Recently, I have been discussing some of the higher-profile upcoming arbitration cases as part of MLBTR’s Arbitration Breakdown series. I 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. Full arbitration projections for 2018 are also available.
Star Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant enters arbitration for the first time with a compelling case to compete with historical records. The current record for first time eligible players still goes all the way back to Ryan Howard in 2008, who earned $10MM after a 47 home run season that brought his career total to 129 home runs. While that price point is now ten years old, it is still an unbroken record. Buster Posey got close with $8MM, but that is already five years old.
Those two players share something in common with Bryant and no one else: they had received both a Rookie of the Year Award and a Most Valuable Player Award prior to entering arbitration. The only other such player would have been Mike Trout, but he signed a multi-year deal the year before reaching arbitration eligibility. Awards can be a huge part of arbitration hearings, especially for first-time eligible players like this, which immediately explains why Bryant is projected to earn $8.9MM, nearly halfway between Posey and Howard. Joey Votto also had an MVP Award (but no ROY) in 2011 when he received an $8MM salary, but he ended up agreeing to a multi-year deal and did not exchange figures before that, so he is not very useful for our purposes.
When it comes to actual numbers rather than hardware, Bryant has a good case as well. He hit .295/29/73 in his platform year and has amassed .288/94/274 for his career. Howard hit .268/47/136 in his platform, with .291/129/353 in his career. So he would be appear to represent a ceiling if the deal was more recent. That said, Bryant might argue that his case is old enough that it should not act as a ceiling on his earnings.
Posey hit .336/24/103 in his platform year and had .314/46/191 for his career line entering arbitration. The batting average (and the fact that he is a catcher) makes Posey look more favorable, but the fact that Bryant has twice the career home runs might make his case more impressive in a process that leans heavily on home runs. Votto’s numbers are actually somewhat closer though, with a .324/37/113 platfrom and .314/90/298 career. Of course, his multi-year deal limits his usefulness as a comparable.
Nolan Arenado and Manny Machado could serve as floors. Neither had the hardware, and both had relatively similar numbers except for far fewer career home runs when they entered the arb process. Machado had a .286/35/86 platform and a .281/68/215 career, while Arenado had a .287/42/130 platform and a .281/70/243 career. So I would guess that their identical $5MM salaries two years ago are a solid floor for Bryant.
I suspect Posey might actually be the best comparable, despite the fact that he plays a premium defensive position. Adding in salary inflation, his $8MM salary in 2013 puts Bryant around $9.5MM. I suspect he will not break Howard’s record, so this seems pretty believable. The Cubs could easily try to argue for a lower number like Arenado or Machado, but probably will have trouble making that case. However, the team could still try to push Bryant south of Posey’s $8MM. There is a large range of plausible outcomes for a case like this; it would represent a fascinating hearing if it went to a panel.