Over the coming days, I am discussing some of the higher profile upcoming arbitration cases. So far, we’ve previewed Josh Bell, Cody Bellinger, Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Mike Clevinger, George Springer, and Jonathan Villar. For these pieces, 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.
As first-year arbitration awards continue to grow with the revenue and payrolls in baseball today, they provide higher platforms through which arbitration records in later years can be more easily broken. Mookie Betts will go through the arbitration process one more time after earning $20.1MM including bonuses during his penultimate year through the arb process, putting him in line to potentially break Nolan Arenado’s record of $26MM his last time through arbitration. Betts’ potential salary is high enough that he has frequently been featured in trade rumors as the Red Sox seek to reset themselves below the luxury tax threshold in 2020.
Either way, Betts’ case is going to simultaneously take a large chunk of someone’s payroll while also being a relative bargain to similarly-producing free agents. After a historic season in 2018 in which Betts hit 32 home runs, stole 30 bases, and racked up an amazing slash line of .346/.438/.640, Betts had a slightly more pedestrian year — by his standards — in 2019. Betts batted .295 and hit 29 home runs while stealing 16 bases, while recording 80 RBI and a league-leading 135 runs scored.
The model uses the generally accurate fact that players’ salaries in subsequent years in arbitration are determined as raises based on their platform year production alone. So while Betts may not have had a historic season, he does have a good case for breaking Arenado’s record, thanks to Betts’ $20.1MM salary in 2019. My model projects a $7.6MM raise for 2020, which would land the Red Sox outfielder at $27.7MM.
Even coming down to earth in 2019, Betts still put up rare numbers. There are very few hitters who have reached their third year of arbitration eligibility with at least 25 home runs and double-digit stolen bases in their platform year — in the last five years, only four players hit both plateaus. Charlie Blackmon got a $6.7MM raise in 2018 after hitting .331 with 37 homers, 104 RBI, and 14 steals the prior year.
Although Blackmon’s batting average obviously bested Betts’ .295, the other three hitters had far lower averages. Todd Frazier hit .225 with 40 HR, 98 RBI, and 15 steals and got just a $3.75MM raise in 2017. Didi Gregorius hit .268/27/86 with 10 stolen bases and got a $3.5MM raise last year, while Aaron Hicks hit .248/27/79 with 11 stolen bases last year en route to a $3.2MM raise. Still, the Red Sox could argue that Betts may deserve a smaller bump over Frazier, Gregorius, and Hicks, and potentially less than Blackmon’s $6.7MM.
Obviously, we are limiting the potential list of comparables by requiring double-digit stolen bases. A couple more recent names (both third basemen) emerge when dropping that requirement. Anthony Rendon got a $6.5MM raise in 2018 after putting up a solid .301/25/100 campaign — and that could easily serve as a benchmark for Betts. Arenado last year got an $8.25MM raise after a .297/38/110 season. Given that Arenado’s numbers were at Coors Field, Betts could certainly argue for that as a basis.
I suspect Betts would be able to successfully argue for at least topping Rendon’s $6.5MM, although Blackmon’s $6.7MM could be a ceiling. I could see Betts even getting up to an $8.25MM raise like Arenado did last year as well, though that might be more difficult. Based on this list of potential comps, the $5.9MM Betts would need to break Arenado’s record definitely seems doable if not guaranteed, and the model’s $7.6MM projection does seem out of reach either.