Over the next few weeks, I will be discussing some of the higher profile upcoming arbitration cases. I will rely partly on my arbitration model developed exclusively for MLB Trade Rumors, but will also break out some interesting comparables and determine where the model might be wrong.
Four relievers enter their second year of arbitration eligibility this winter, with a chance to collectively make a huge impact on that market. Each will influence each other’s salary as they did last year, and will influence many players that follow in the coming years. Greg Holland, Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, and Steve Cishek each became full-time closers during their second full seasons in 2012, and have dominated hitters since.
Becoming a closer so early was a rare feat just a few years ago. Teams used to give three-year or four-year deals worth upwards of $10 million per year for an “established” closer. Players like Francisco Cordero, Joe Nathan, Mariano Rivera, Brad Lidge, Francisco Rodriguez, Rafael Soriano, and Jonathan Papelbon signed such deals that began between 2008 and 2012, and few of those worked out. As I wrote several years ago, teams were paying far more per WAR for relievers than any other position on the diamond by far. Obviously the measurement of WAR is tricky, but regardless of how it is measured, it was clear that allocating $10 million to a guy to throw 60 innings three years down the line was not working out for many teams.
Fortunately, something happened that gave a number of teams the opportunity to change their ways. An onslaught of talented young pitchers emerged onto the scene with incredible fastballs, and many were given the opportunity to be closers quickly. Craig Kimbrel is actually from the same service class as these four players but he signed a four-year deal last winter. However, that makes five teams who quickly established a young arm in the closing position and had some success with it. Of course, now that these guys have some experience, the price has gone up.
Holland had the best year of the foursome, with a 1.44 ERA and 46 saves. Jansen was no slouch with a 2.12 ERA and 44 saves, Chapman’s ERA was just 2.00 and he had 36 saves, while Cishek had 39 saves but a more pedestrian 3.17 ERA. As a result, the model predicted a $4.62MM raise for Holland, $3.5MM for Jansen, $3.1MM for Cishek, and $3.05MM for Chapman. The model weighs heavily on saves since the market for relievers has done so in recent years, so it has unsurprisingly ranked their raises by saves. Holland’s raise is actually subject to “The Kimbrel Rule,” which states that a player cannot beat the record for his role and service time by more than $1MM, so his projected raise is limited to $4.275MM (topping Francisco Rodriguez’s $3.275MM raise from 2007 by $1MM), which gives him a $8.95MM projected salary.
What makes these guys even more unique is the fact that so few teams have gone year-to-year in arbitration with their closers. Jason Motte, Jonathan Broxton, and Carlos Marmol have each gotten two-year or three-year deals in recent years. Obviously Kimbrel’s four-year deal meets those criteria as well.
In fact, the only closer with 30 saves in his platform season, 45 saves in his pre-platform seasons, and an ERA under 3.50 in the last five years who did get a one-year deal during his second year of arbitration was Jonathan Paplebon. He got a $3.1MM raise from the Red Sox in 2010 after putting together 38 saves and a 1.85 ERA. Before him, Francisco Rodriguez’s 2007 raise of $3.275MM is a possible clue (1.73 ERA and 47 saves), as could be Jose Valverde’s $2.7MM raise in 2008 (2.66 ERA, 47 saves), or Chad Cordero’s $2.05MM raise in 2008 (3.36 ERA, 37 saves). However, those last three cases are very old and are less likely to be considered in an arbitration case.
All four of the closers in question will basically have Jonathan Papelbon’s $3.1MM raise and whatever each other get as a reference. I think that there is a strong possibility that Chapman and Cishek do get right around their projected numbers, which are within $50K of Papelbon’s raise. I could see Chapman’s reputation pushing him a little higher, though. And I’m also inclined to agree with the model that Kenley Jansen and Greg Holland, with similar ERA’s and more saves than Papelbon, plus a few years of salary inflation behind their cases, are likely to top Papelbon’s raise. Jansen’s $3.5MM raise seems about right, and while I think the model’s estimate for Holland of a $4.62MM raise strikes me as unlikely, a Kimbrel rule-adjusted $4.275MM raise sounds reasonable.
If I had to guess, I think that these four guys will follow the model well. However, I think that they will either all collectively make the model look good, or the first guy will make it look bad, and the following three guys to sign will make it look worse as they affect each other’s cases. Without many historical comparables that look anything like this foursome, they will all become comparables for each other. Unless their teams follow the Braves and ink a multi-year deal, I would not be surprised if these four guys affect each other’s 2016 salaries as well.