Monday, January 20, 2014

I'm Thinking Arby's

Friday was a big day for baseball nerds. 

While most baseball fans could care less about arbitration deadlines and what it means for both the budget of the upcoming season and the budgets for the years to follow, those of us who kept our twitter rolling were interested to see who settled and who didn’t.  Friday was the day that players and teams formally submitted what their different ideas on a “fair” salary might be for the upcoming season.  This does not mean the team and the player can’t continue to negotiate a contract, but if one isn’t reached by, at the earliest, February 1st, the Braves and the team will argue their perspective cases to an arbitration panel.

It’s rare that the Braves go all the way to an arbitration hearing.  So rare that the last time it happened was 2001 when the Braves went to “trail” with the mild-mannered John Rocker.  They have gotten close from time-to-time and seemed likely to head to a hearing with Martin Prado last season, but ultimately traded him before the hearing. 

While teams can sign players beyond the day where they formally exchange figures, Frank Wren made it public that negotiations were over and hearings will definitely be in the future for three significant members of the Braves.  Let’s look at Atlanta’s chances of winning those hearings, starting with the most unlikely win.

Braves offer $5.2M, Heyward wants $5.5M

On the surface, this seems like a ridiculous case to go all the way to trail over.  Whether you believe the Braves are being petty or Heyward is being selfish, facts are that a difference of $300K seems like a difference that the player and team would simply cut the difference in half and agree to a $5.35M contract. 
However, I do believe it is worth mentioning that we can’t be sure that these final figures were ever offered by either party.  For example, the Braves may have started at $4.5M, arguing that a .776 OPS and a decline from 21 steals to just two were not enough to warrant a significant raise.  Heyward would argue that his defense remains as good as anyone’s and once moved to the leadoff spot, he began to explode.   Maybe before Friday, the difference between the two was greater than $300K.

Even if it wasn’t, the Braves are not likely to win this one.  Heyward made $3.6M last season and added value by playing good defense in center while posting the second-best OBP of his career.  While it clearly was not the year he, nor the Braves, expected after 2012’s 6.4 fWAR campaign, it was still good enough to ask for the raise he wanted according to the market. 

More importantly, does going to an arbitration hearing over a $300K difference end up causing dissent long-term between the Braves and Heyward?

Braves offer $4.5M, Freeman wants $5.75M

In my first post of the New Year, I spoke of how I would like to see the Braves sign Freeman, along with Mike Minor, to a contract extension this offseason.  Well, that isn’t happening and now, the Braves will head to arbitration over a million apart on a new contract.  According to different projections, the Braves’ offer to Freeman was well within the projected price tag for the leader of Hug Life, but that still didn’t keep the Braves from going to a hearing.

Freeman exploded last season for a .897 OPS and 4.8 fWAR, a huge difference from the 1.8 fWAR the previous season.  But he plays a position with many excellent players.  A better player, Joey Votto, never went to arbitration.  He posted fWAR’s of 3.6, 4.5, and 6.8 in his first three years.  He earned $5.5M in his fourth year as part of a three year extension.  That was just three years ago and to believe that Freeman should earn more than Votto did in his fourth season…it just doesn’t make sense.

I believe the Braves should win this case, though I would not be completely surprised if they lose it because of the ridiculous money floating around.

Braves offer $6.55M, Kimbrel wants $9M

Hopefully, we see where slightly low-balling Kimbrel wins.  I could have seen an agreement in the $7.25M range, but I think Kimbrel went too high too early.  Now, it’s very difficult to find a similar case as Kimbrel, but maybe the most similar guy is Aroldis Chapman.  The Cuban Missile filed for $5.4M while the Reds countered with $4.6M.  The situations aren’t entirely the same (Chapman made $2M last season, Kimbrel made near the minimum), but is Kimbrel worth almost double what the Reds believed Chapman was worth? 

My gut and my knowledge say that there is not a chance the first-time arbitration-eligible guy wins.  Kimbrel is the best at his position and there is no argument there.   It makes it very difficult to find a suitable comparison outside of Chapman.  Huston Street was not nearly as dominating, but settled for $3.3M in his first year of arbitration before the 2008 season.  Brian Wilson settled for $4.4M in 2010.  Jonathan Papelbon got $6.25M in 2009.

For Kimbrel to make it to $9M already would be a significant surprise and unprecedented.  I mean, if Kimbrel can get that much in his first year of arbitration, what could a guy like Mike Trout get?  Now, this probably means there is a declining amount of time before we see Kimbrel traded.  But Atlanta definitely should win this case.  

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