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October 25, 2010

Contractual Matters

AL West Arbitration Forecast

by Jeff Euston

About 220 players will be eligible for salary arbitration this off-season. Some will not receive a contract offer and become free agents December 2. Others will agree to terms before the new year. Many will file for arbitration in early January, with the vast majority of that group settling on 2011 contracts before arguing their cases at hearings in February.

With that as background, let’s take a look at the arbitration forecasts for 2011 for the teams in the AL West, the first in a six-part series spotlighting each division.

Texas Rangers

The American League champions will face difficult arbitration cases with several players who have starred in their division title and post-season runs, just the sort of problem every club wants to have as the offseason begins.

Leading the group is MVP candidate Josh Hamilton, who earned $3.25 million in 2010 and remains under the Rangers’ control for two more seasons. An MVP award would provide Hamilton with the leverage of a “special accomplishment,” allowing him to compare himself not only to players in his service-time class but to the highest-paid players in the game.

The price for a one-year deal for Hamilton’s fifth season figures to start at the eight-figure mark, at a minimum. Milwaukee’s Prince Fielder earned $10.5 million in 2010, his fifth full season. But Fielder does not have an MVP award on his mantle. Hamilton is not likely to use 2009 NL MVP Albert Pujols ($16 million) as a comparable, but 2009 AL MVP Joe Mauer earned $12.5 million in 2010—under a contract signed before the 2007 season.

If Hamilton and the Rangers explore the possibility of a multi-year contract, a couple of recent deals for players, like Hamilton, heading into their fifth seasons might serve as templates. Three years ago, Matt Holliday parlayed his monster 2007 season into a two-year deal worth $23 million ($11.5 average annual value) with the Rockies. Two years later, Boston’s Kevin Youkilis landed a four-year, $41.125 million deal ($10.3 million AAV) as an MVP candidate headed for arbitration for the second time in his career.

Another force in the Texas lineup, Nelson Cruz, reaches arbitration for the first time in February. At 30 years old, Cruz is older than the typical first-timer. But he should approach the salaries of Carlos Quentin ($3.2 million in 2010), Corey Hart ($3.25 million in 2009), and Jeff Francoeur ($3.375 million in 2009). On the high end of the spectrum is a second baseman, Dan Uggla, who won a $5.35 million award for 2009. Another right-handed hitting outfielder, Matt Kemp of the Dodgers, signed a two-year contract worth $10.95 million last winter as a first-time arbitration-eligible.

A trickier case is lefty C.J. Wilson, who earned $3.1 million in 2010, his first season in the starting rotation. With pitching always at a premium, few productive starting pitchers sign one-year contracts through their arbitration years. As a result, comps are scarce for Wilson, who is due to become a free agent after the 2011 season. Colorado’s Jorge De La Rosa made $5.6 million in 2010, his final arbitration year. But Wilson’s 2010 platform season (4.9 WARP) was superior to that of De La Rosa (2.1 WARP in 2009). A better comp—in terms of service time and dollars, if not performance—might be Philadelphia’s Joe Blanton. He filed for $10.25 million for 2010, with the Phillies offering $7.5 million. The two sides struck a three-year, $24 million deal before the hearing. Wilson figures to seek to surpass those numbers, whether he pursues a one-year deal or entertains the idea of a multi-year extension.

Other Rangers due to receive modest pay raises in arbitration are outfielder David Murphy and relievers Darren O’Day, Dustin Nippert, and Mark Lowe. Francoeur and right-hander Brandon McCarthy are non-tender candidates.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

The Angels’ arbitration class features right-hander Jered Weaver and just about the entire infield: first baseman Kendry Morales, second baseman Howie Kendrick, shortstop Erick Aybar, third baseman Alberto Callaspo, and utility man Kevin Frandsen. Also eligible are outfielder Reggie Willits and catchers Jeff Mathis and Mike Napoli.

The toughest case is easily Weaver, a Scott Boras client and a dark horse Cy Young candidate coming off the best season of his career. Though the Angels control Weaver’s rights for two more seasons, a long-term deal is unlikely unless the club is willing to pay top dollar. The Tigers and Mariners set the market last winter, signing five-year deals with Justin Verlander ($80 million) and Felix Hernandez ($78 million), who both were eligible for arbitration for a second time. If the Angels aren’t willing to top those deals, Weaver will be content to go year to year. He’s a good bet to seek more than Verlander’s 2010 request for $9.5 million.

Morales, another Boras client, did not have the platform season he wanted in 2010. After posting a .306/.355/.569 slash line with 34 home runs in 2009, Morales broke his leg in May, ending his season. He’ll likely seek to match the $3.1 million 2010 salary of Dodgers first baseman James Loney.

Kendrick, a second-timer, should approach the 2010 salaries of Rickie Weeks ($2.75 million) or Clint Barmes ($3.3 million). Napoli, still two seasons away from free agency, is likely to seek a salary in the $5 million range after making $3.6 million in 2010. Aybar, Callaspo, Frandsen, Mathis, and Willits all can expect modest raises.

Oakland Athletics

The Athletics have 11 players eligible to file. But realistically, only two—starter Dallas Braden and reliever Craig Breslow—have the statistical leverage to threaten to take their cases to a hearing.

As a first-time eligible, Braden should be in line for at least $2 million, matching fellow first-time starting pitchers Edwin Jackson and Zach Duke ($2.2 million each in 2009) or John Maine and Wandy Rodriguez ($2.6 million each in 2009).

Braden’s 2010 numbers (113 strikeouts in 192 2/3 innings over 30 starts) are similar to the 2009 season from the Rangers’ Scott Feldman (113 strikeouts in 189 2/3 innings over 31 starts). Braden, however, posted an 11-14 won-loss record, which remains relevant in arbitration cases and Cy Young balloting despite being a flawed measure of a pitcher’s worth. Feldman, in contrast, boasted a shiny 17-8 record and filed for a $2.9 million salary for 2010. Texas floated an offer of $2.05 million before the two sides settled at $2.425 million.

At the high end of the scale for Braden are the one-year 2010 contracts for John Danks ($3.45 million) and Joe Saunders ($3.7 million). A marker for a multi-year deal would be Ervin Santana’s four-year, $30 million contract, which postpones free agency for the right-hander for at least one year and gives the Angels an option for an additional season.

Breslow, another first-timer, has carved out a niche in the Oakland bullpen. His 2010 performance, which included 71 strikeouts in 74 1/3 innings, should move him into a range somewhere between the 2010 salaries of J.P. Howell ($1.8 million) and Ramon Ramirez ($1.155 million).

After disappointing 2010 seasons, third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff and outfielder Conor Jackson might find themselves priced out of Oakland. They each earned $3.1 million in 2010, which means that the Athletics must offer both players deals worth at least $2.48 million (the maximum allowable paycut of 20 percent) or allow them to become free agents December 2. Rajai Davis, Ryan Sweeney, Travis Buck, and Jack Cust should see modest raises if they remain in Oakland’s plans.

Seattle Mariners

Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik will have to hammer out agreements with as many as eight arbitration-eligible players this winter.

The most prominent case is that of closer David Aardsma, who has become a fixture at the back of the Mariners’ bullpen in his two seasons in Seattle. Aardsma’s strikeout rate declined in 2010 while his walks and home runs allowed increased. But for the second consecutive season, he earned 30-plus saves, one of the statistical categories that usually gets the attention of an arbitration panel. As a first-time arbitration-eligible last winter, Aardsma settled his case in January for $2.75 million. This time around, he’ll likely seek to match Heath Bell’s 2010 salary of $4 million. If the two sides are inclined to work out a two-year deal buying out Aardsma’s final two seasons before free agency, a model might be Jonathan Broxton’s two-year, $11 million contract signed in January 2010.

Seattle reliever Brandon League earned $1,087,500 in 2010 as Aardsma’s primary set-up man. After a solid 2010, League is due for a raise, with a likely ceiling of Todd Coffey’s 2010 salary of $2.025 million. Right-handed reliever Sean White should qualify as a Super Two and come close to matching the paycheck of Matt Albers ($680,000) or Nippert ($665,000).

Both Jason Vargas and Ryan Rowland-Smith are first-time arbitration-eligibles, but the lefty starters bring decidedly different resumes to the table. Vargas gave the M’s 192 2/3 innings and a SIERA of 4.69 in 2010, while Rowland-Smith posted a SIERA of 5.60 in 109 1/3 innings. Vargas should pull down a salary in the $2 million range. But Rowland-Smith’s 1-10 won-loss record (again, still relevant, though flawed) will keep his salary in the middle six-figures, assuming he is not removed from the roster this winter.

Two Seattle cases—first baseman Casey Kotchman and reserve outfielder Ryan Langerhans—are likely to result in non-tenders. If either returns, it probably will be on a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

 Finally, there is infielder Josh Wilson, who teamed with his namesake, Jack Wilson, to give the Mariners a sub-.600 OPS from the shortstop position in 2010. With Jack under contract at $5.5 million for 2011, he’ll return. But the future is more uncertain for Josh Wilson, who heads to arbitration with underwhelming numbers from his 2010: a .220 TAv and a triple-slash line of .227/.278/.294. If the Mariners keep him on the roster, Josh Wilson is likely to receive an offer comparable to Ramon Santiago’s $550,000 salary for 2008. For him, that certainly would beat trolling for a minor-league contract elsewhere.  

Jeff Euston is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

Related Content:  Arbitration,  The Who,  Dallas Braden,  Time,  Jack Wilson

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