One area that's always been murky for baseball fans is the process by which salaries for arbitration-eligible players are determined. Using Angels catcher Mike Napoli as an example, let's attempt to shed some light on arbitration.
The first conclusion I reached when looking into Napoli's comparables is that there aren't any good ones. Do you know any catchers who went to arbitration for a third time in recent years? All the good ones were locked up, and all the bad ones were non-tendered. John Buck might have been a comparable, but the Royals cut him loose before he could go to arbitration a third time. The only catcher we found who recently went to arbitration a third time was the Tigers' Gerald Laird. Laird's offensive stats after the '09 season paled in comparision to Napoli's current body of work, so we need to look elsewhere.
If an agent and team are forced to go to an arbitration hearing over a player's salary, the statistics used to make arguments are simple. For Napoli it might be his .251 batting average, 92 home runs, 249 RBIs, and 246 runs. He's heading to arbitration for the third time. He has four years and 151 days of service and will be building off his 2010 salary of $3.6MM.
A baseball source gave me two comparables he thought Napoli's agent Brian Grieper might be able to use: Jorge Cantu after '09 and Xavier Nady after '08. The criteria for an arbitration comparison talks about service levels, but not positions. It's already been proven that catchers get extra credit in arbitration for being catchers – in his first year of arbitration, Russell Martin got $3.9MM. You might expect that salary for a 30 home run, 100 RBI player, not a 13 home run, 69 RBI guy like Martin. Napoli himself got $2MM in his first arbitration year coming off a season in which he played 78 games.
So even though Napoli falls short of Cantu and Nady in most basic offensive categories, they're workable comparables given the lack of similar catchers. Napoli has a half-season of playing first base on his resume, so that might strengthen the comparison. Cantu went from $3.5MM to $6MM, while Nady went from $3.35MM to $6.55MM. Their raises were between $2.5-3.2MM, or 71-96%. Napoli's agent might be able to argue for a $6-7MM salary for 2011, unless the Angels find more similar players who were paid less.
Could Napoli be non-tendered by the Angels this winter? One baseball source agreed with my estimate of a 10% chance, while another put it below 5%. We all agreed Napoli is more likely to be traded than cut loose, though one of them remarked, "I think if they are stuck with him they will wish they would have non-tendered him." The Angels won't be desperate – they can afford Napoli if no one wants him, but they should be able to find a taker for a 26 home run catcher even if his defense is poorly-regarded. Keep in mind that even though Napoli is technically under team control through 2012, his 2011 salary could make him a likely non-tender.