One of the more important, but frequently less reported, stories of the offseason for every team is the status of their so-called “arbitration-eligible” players. In short, players who have accumulated between zero and three years’ service time are eligible to have their contracts renewed for the next season by the team that controls their rights, and the team can pay whatever they feel like (above the minimum). Players who’ve accumulated more than three years’ service time, but less than six years, are still under the teams’ control, but the price tag falls out of the teams’ total control. Those players are eligible for arbitration* – a process by which, if the player chooses, an arbitrator decides how much the player should be paid for the coming season based on a variety of factors, including productivity and service time. Players usually get about 40% of their total value in their first year of arbitration, 60% the second year, and 80% their third year (subject to fluctuations, of course). While salaries can technically go down up to 20% in arbitration, they never do. Just assume that if a player is tendered a contract (i.e., the team wants to keep the player for the next year, and is willing to risk the arbitration process if the two sides can’t settle on a salary), his salary is not going to go down, no matter how crappy he was the year before.

Ok, that turned out to be a really long “in short.” It’s relatively complicated stuff, and we’ll be addressing arbitration rules/players/price tags/etc. when the deadline to tender contracts to arbitration-eligible players comes on November 30.

In the meantime, it’s worth starting to discuss the Cubs’ seven current arbitration-eligible players, and how much they might receive in 2013 if the Cubs decide to tender them a contract. MLB Trade Rumors took a look at those seven players, and estimated a price tag on each, based on its own experience in such matters. MLBTR tends to be very good with these numbers, so they’re worth a look. The projections, in order of service time:

First time: Luis Valbuena ($900K), Jeff Samardzija ($2.9MM), James Russell ($900K)

Second time: Chris Volstad ($3MM)

Third time: Manny Corpas ($1.4MM), Ian Stewart ($2.3MM)

Fourth time: Matt Garza ($10MM)

You have some immediate reactions, and I can address them. Primarily, you’re saying, “what in the world are the Cubs doing paying Chris Volstad $3 million or Ian Stewart $2.3 million?!” Ease up. These are merely the projections of what the players would receive if the Cubs tendered them a contract and went through the arbitration process.

In other words, the figures are instructive, if for no other reason, on whether it makes sense to tender certain players. Volstad is at least still questionable, given the upside (I know, I know), but working out a $2 million-ish deal before the tender deadline comes would be a far more preferable option. There is virtually zero chance the Cubs tender Stewart, and it’s conceivable that they will not even have interest in a $1 million deal. Instead, Stewart may have to try and find another team willing to take a chance on him coming off a terrible and short season, which ended with wrist surgery. If not, he might get a minor league deal somewhere (with a Major League split that, for example, pays him $1.5 million if and only if he makes the big league roster out of Spring Training). I’d think the Cubs would be interested in that kind of deal.

As for the other players, I think they are fair bets to be tendered (with the possible exception of Corpas). The numbers, on a glance, look reasonable, though I’m not sure that Samardzija’s and Garza’s aren’t a hair low. Yes, Garza missed half of the season with elbow problems, but he did make $9.5 million in 2012, which would make $10 million a mere 5% raise. I could see him getting a bit more, though I don’t expect him to take his case to arbitration (or even the doorstep of arbitration, like last year). Guys coming off serious injuries and missed playing time tend to settle early.

Samardzija is an interesting case, given that he was making “real” money before he even reached arbitration (thanks to his big league contract out of the Draft). Thus, he earned $2.64 million in 2012, which would make $2.9 million a 10% raise, which isn’t atrocious. But FanGraphs had Samardzija worth 3.3 WAR, which, assuming a win value of about $5.25 million, would put 40% of his value at a whopping $6.93 million. On the other hand, Baseball Reference has Samardzija’s WAR at less than half of FanGraphs (just 1.6), which would put 40% of his value at $3.36 million. Obviously this is an inexact science (both on the value side and the WAR side – I mean, heck, look at the stark difference between FanGraphs and Baseball Reference), but both suggest Samardzija’s arbitration number should probably be north of $3 million. I could see him getting something between $3 million and $3.5 million, and, unlike Garza, I could see his case taking a little while to settle – or even possibly making it to an arbitrator.

*Players who haven’t quite yet reached three years of service time, but who are among the top 22% in service time of such players, are also eligible for arbitration. But, since they will not have enough service time for free agency by the end of their “sixth” year of control, the players wind up getting four years of arbitration before they reach free agency. Matt Garza is an example.

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