be his career year.
The “Other High Risers” Group:
While not elite or incomparable, there are some second tier players up for arbitration for the first time who are likely to see their salaries skyrocket in 2007. They have been earning the league minimum, but now could see their salary shoot upwards of $2.5 million. That may not seem like a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but for these players that can represent a 700-800% raise in salary. Guys like Adam LaRoche (3.000), Khalil Greene (3.027), Chris Capuano (3.045), and Bill Hall (3.099) fit in this category. Hall actually has a case to be included in the elite group, but due to his being a bit older than his peer group and the fact that he has not been consistently an elite performer – he only hit .238/.276/.374 in 390 AB’s in 2004 – it is harder to justify his inclusion.
The “Notables” Group:
Some players are simply interesting due to their situation. Aaron Rowand (5.065) of the Philadelphia Phillies is one example. Rowand finished the end of a two-year, $5.5 million deal that he signed while he was still a member of the White Sox. It had both a club and player option for 2007 - $3.25 million for Rowand and $5 million for the Phillies. The interesting turn was that both options were declined. Rowand, as a center-fielder or “middle” player, will likely be worth more than that heading into his final year of arbitration since he made the identical $3.25 million this season. However, it is curious that the Phillies declined his option. While it is true that Rowand didn’t have a great platform season offensively in 2006, that is tempered by the fact that he plays outstanding defense, and was injured on a play – the now famous wall crashing catch versus the Mets - that his agents will claim is the team’s responsibility. While he may not end up worth the full $5 million of his option, what is the value of spending additional time just to shave $500,000 to $1,000,000 off his 2007 contract?
Other notable cases include Brett Myers (4.068) and Mark Prior (4.131). Myers isn’t quite an elite pitcher. He had a fairly mediocre first two seasons, compiling an 18-14 record with a 4.38 ERA. He then followed that up with a dreadful 11-11, 5.52 ERA campaign in 2004. While he has broken through these past two seasons, compiling a 25-15 record and a 3.81 ERA, his 2006 season was marred by allegations of spousal abouse, stemming from an incident with his wife while the Phillies were in Boston. While character issues are not commonplace in the arbitration room, Myers could be that rare case where it does come into play. This is a situation that both player and team would like to avoid however, so expect this one to be finished as quietly as possible. Lastly, there is Prior. He still possesses excellent career numbers - a 42-29 record, 3.51 ERA, 757 K’s in 657 IP and a K:BB ratio better than 3:1. However, 2006 was a forgettable season for Prior. He only threw 43 2/3 innings, posting a 7.21 ERA and a 1-7 record. While he did strike out 38 batters, he also walked 28, well below his usual standards. It is most definitely to the Cubs advantage to settle this with Prior before a hearing can take place. Since Prior earned $3.65 million last season, he is unlikely to earn much less than that in a hearing, but at this point he probably isn’t worth that much. The way the Cubs have tossed around money this off-season the point may be moot, but it will be interesting to see what happens with Prior nonetheless.
The Closers Group:
Last year only Shawn Chacon filed for arbitration, and technically he was only a closer for one season. However, this year there are seven closers up for arbitration: Jose Valverde (3.090), Brad Lidge (4.043), Francisco Rodriguez (4.015), Chad Cordero (3.030), J.J. Putz (3.022), Akinori Otsuka (3.000), and Mike Gonzalez (3.014). A closer is defined for the arbitration process as any relief pitcher who accumulates 10 or more saves in a given season. Under that definition, Putz, Otsuka, and Gonzalez were first time qualifiers at closer and are unlikely to earn as much as Valverde, Lidge, K-Rod, and Cordero, who have been closers for the bulk of their careers.
The “No Play” Group:
There are several players up for arbitration who either did not play or played sparingly in 2006. In most cases, the player’s platform year is the ultimate factor in how much a player can earn in arbitration, so these players have a tough road ahead of them. At the extreme end are players who haven’t played since 2004 - Grant Balfour (3.069) and Rick Ankiel (3.152) – and the players who haven’t played since 2005 – Jody Gerut (3.118), Jayson Werth (3.102), and John Parrish (4.103). Then there are the guys who played, but only sparingly. Position players Antonio Perez (2.130), Chris Snelling (3.027), Hiram Bocachica (3.038), Ramon Santiago (3.050), Jason Phillips (3.110), Alex Escobar (3.161), Larry Bigbie (4.098), D’Angelo Jimenez (5.028), and Curtis Pride (5.134) all accrued less than 100 at bats. Pitchers Brandon Backe (3.088), Matt Miller (2.134), John Patterson (3.126), Brandon Duckworth (3.161), Randy Choate (4.002), the aforementioned Prior, Victor Zambrano (5.089), and Chris Reitsma (5.152) all threw less than 50 innings last season, though Reitsma and Choate each had 28+ appearances.
This year’s Hot Stove is already piping hot. The free agent market has been whipped up into a frenzy that is nearly unprecedented in its immediacy and its insanity. Three Japanese players have already been posted, with AL East clubs winning the rights to all three. As we sit on the cusp of the gossip-filled Winter Meetings and the Rule Five draft, we are starting to see the ramifications of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Arbitration decisions are coming sooner, and in a year with such a lively group of players, there will be a great deal to watch. Several prominent players are up for arbitration for the first time, and some could end up setting the bar financially for years to come. Arbitration is MLB’s version of the schoolyard staring contest. Who will blink before the deadline, and who will stare their way into the arbitration room is yet to be seen, but the next three months certainly won’t lack for drama.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Some may ask why Danys Baez was a free agent this year given that his service time was 4.102. The reason was due to a specific clause in his contract. As the AL Joint Exhibit One reads (bolding mine):
Danys Baez p
3 years/$19M (2007-09)
- signed as a free agent 11/06
- 2 years/$6.5M (2004-05), plus $4M 2006 club option
- acquired in trade 7/06, with LA Dodgers paying Atlanta an undisclosed amount of cash as part of the deal
- Tampa Bay exercised $4M 2006 club option 10/05
- 04:$1.5M, 05:$3.5M, 06:$4M club option ($1M buyout)
- may earn $0.25M in incentives in both 2004 & 2005
- contract includes clause requiring club to sign Baez to an extension by 11/15/06 or allow him to become a free agent
- signed as a free agent 1/04
- 4 years/$14.5M (2000-03), plus $5M 2004 club option ($0.5M buyout)
- 2004 option declined 11/03
- non-tendered 12/03
- agent: Greg Genske
- ML service: 5.102
Paul Swydan is a contributing writer for Biz of Baseball.com. He can be contacted through our Author Profiles page.