Over the coming days, I am discussing some of the higher profile upcoming arbitration cases. 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. 2020 projections are available right here.
Josh Bell established himself as a formidable power hitter just in time for his platform year, leading into his first time through the arbitration process. The first baseman hit 37 home runs and knocked in 116 while batting .277—all career highs. Despite being a far less productive hitter prior to 2019, Bell still accumulated some decent career numbers as well thanks to playing full-time for three consecutive seasons. He totaled 78 home runs and 287 RBIs, along with a .265 average. My model projects Bell to earn $5.9 million his first time through arbitration.
The model does not explicitly pick comparables when generating its projection, but it will logically place Bell near some of his most similar hitters while compensating for some salary inflation. Bell’s arbitration case is pretty well-established—he is a hitter who had an elite power year in his platform with solid but non-elite performance prior to that.
Ideally, a comparable player is somebody who plays the same position. But looking for hitters who already play first base full-time before reaching arbitration is challenging.
Chris Carter had similar power numbers when he entered arbitration in 2015, but a far inferior batting average and was also a DH for most of his platform season. He earned $4.18MM after hitting 37 home runs and knocking in 88 his platform season, a totaling 85 HR and 216 RBI in his career. But his platform batting average was only .227 and his career average was .222. This is obviously a likely floor for Bell, who five years later has bested Carter in each of these categories.
Wil Myers obviously played a few positions by the time he entered arbitration in 2017, but commonly played first base. He hit .259 with 28 home runs and 94 runs batted in during his platform year, but stole 28 bases. He only hit 55 home runs in his career though, far less than Bell’s 78. So Myers’ $4.5MM salary seems likely to be low as well.
If we expand to other positions on the diamond, I can find four other infielders in the last five years who hit at least 30 home runs in their platform year and batted at least .250, but did not have 90 home runs in their career, putting them in a similar position to Bell. Each of the four players earned between $5.0MM and $5.2MM and has similarities to Bell.
Last season, Javier Baez entered arbitration with a .290/34/111 platform but stole 21 bases, and had .267/81/269 career numbers to go along with 49 steals. The numbers are certainly similar to Bell, if a little bit better, and Baez plays a harder position. Baez’s $5.2 million could be a benchmark for determining Bell’s 2020 earnings.
Trevor Story also had a similar case going into last season, with a .291/37/108 line in his platform year, and a .268/88/262 line for his career. Story plays a harder position and steals bases at a regular clip as well—27 in his platform year. Story’s $5.0MM could also be a solid benchmark for Bell.
Going back to 2016, we also find a couple third basemen with similar batting numbers to Bell. Both Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado got $5.0MM. Machado hit .286/35/86 platform and .281/68/215 career, while Arenado had a .287/42/130 platform and a .281/70/243 career. Machado had stolen 20 bases in his platform as well. Both arguably had better cases than Bell, but being four years old, these cases are a bit stale.
I think that the model could be a little high on Bell, projecting him for $5.9MM when he may land closer to $5.0MM. It is clear that he should outearn other recent first basemen who got salaries in the low-to-mid $4MM range, but not clear enough that some of the 3B and SS who earned $5.0MM to $5.2MM have weaker cases at all. Salary inflation could push him past them, but I suspect he will land right around $5 million.