What does last year's American League home run leader have in common with this year's AL home run leader besides a habit of hitting the ball over the fence? They both strike out a lot and walk a lot. They were both born in Santo Domingo. They're both bilingual. And both Carlos Pena and Jose Bautista bounced from organization to organization to organization before finding major league success.
The two sluggers have a lot in common, and while some of their similarities don't have any impact on MLB teams, others do. In fact, we can guess what Bautista might make through arbitration next year by comparing him to Pena.
Like Pena, Bautista is a super two player, meaning he goes to arbitration four times instead of three. After Pena broke out with 46 homers in 2007, he was set to reach arbitration for the third time*. He made $2.8MM in his second arbitration year and was clearly due for a substantial raise after setting a career-high in homers and winning a Silver Slugger in 2007. Ultimately, Pena signed a three-year deal that guaranteed him $6MM for the 2008 season.
Bautista, who has an MLB-leading 26 homers, is headed for his fourth and final arbitration season in 2011. He'll earn $2.4MM this year and, if he keeps hitting like this, will earn substantially more next season. For comparison, Pena's breakout led to a $3.2MM raise. Scott Boras represents Pena, who finished with 20 more homers than Bautista currently has. Even if Bautista continues hitting at an All-Star level, it's hard to imagine him making much more than $6MM next year.
The comparison is imperfect for many reasons, despite the players' similarities. Home run hitters are becoming scarce, Pena's deal was for his third arbitration season and was part of a three-year pact, and Pena had enjoyed more MLB success before his breakout. But it appears that the MLB executives who estimated to Buster Olney that Bautista could earn $10-12MM next year are off the mark. One executive suggested to MLBTR today that Bautista would have a hard time getting much more than $7-8MM in 2011.
So why does this matter? Ask the Blue Jays, who are no doubt wondering how Bautista would fit into their 2011 budget. Or ask the Braves, Giants, Tigers and White Sox, who have all inquired on him. The difference between $6MM and $10-12MM is a big one.
*Pena spent much of 2005-06 in the minors, which slowed his arbitration timeline and path to free agency.