Today is the day teams and arbitration-eligible players exchange salary figures for the 2012 season, and the Chicago Cubs have a number of arbitration eligibles this year.
One of the more interesting cases, in terms of pegging a projected 2012 salary, is recently-acquired pitcher Chris Volstad. A physical specimen whom scouts have loved for a long time, Volstad broke in the bigs at a very young age, succeeded, and then trailed off. Still just 25, Volstad is now in his first year of arbitration eligibility.
How much is a kid with that unique set of circumstances worth in his first year of arbitration? It’s one thing to be optimistic that he can continue to develop (I am), but it’s another thing to pay him today for what you hope he can be in the future, particularly when he’s already under team control. In other words, there’s no need to overpay here.
Most folks have Volstad expected to get between $2.5 million to $3 million, but, when I look at comparable players over the past couple of years, I’m not sure that isn’t a bit high for a guy who hasn’t had an ERA under 4.50 in the last three years.
(At the outset, it’s worth pointing out that, because the money the Cubs send to the Marlins for Carlos Zambrano will be $18 million, minus the amount the Cubs pay to Volstad in arbitration, you could argue this is an entirely academic discussion. Not so. Determining what Volstad should get in arbitration in his first year will be the foundation for what he could earn in 2013 and 2014. The Cubs have an incentive to keep the number as low as possible, even if it doesn’t “cost” them anything more in 2012. Even setting that aside, it’s an interesting exercise in pricing out a first year’s arbitration pay.)
Obviously, one can review Volstad’s career stats to start the arbitration salary discussion, but, because players receive far less than their market value in arbitration, using past precedent – i.e., salaries for comparable first-time arbitration-eligible players – is usually your best guide. On the statistical side of things, I’ve written a fair bit on Volstad already:
Volstad’s ERA over the past three years has been an ugly 5.21, 4.58, and 4.89, and his ERA+ was just 82, 91, and 80. His WHIP has stayed above 1.410, and his K/9 hasn’t been much better than 6.0 (though it did improve in 2011). His BB/9, on the other hand, has generally been both good and consistently improving – 3.3, 3.1, and 2.7 over the last three years. He’s just a dude who gets hit a whole lot, giving up more than a hit per inning. That leads to plenty of runs given up. And in 2011, an abnormally high number of those hits were homers, so the run situation was even worse.
Coupling those poor numbers together with a slightly downward trend, and you’ve got a guy who should be on the lower end of the salary scale for first-time arbitration-eligible pitchers. As I go on to point out in that article, however, advanced statistics suggest Volstad has been a fair bit better than those numbers suggest, so using the plain statistics, alone, to put a number on Volstad is probably unfair.
That’s why we turn to precedent.
It’s hard to find a perfect comparison this year for Volstad in terms of the kind of salary he should expect, primarily because only a handful of arbitration-eligible pitchers have yet signed.
The closest comparison might be first-time arbitration-eligible pitcher Charlie Morton, who reportedly just avoided arbitration with the Pirates for $2.445 million earlier today.
Morton’s career numbers are ugly (5.11 ERA, 1.532 WHIP, 79 ERA+), but he’s coming off the best season in his career, with a 3.83 ERA in 171.2 innings. His WHIP was still ugly – 1.532 – and his ERA+ was an even 100, but he’s said to have reinvented himself, and could continue on the upswing. He was worth a 2.2 WAR last year, far better than any of Volstad’s last three seasons (0.3, 1.8, 1.3). In short, Morton probably deserved more money this go-around than did Volstad. So if Morton got $2.445 million, you’d think Volstad’s figure would be slightly lower.
Other pitchers who’ve signed this year include part-time starter Jesse Litsch, whose numbers are considerably better than Volstad’s, but Litsch had to settle for just $975k in this, his second year of arbitration. Litsch missed some time a couple years ago with injury, so that certainly factors into the equation. But it’s hard to look at the two pitchers and fully understand how, if Litsch is worth just $975k in his second year of arbitration, Volstad is worth triple that amount in his first year.
Then there’s Red Sox lefty Andrew Miller, like Vostad, a former top prospect who hasn’t shown much at the big league level. Miller received just $1.04 million from the Red Sox for 2012, his first year of arbitration. Miller, 26, has bounced around a number of teams, has had some injury issues, and has never pitched particularly well in the bigs – he sports a career 5.79 ERA, 1.815 WHIP and 75 ERA+ in 359.1 professional innings. Volstad has been the superior pitcher to date, but three times the pitcher? Hard to say.
(Randy Wells is also a first-time arbitration-eligible pitcher, and his career numbers stack up favorably in comparison to Volstad’s. Should Wells also expect $2.5 to $3 million? I’m not so sure about that).
Because of the lack of close precedent yet this year, it’s worth looking at a couple comparable first-time arbitration-eligible pitchers in 2011.
A close comparison from last year is Armando Gallaraga, who came into his first year of arbitration in 2011 and netted a $2.3 million contract. But! Gallaraga’s ERA+ at that point was 97, compared to Volstad’s 90, and just two years prior had a brilliant, 121 ERA+ season (Volstad two years ago was brutally bad). Finally, Gallaraga’s season immediately preceding arbitration was significantly better than Volstad’s. So, if that case led to Gallaraga getting $2.3 million, how could the Cubs justify giving Volstad more than, say, $2 million?
And then there’s Phil Hughes, who received $2.7 million in 2011, his first year of arbitration. Before last year, Hughes was coming off an 18-8, 4.19 ERA (in the AL East) All-Star season. To that point in his career, his ERA+ was 106, and he had a career 4.20 ERA and 1.266 WHIP. In short, his numbers were significantly better than Volstad’s, and Hughes had arguably just had his best season. So, again: if a pitcher like that is worth $2.7 million in his first arbitration year, how could Volstad get $2.5 million?
(From 2010, one could also point to Tom Gorzelanny, whose career numbers were very similar to Volstad’s when Gorzelanny first reached arbitration before the 2010 season, and Gorzelanny got a meager $800k from the Cubs (Gorzelanny was a Super Two, mind you, which depressed his salary somewhat).)
Taking it all together, I would be surprised and a little disappointed to see Volstad get $2.5 to $3 million from the Cubs. Based on his career numbers, his down 2011 season, and, most importantly, the comparisons, it seems like he should settle more in the $1.9 to $2.1 million range.
I’m not looking to take food out of Chris Volstad’s mouth, and I don’t want this exercise to suggest that I’m not excited about his future with the Cubs. I think he could prove to be a very nice surprise over the next few years.
But establishing an appropriate first year arbitration salary for a pitcher like Volstad is a difficult process, and can get a little ugly. It’s important, however, for the Cubs to get this right, because a few extra hundred thousand this year could mean an extra $1 million in 2013, and an extra $2 million in 2014. That ain’t nothing.