The free-agent market has been quite active this winter, with players around the Majors finding new homes
-- and in many cases, landing healthy eight- and nine-figure deals -- to set up what should be an exciting 2020 season.
Although several marquee free agents remain available, the baseball world’s attention turns elsewhere this week. Today at 1 p.m. ET is the deadline for more than 150 arbitration-eligible players and their clubs to exchange salary figures, and while many will likely settle on a number and avoid the need for an arbitration hearing, that won’t be the case for all of them.
It has become more and more common to see clubs employ what is known as a “file-and-trial” approach to arbitration, which means once figures are exchanged, the team stops negotiations and opts for a hearing in the coming weeks in which a panel of arbitrators awards the player the salary he is asking for, or the one the team is offering -- there is no middle ground.
With that in mind, what are the major storylines to watch as Friday’s deadline approaches? Here are five.
1. Will Betts receive the biggest salary in arbitration history?
A year ago, Betts was fresh off a season in which he won the American League MVP Award, giving him leverage few players have in that situation. His 2019 season was excellent -- he posted a .915 OPS, led the AL with 135 runs scored and put up essentially the same home run and RBI numbers he did in his MVP Award year -- but it wasn’t as strong as the previous season.
There are two prominent websites that publish salary-arbitration estimates: Cot’s Baseball Contracts and MLB Trade Rumors. The former estimates Betts’ 2020 salary at $27.5 million, while MLBTR projects a $27.7 million figure. Either number would establish a new one-year record for an arbitration-eligible player, set last year by Nolan Arenado ($26 million).
Two interesting notes on the Arenado comparison: First, Arenado and the Rockies had exchanged figures ($24 million vs. $30 million) before settling on a one-year deal a few weeks later to avoid arbitration. Second, four weeks after the sides settled, Arenado agreed to an eight-year, $260 million extension, a sign that both Arenado and the Rockies believed there was momentum toward such a deal when they settled in the first place.
Betts has been the subject of trade rumors this winter, primarily because the industry believes the 27-year-old is determined to test the free-agent market at the end of the 2020 season. Of course, if the Red Sox have any hopes of keeping Betts in Boston long-term, settling on a deal might be the club’s best option, as a hearing could damage the relationship at an unfortunate time.
2. Will Bellinger land the biggest first-time arbitration salary ever?
Kris Bryant currently holds that distinction with his $10.85 million salary from 2018, when he set a new standard for first-year arbitration-eligible players. Bryant had won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in '15, following that up with an NL MVP Award in '16. He played only 102 games after cashing in.
Like Bryant, Cody Bellinger has won NL Rookie of the Year and NL MVP Awards, but his MVP season came in his third year, giving him the ultimate platform season by which to judge his case.
Bellinger is estimated to earn $11 million (Cot’s) and $11.6 million (MLBTR), either of which would break Bryant’s record. While it feels like a forgone conclusion that Bellinger will establish a new mark, the bigger question might be whether the Dodgers and Bellinger can settle on a number or if a hearing will be required to come to a resolution.
3. Will Judge join the $10 million club?
Although Cody Bellinger is expected to set a new standard for first-year eligible players, he’s not the only one worth monitoring.
Only four players have earned $10 million or more in their first year of eligibility: Kris Bryant ($10.85 million in 2018), Francisco Lindor ($10.55 million, '19), Mookie Betts ($10.5 million, '17) and Ryan Howard ($10 million, '08). Bellinger will surely join that club, but will Aaron Judge?
Since the start of 2017, the Yankees superstar has been among the most productive players in the Majors when he has been on the field, though the one knock against Judge has been his availability. Since playing 155 games during his '17 AL MVP Award runner-up season, Judge missed 50 games in '18 and 60 in '19, amassing a total of 54 homers in the last two seasons after mashing 52 in '17.
Given his importance to the Yankees, it would be strange to see the club take Judge to a hearing. The last time the Yankees took a player to a hearing was 2017, when the club beat Dellin Betances, who received $3 million rather than the $5 million he sought. The aftermath of that hearing turned ugly when team president Randy Levine made public comments that called out the reliever for what he felt was an unreasonable ask.
Other notable first-year arbitration-eligible players this year include Gary Sánchez (Yankees), Josh Hader (Brewers), Willson Contreras (Cubs), Max Muncy (Dodgers), Mike Clevinger (Indians), Edwin Díaz (Mets), Trey Mancini (Orioles), Josh Bell (Pirates), Joey Gallo (Rangers), Andrew Benintendi (Red Sox) and José Berríos (Twins).
4. Breaking into the Top 10?
Nine of the 10 biggest one-year contracts in history have been signed by arbitration-eligible players during the past two years:
Betts is almost certain to take over one of the top two spots this year, but who else might join that top 10 list?
George Springer seems like a lock to crack the top 10 as he enters his fourth and final year of arbitration. Springer and the Astros avoided arbitration two years ago, agreeing to a two-year, $24 million extension. He could land nearly that much in 2020, as MLBTR projects him to earn $21.4 million, while Cot’s estimates a $20.75 million salary. Only four arbitration-eligible players have received $20 million or more.
Three other players are also projected to crack the current top 10: Kris Bryant, Trevor Bauer and Francisco Lindor.
5. Not coming up short
One of the most intriguing aspects of this year’s arbitration group is the abundance of marquee shortstops on the list.
Lindor is eligible for the second time, though as we mentioned above, his $10.55 million salary last year was the second highest for any first-time eligible player. Lindor should land the biggest number of this group, but Story, Báez, Correa and Seager should all do well.