With most of the arbitration-related focus in this month of arbitration hearings going to Jeff Samardzija, I thought it worth a look at the Cubs’ other outstanding arbitration case: Darwin Barney.
Barney, 28, has effectively been the Cubs’ starting second baseman for three years now, offering fantastic defense with a digestible bat (outside of 2013). He is eligible for arbitration for the first time, and, given those three years of starting, he’s due to make a fair bit (relative to what you might otherwise expect for a first-time arb guy with his numbers). Still, as I’m looking at recent comparables, and considering Barney’s request for $2.8 million (versus the Cubs’ offer of $1.8 million), it’s looking like he overshot by a bit.
First, a look at Barney’s value.
For his career, Barney is a .246/.293/.336 hitter with a .278 wOBA and 67 wRC+. By way of reference, that wRC+ would have placed Barney in the bottom three among all qualifiers in baseball last year (Alcides Escobar, Adeiny Hechavarria, and Barney, himself). The wOBA tells the same story. In other words, over his first three years in the big leagues, Darwin Barney has been among the worst three/four/five hitters in all of baseball.
There are a few important caveats there, of course: (1) those are merely qualifiers, which means they were good enough to receive regular playing time (there are plenty of hitters worse than Barney who’ve seen some action in the last three years); (2) Barney’s career numbers are dragged down by his ungodly horrible 2013 season; and (3) most of Barney’s value comes from his time in the field, not at the plate.
To that latter point, Barney rightly won a Gold Glove in 2012 (when he was arguably the single best defensive player in all of baseball), and should have won another in 2013. On a good team with a reasonably potent lineup, Barney could comfortably start. He’d play good defense, he’d be a great guy in the clubhouse, and he’d do what he could at the bottom of the order.
Barney’s fWAR over his three seasons: 1.9, 2.3, 0.4. Given that he’s 28, without much development ahead of him, the recency effect tells us that the 2013 season should probably be weighted a little more heavily, however – at least with respect to the aspects of his performance that we trust were indicative of ability (as opposed to mere bad luck).
Arbitration salaries, however, are based not solely on performance measured against some arbitrary standard of “value.” Instead, we can make sense of what a guy should receive in a given year only when his performance is placed in the broader context of salaries for comparable players with comparable service time.
Let’s take a look at a handful of guys who’ve already agreed to deals this year. There are no perfect comparables this year for a guy like Barney, so we make do with what’s out there.
For example, we could consider someone like Daniel Descalso, who matches Barney in service time. To be sure, Descalso has not been a traditional starter, instead moving around for the Cardinals over his first few years in the league (though you could argue that his versatility should be considered a plus, not a hindrance). He’s not the glove man that Barney is, but his offensive production tops that of Barney by a considerable margin. For his career, Descalso’s got 17 points of OBP on Barney and 10 points of slugging. His wOBA of .287 and wRC+ of 81 are pretty ugly, but they’re still far better than Barney’s numbers.
Let’s be quite clear on something: Barney is more valuable than Descalso. Even by WAR, FanGraphs has Descalso’s last three seasons at barely replacement level (0.3, 0.2, -0.3). For 2014, Descalso will receive just $1.29 million. Considering the body of work, is Barney worth more than twice as much as Descalso? Maybe he is.
Consider 2B/SS Jed Lowrie. This year, his final trip through arbitration, Lowrie will get $5.25 million. Last year, however, as a second time arbitration player, Lowrie received just $2.4 million. That was coming off a 2.6 WAR, .336 wOBA, 111 wRC+ season – and, again, it was his second time through arbitration. The first go-around, Lowrie received just $1.15 million, primarily because he hadn’t yet established himself as a starter and was coming off a down year. Of course, even then his career line was .252/.324/.408.
Consider Sean Rodriguez, another utility player, who has played all over for the Rays. Although he played in just 96 games last year (1.1 WAR), he did play over 110 games in each of the preceding three years for the Rays before he hit arbitration for the first time, posting WAR of 2.1, 2.0, and 0.7 in those years. It’s a similar value trajectory to what Barney has provided for the Cubs in his first three years, and Rodriguez had a batting line similar to Barney’s through 2012, as well (.225/.301/.356). Yet in his first arbitration year, Rodriguez received just $1 million. This year, he’ll get just $1.475 million.
In terms of production and value, Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada provides a solid comparable: he was worth 1.6 and 1.8 WAR in 2011 and 2012 before a disastrous year at the plate in 2013 cratered him to -0.3 WAR. His career offensive numbers - .259/.323/.319, .289 wOBA, 81 wRC+ – are superior to Barney’s, and he’s been doing it at shortstop (although he spent some time at second base earlier in his career). The main problem with the Tejada comp is that he has not reached three years of service time, and is a Super Two. He’ll get $1.1 million for 2014.
I could go on with a few more, but I think you’re getting the picture: Barney’s ask for $2.8 million is aggressive, and presumably relies strongly on (1) Barney’s elite defense, and (2) Barney’s three straight years as a full-time starter. We can debate whether number two is a legitimate reason for a player to receive a higher salary, but it is a factor in the arbitration process. The caliber of Barney’s glove relative to the comparables can’t be understated, though we also can’t ignore the offensive travails.
Based on all of the above, my gut says Barney’s expected salary in the first go-around of arbitration probably should have been in the $2 to $2.2 million range (making him better paid than all of the above, when similarly-situated), so I’m unsurprised to see that MLBTR projected his salary at $2.1 million at the outset of the offseason. On the whole, I think those projections probably underestimated the climbing market (which trickles down to arbitration players), so maybe $2.2 to $2.3 million for Barney is not unreasonable. And, hey, what do you know? The midpoint between Barney’s ask and the Cubs’ offer is $2.3 million.
In arbitration, I think the Cubs probably win this one at $1.8 million, versus Barney at $2.8 million (remember: the arbitrator can choose only one figure – there is no middle ground in an arbitration). That said, I bet the two sides still figure out a way to settle, perhaps for a touch below the midpoint.