Indians righty Trevor Bauer defeated the club for the second straight year in arbitration. He chatted about his win in a fascinating interview with Bob Nightengale of USA Today in which he gave rare insight into the process and looked ahead to a third-straight hearing next winter.
Bauer is a polarizing figure for a variety of reasons, but it’s hard not to appreciate his willingness to think outside the box, put beliefs into action, and open the door to aspects of the sport that typically aren’t visible to the public. In this case, Bauer explained that he observed a “really well-argued case” on both sides — until the very end, when he was on the receiving end of what he labels “a character-assassination.”
As Bauer clarified in later remarks, and as Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer reports, his complaint was with the rebuttal portion of the proceeding conducted by MLB’s labor relations department (“LRD”). After both player and team have their chance at presenting a case — Bauer was represented by his agents at Wasserman, the club by assistant GM Matt Forman — the MLB Players Association and LRD each have a shot at presenting.
The LRD brought up Bauer’s highly publicized charity campaign from last offseason as a negative. Last winter, Bauer made some light of the arbitration system by initially seeking to file at $6,420,969.69, as he told Jeff Passan at the time, though he ultimately opted to file at a more conventional $6.5MM. However, he also embarked on what he termed “69 Days of Giving,” donating $420.69 per day to various charities recommended to him by social media followers in addition to one final donation of $69,420.69 to a charity of his own choosing.
The use of numbers “that mean something socially,” as Bauer put it, was intended to “continue the news cycle” and boost the effectiveness of his charitable efforts. But the episode was presented in the arbitration setting as a knock against Bauer’s value. “It kind of put a black mark on what I thought was a really well-argued case on both sides,” Bauer said. “There’s no room for that. Let’s just stick to the numbers. Let the numbers tell the story.”
Indians GM Chris Antonetti said that the team had input on the LRD presentation and did not request that this particular line of attack be removed, though it did do so with regard to other possible arguments. Bauer at least hinted at the fact that the structure of the proceeding allows teams to disclaim responsibility for negativity by leaving it for LRD to present. Regardless, both player and team ultimately expressed that they carry no ill will moving forward.
While all involved seem disinclined to carry grudges, that doesn’t mean that Bauer is looking ahead to a warm and fuzzy arbitration process this time next year. Saying that he intends to demand a salary commensurate with the annual value a top-end free agent starter would command, Bauer predicts that he’ll “set the record raise or the record salary in arbitration for a starting pitcher,” suggesting he ought to earn “$30 million plus.” Since such a payday “will never be agreed upon before a hearing,” he says, a return to the adversarial process seems inevitable.
[RELATED: MLBTR’s Arbitration Tracker]
If Bauer does indeed seek to defend a number even approaching that magnitude, he will be looking to break new ground. He did exceed the expectations of MLBTR’s model — and Matt Swartz’s detailed breakdown — this time around. And the CBA language governing arbitration proceedings does hint that, in looking to “comparative baseball salaries,” players in their final season of arb eligibility are appropriately compared to free agents. (“The arbitration panel shall, except for a Player with five or more years of Major League service, give particular attention, for comparative salary purposes, to the contracts of Players with Major League service not exceeding one annual service group above the Player’s annual service group.”)
Still, he’ll be working off of the $13MM figure he earned this year, and arbitration typically works by adding raises on top of prior seasons’ salaries. Star third baseman Nolan Arenado filed at $30MM but settled for $26MM in his final season of eligibility — a record-breaking figure that nevertheless falls well shy of what he’d earn for just one season in free agency, even on a long-term commitment. Meanwhile, Jacob deGrom just set a record with a year-over-year raise of $9.6MM; he now sits at $17MM in 2019 earnings and will join Bauer in his final season of arb eligibility next winter — unless, that is, he first reaches an extension.
All of the battling could be forestalled if Bauer was to agree to a long-term deal with the Indians or some hypothetical team that might trade for him. But don’t hold your breath. As Nightengale examines in another piece, Bauer also reiterated his previously stated stance that he intends to “go year-to-year” for his “entire career.”
Bauer’s comments on that subject are fascinating in their own right. As he notes, the tendency to seek lengthy and massive multi-year deals in free agency is a risk-averse strategy for a player to take, as it dumps much of the long-term risk (and year-over-year ups and downs) on the team. Hypothetically, a player could earn more by taking it one season at a time — supposing, at least, that they keep performing. As teams change their means of valuation, he says, players “have to find a way in that environment to still maximize their value.”
The 28-year-old therefore seems content not only doing battle in front of an arbitration panel next winter, but then setting out onto the open market several times in the future. “It’s still unproven how clubs feel about [the one-year approach],” Bauer explains, “but looking at the market, and studying it, I identified for myself personally that it’s the best route to go forward.” Like any good scientist, Bauer will presumably be open to reconsidering that strategy if new evidence or reasoning supports an alternative approach. Of course, even if that occurs, wavering from his current course would rob us all of a chance to gain some fascinating data points.