Tomorrow, Major League teams and their arbitration-eligible players will exchange 2018 salary figures. You’ll recall, the Cubs have six such players.
In case you forgot how it works, basically: The players request a salary for 2018, and the teams offer a salary for 2018. The sides can then negotiate a deal, or they can take their case to arbitration in February, at which an arbitrator will select one of those two figures. This front office rarely takes players to arbitration, so you can more or less assume compromises will be made in all six cases.
But one of the Cubs’ eligible players, Kris Bryant, presents are particularly interesting case, because he has a shot at setting a new first-year arbitration-eligible salary record.
You might remember that Kris Bryant’s 2018 salary was projected to land at $8.9 million by MLB Trade Rumors. If he got at least that amount – which feels like a certainty at this point – he’d beat out Buster Posey’s $8 million deal with the Giants back in 2013 (second-highest of all time), but would come up just short of Ryan Howard’s record-holding $10 million deal from 2008.
According to Swartz, those three players are the only three first-year eligible players (who didn’t go on to sign an extension (like Mike Trout)) to have won both an MVP award and Rookie of the Year honors before their first trip through arbitration. In addition, each of Howard, Posey, and Bryant were/are Super Two players at the time (and Howard, like Bryant, also previously broke the pre-arbitration salary record). So, yeah, there’s a lot of apples-to-apples about this, and player comparisons are a frequent tool in arbitration cases.
In any case, splitting the difference between the current top two first-time arbitration eligible salary figures feels like a fair guess. But is it an accurate one, especially given the time that has passed? It certainly seems like Bryant could have a shot at beating Howard’s deal, so let’s take a closer look.
Upfront disclaimer: Historically, arbitrators tend to lean more towards traditional stats than advanced metrics, but that’s improved in recent years. Even so, we’ll start off by comparing some traditional stuff, before getting into the nitty gritty. So if some of this analysis looks odd to you regulars, that’s why.
For his career, Bryant has a .288 batting average, with 94 home runs, and 274 RBI. At the same point in Howard’s career, he hit .291 with 129 homers and 353 RBI, and Posey was at .314/46 HRs/191 RBI.
Given the lofty counting stats for Howard (he reached 100 HRs in fewer games (325) than any Major Leaguer in MLB history), the far better batting average for Posey (plus his premium position), and the fact that Bryant’s “platform year” looks a little worse *by traditional stats* than either player, the second-place projected salary starts to make more sense (Swartz gets into some other similar cases like Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado, but there are some issues with using either, so we’ll stick with Posey and Howard for now).
Of course, there are some obvious counter arguments to a second-place finish. For one, Howard’s deal was a full ten years ago, and Posey’s was five. And although the traditional stats may make this look like an even race, the advanced metrics paint a very different picture.
WAR Before Arbitration
Ryan Howard: 11.6 WAR (410 games)
Buster Posey: 13.1 WAR (308 games)
Kris Bryant: 21.6 WAR (457 games)
Bryant’s played more games than both players, and has FAR more total WAR through this point in his career. But the case for Bryant doesn’t end there.
Offensive, all three players were fairly similar, when you account for era and park-adjustments …
wRC+ Before Arbitration
Howard: 145 wRC+ (1742 PAs)
Posey: 143 wRC+ (1255 PAs)
Bryant: 143 wRC+ (2014 PAs)
… except for the fact that Bryant has kept up his production in many more chances – which is inarguably more impressive. And while I don’t necessarily expect an arbitrator to take advanced base running statistics into account (a category in which Bryant would lap the field), his agent could point to Bryant’s 28 stolen bases, versus Posey’s 4 and Howard’s 1.
Now, sure, you could cherry pick some statistics here and there (Bryant walks less than Howard and strikes out more than Posey), but, in the end, I think you can say, at this point in their respective careers, Bryant’s the better offensive contributor. But what about defense?
There’s no arguing that Posey is not only a superb defender, but that he also plays the most valuable defensive position of the bunch (and maybe in all of baseball), but this argument isn’t actually as far off as you might think either.
Defensive Runs Above Average (DEF):
Howard: -33.2 DEF
Posey: +27.5 DEF
Bryant: +20.4 DEF
DEF is a stat that measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average and also accounts for the positional adjustment. In other words, the three numbers you see above can be compared against each other, because catchers will get a bump whereas a first baseman might get dinged.
Before their first trip through arbitration, Posey is clearly the best overall defender, but Bryant isn’t too far behind. And, put differently, both are really excellent marks (for reference, Nolan Arenado’s DEF during Bryant’s same stretch was 25.2).
So, you see, in almost any way you slice it, Bryant is at least as worthy of a record-setting first-year-arbitration eligible contract as any player who has come before. And given how long ago each of the other two deals were given out – and his already record-setting non-arb-eligible salary – you’d figure Bryant is an excellent bet to keep setting records on the way up.
We’ll find out tomorrow what each side proposes, but don’t be surprised to see Bryant’s number north of $10 million. Maybe even well north. My guess is that the Cubs don’t go too cheap and propose something north of Posey’s figure, but south of Howard’s. In the end, our guess is that the sides ultimately compromise on something between $10M and $11M.