I’ll say it up front, because it’s something we just can’t say too much this offseason: the combined impact of the weird and shortened season, together with the financial fallout of the pandemic, makes it virtually impossible to accurately project what’s going to happen in arbitration (much less free agency).
We only know some things we’ve always known, and can apply them roughly to what lies ahead: we know that a lot of players are likely to be non-tendered this year because their perceived value is going to be lower than expected cost (pandemic fallout). We know players tend to get raises in arbitration, almost as a baseline regardless of performance (you get some credit for past years’ performance, and you also get a bump because you added service time). We know that, at a maximum, a players’ salary can be cut up to 20% in arbitration, but that almost never actually happens. We know that player precedents weigh heavily in how much the guys who came after will get.
The things we don’t know, however, are also tremendously impactful on what price tags are appropriate for these arbitration-level players.
We don’t know how aggressive teams are going to be in arguing the impact of the shortened season on a player’s value. We don’t know how aggressive teams are going to be in threatening non-tenders in order to achieve pre-tender deals at lower price points. We don’t know exactly how stats from this season can be used (and I don’t just mean we don’t know the agreement between the players and teams – I mean there isn’t anything explicitly laid out in the March Agreement that I’ve found, except for the scenario where there wasn’t a 2020 season at all). We don’t know the impact of what was already happening in arbitration the last few years (teams almost all go to trial-and-file strategy, Players Associations and agents putting more resources into cases to try to win for precedent, etc.).
Sorry for all that caveating up front, but it’s important. We can’t just look at what MLB Trade Rumors put out today and say “these are the numbers, wow they’re low!” and call it a day. Even MLBTR concedes exactly all these issues, they’re simply doing the best they can with the information available, the most reasonable assumptions available, and the player data available.
To that end, for this very unique year, MLBTR came up with three different plausible ways that players and teams might argue for arbitration determinations using this year’s stats (and other factors): (1) simply use the rate and counting stats from this past season without any proration (most team aggressive), (2) simply prorate everything out to 162 games and use those numbers (most player aggressive), or (3) calculate a normal full-season raise, but then grant only 37% of that raise because it was 37% of the season (leans team-friendly, but is somewhat middle of the road).
With those methods in mind, MLBTR produced arbitration estimates for all arbitration-eligible players here.
For the Cubs, I’m gonna write the guy’s arbitration level, his 2020 full-season salary, and then the range of MLBTR estimates (for some guys, the range is the same number twice, which is because it was the same number across all three possible projections):
Albert Almora Jr. (Arb 2 of 3, was $1.58 million in 2020) – $1.58M to $1.58M
Javy Báez (Arb 3 of 3, was $10 million in 2020) – $10.0M to $11.9M
Kris Bryant (Arb 4 of 4, was $18.6 million in 2020) – $18.6M to $18.6M
Victor Caratini (Arb 1 of 3, was $592K in 2020) – $1.2M to $1.6M
Willson Contreras (Arb 2 of 3, was $4.5 million in 2020) – $5.0M to $7.4M
Ian Happ (Arb 1 of 3, was $624K in 2020) – $2.5M to $4.6M
Colin Rea (Arb 1 of 3, was $565K in 2020) – $1.0M to $1.6M
Kyle Ryan (Arb 2 of 4, was $975K in 2020) – $1.2M to $1.5M
Kyle Schwarber (Arb 3 of 3, was $7 million in 2020) – $7.9M to $9.3M
Ryan Tepera (Arb 3 of 3, was $900K in 2020) – $1.1M to$1.5M
Dan Winkler (Arb 3 of 3, was $750K in 2020) – $900K to $1.2M
Jose Martinez (Arb 2 of 3, was $2.43 million in 2020) – $2.1M to $2.3M
Rex Brothers (Arb 3 of 3, was $900K in 2020) – Not projected by MLBTR.
Reminder: tendering these guys contracts is optional, and the decision is due by December 2.
If you follow arbitration closely, I expect that a lot of those numbers look low to you. They did to me. Some guys are projected to get no raise at all, which again, is extremely atypical. And maybe that will and should be the case for guys who had terrible 2020 seasons. It’s just that, in a normal environment, a guy like Kris Bryant would still see a pretty significant raise, even after a down season, thanks to his previous success and now-one-more-year of service time. Those are factors in addition to the past year’s performance.
Suffice to say, if these prove to be the numbers for these guys, the Cubs’ financial situation gets a little less tight. For the core guys, we had the numbers around $6 million or so higher, in total, though $4 million of that was Bryant, alone. If he really does earn only $18.6 million in 2021, his value goes up significantly (subject to all the previous notes about financial tightness around the game). Ditto Kyle Schwarber if he’s down closer to $8 million, and ditto Javy Báez if he winds up not much north of $10 million.
Here’s another factor in all this: while the MLBTR calculations don’t actually carry authoritative weight, they have for years been so very accurate. And they are cited, often, by players and teams (publicly/privately) in relation to where deals ultimately get done. So, if these are the baseline values that MLBTR is putting out there today, you’ve gotta believe teams are pretty happy that the *narrative* in these *theoretically objective numbers* is that salaries are gonna stagnate harshly for guys who didn’t have great seasons. It’s almost like this MLBTR piece – through no intent of its own – creates a threat that teams could leverage to get pre-tender, or post-tender deals done at lower salaries.
More to come on this topic, thanks to its obvious enormous importance to the Cubs, to the free agent pool, and to club spending around baseball.