They have arrived, and if you’re a transaction nerd, it makes you very happy to see them: the annual MLB Trade Rumors arbitration projections. Although not official or perfect, the MLBTR projections for arbitration-level players are frequently quite strong, and among the best ways to roughly gauge how much a given player may ultimately make in 2023.
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, like 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 (mid-January) and later head to arbitration. That has had the effect of greatly diminishing the number of arbitration hearings.
Here are the ten arbitration-eligible Cubs for this offseason, what they’re projected by MLBTR to earn in 2023 if they’re ultimately tendered a contract by the Cubs, the arb years, and what they made this past year:
Ian Happ – $10.6M (Arb year 3 of 3; was $6.85M in 2022)
Steven Brault – $1.7M (Arb year 2 of 3; was $700K in 2022)
Franmil Reyes – $6M (Arb year 2 of 3; was $4.55M in 2022)
Rowan Wick – $1.5M (Arb year 1 of 3; was $724,000 in 2022)
Alec Mills – $800K (Arb year 1 of 3; was $741,250 in 2022)
Brad Wieck – $800K (Arb year 1 of 3; was $717,000 in 2022)
Nico Hoerner – $2.2M (Arb year 1 of 3; was $720,000 in 2022)
Codi Heuer – $800K (Arb year 1 of 3; was $734,000 in 2022)
Nick Madrigal – $1.1M (Arb year 1 of 4; was $716,500 in 2022)
Rafael Ortega – $1.7M (Arb year 1 of 4; was $738,500 in 2022)
For the most part, any tender decision the Cubs do or do not make will be more about the 40-man roster spot than about the money. There are four obvious tenders in there: Happ, Hoerner, Heuer, and Madrigal.
As for most of the possible non-tenders, you’re looking at Brault, Wick, Mills, Wieck, and Ortega, all of whom are bubble guys for the 40-man roster. Were the 40-man situation less crowded, a couple of those might be easy tender decisions, but that’s just not the situation right now. The Cubs are going to have to make some hard cuts.
I think Franmil Reyes is the big exception there to the group of possible non-tenders being about the roster spot. With him, I think it’s a question of the price tag. The Cubs are going to have to make a really tough decision on whether $6-ish million is simply too much to give to a DH-only guy who didn’t hit in 2022 (.221/.273/.365/80 wRC+ overall, .234/.301/.389/94 wRC+ with Cubs), but who has upside and is a tremendous presence in the clubhouse. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Cubs tried to work out a deal with him for 2023 before the tender deadline rolls around.
Elsewhere around the league, one thing that jumps out at you is the fact that the Brewers have 18(!!!) arbitration-eligible players, not all of whom will be retained. The Cardinals have 11, with five of them in their final year before free agency (including Jordan Montgomery, Jack Flaherty, Jordan Hicks, and Alex Reyes). Also, the Rays have 19 – they always have an absurd volume – and you can start looking at their list for possible guys they might want to move (Yandy Diaz might be a sneaky compelling corner infield target, actually.)