It has been a very long time since I was not EAGERLY anticipating the annual MLB Trade Rumors arbitration projections. Don’t get me wrong, I still devour them and urge you to do the same (it impacts so much of the offseason). It’s just that, unlike the last four years, the Cubs don’t have a ton of critically-important, big-raise-looming, arbitration-eligible players on the roster.
Indeed, for the Cubs this time around, arbitration is going to be a relatively modest consideration for the offseason. Heck, *other* clubs’ arbitration figures might be more interesting for the Cubs when it comes to possible non-tenders and/or trade targets.
A quick arbitration primer:
For players who have at least three years of big league service time (plus the top 22% of players (in terms of service time) with fewer than three years, but more than two years (“Super Two” players who get four arbitration years instead of three)), but who haven’t yet accumulated the six years necessary for free agency, it’s time to get some arbitration money. You are under team control, but your salary isn’t set yet, and you also aren’t subject to the unilateral salary selection of your team in the first few years of your service time. So, if the team decides to keep you for the year ahead (“tendering” a contract by the December 2* deadline), that’s where the arbitration process comes in.
These players have the right to submit a request for a salary, to be countered by the team for a salary, and then duke it out in an arbitration hearing over which number is better. Typically, though, arbitration-eligible players and their teams agree on a contract before all that fighting happens in late January and February. Indeed, most if not all clubs (including the Cubs) are now “file and trial”: either you come together to agree on a contract for the season ahead, or file your numbers and head to arbitration. That has had the effect of greatly diminishing the number of arbitration hearings.
Here are the arbitration-eligible Cubs for this offseason, what they’re projected by MLBTR to earn in 2022 if they’re ultimately tendered a contract by the Cubs, the arb years, and what they made this past year:
C Willson Contreras – $8.7MM (Arb year 3 of 3; was $6.65M in 2021)
OF Ian Happ – $6.5MM (Arb year 2 of 3; was $4.1 million in 2021)
LHP Rex Brothers – $1.5MM (Arb year 3 of 3; was $850,000 in 2021)
LHP Adam Morgan – $1.3MM (Arb year 3 of 3; was $900,000 in 2021)
RHP Jonathan Holder – $800K (Arb year 2 of 3; was $750,000 in 2021)
RHP Joe Biagini – $800K (Arb year 3 of 3; was $570,500 in 2021)
As you can see, for all practical purposes, it’s Contreras and Happ for the Cubs this year. The other four guys are retainable after being low-cost pick-ups last year, but I’m not sure any will actually be tendered. Morgan is probably the only close call, but after a good stretch with the Cubs, he finished up with a league-average ERA and rough peripherals. A tender would be a surprise.
As for Contreras, he is projected for a solid bump in his final arb year, but not an overwhelming one. He was really solid once again, but he’s now working on three of the last four years with a wRC+ in the 101 to 109 range, and defense that rates out as “good” but not elite (his framing metrics dipped back down to below average this year). I hope the Cubs discuss an extension with Contreras, but as he enters his age 30 season, the Cubs may very well not want to lock themselves in unless it’s modest in years.
And as for Happ, he gets a pretty big bump less on the strength of his ultimately average 2021 season, and more for the years that preceded it (the whole adds up). His arbitration win last year over the Cubs also helps his number for 2022 since the build on each other. While I know his deep, deep struggles earlier this year soured a lot of folks, I don’t think there’s much question that he’ll be tendered a contract. It’s not a huge expense, and if he did turn back ’round that corner in August, you’re going to want to have tendered him now so that you get to keep him for 2022 AND 2023. The modest commitment in arbitration is worth it to find out.
See? Nothing all that sexy in the Cubs’ arbitration world this time around. Most of the roster is pre-arbitration, and then you have just a few guys – Kyle Hendricks, Jason Heyward, and David Bote already under contract for next year.
Elsewhere around the league, well, that’s where things get much more interesting. Some clubs like the Brewers, Mets, Braves, Marlins, Blue Jays, Rays, Padres, Rockies, Tigers, Yankees, and Twins have TONS and TONS of arbitration-eligible players (12 to 19!). If you want to start scoping out possible pick-ups in trade, that’s where you might start to look (outside of the Brewers). The A’s have 11 arbitration-eligible players, many of them getting pretty pricey. Definitely something to look at.
*If you have a discerning eye, you noticed that this is one day AFTER the current CBA expires. And nope, we don’t know exactly what happens to this deadline if December 1 passes without a new CBA in place. It’s possible a lockout would begin and everything would shut down, so that deadline would no longer be a deadline. It’s possible there would be a week-to-week extension in place for normal operations, and the deadline will still be the deadline. Or it’s possible that a new deal will have already been struck, and maybe that’ll change everything. Who knows! For now, though, we’ll keep the usual deadline as the deadline.