Breaking down the flurry of signings that avoided arbitration
Tuesday was the deadline for players eligible for salary arbitration to exchange salary figures with their teams. As such, it served as something of an unofficial deadline for many players and teams looking to avoid the contentious arbitration process which is coming to terms on contracts for the coming season. A whopping 65 players avoided arbitration on Tuesday, leaving just 33 of the major league's 165 arbitration-eligible players (not counting those non-tendered back in December) unsigned as of Wednesday morning.
The headliner among those 65 players was Prince Fielder, who agreed to a one-year contract with the Brewers worth $15.5 million, a record salary for a one-year deal for a player prior to free agency, easily breaking the prior mark of $12.5 million given to Mark Teixeira by the Braves for the 2008 season. As striking as Fielder's 2011 salary might be, it still represents a discount over his actual market value. Over the past three seasons, he has hit .281/.395/.549 while averaging 40 home runs and 111 RBIs. Per FanGraph's Dollars statistic, which estimates the free-agent value of a player's production, Fielder has been worth an annual average of $20 million over those four seasons. Ryan Howard, a fair point of comparison as a big-bodied slugging first baseman, will make exactly $20 million in 2011 and made $19 million in 2010, which would have been his final arbitration year if the Phillies hadn't signed him to a three-year deal after he won $10 million in his first year of arbitration. Fielder, who has out-hit Howard's .269/.361/.551 line across the board those last four years, is thus a bargain at $15.5 million.
Another point of comparison for Fielder is Joey Votto. The 2010 National League Most Valuable Player was eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, but rather than risk a Howard-like defeat, the Reds signed him to a three-year deal which will pay him a relatively modest $5.5 million in 2011. However, that deal escalates rapidly and will pay Votto $17 million for what would have been his final arbitration-eligible season in 2013. Of the 132 arbitration-eligible players to come to terms thus far this offseason, Votto will see the greatest increase in salary in 2011 relative to his 2010 earnings as he'll make more than 10 times the $525,000 he took home last season, and his net increase of $4.975 million falls just $25,000 short of Fielder's for the largest salary increase among those 132 players. Votto's deal benefits both the player (in the long term) and team (in the short term) and is yet another example of why Fielder is something of a bargain for the coming season.
After Fielder, the next largest 2011 salary among this winter's arbitration-eligible players belongs to Jonathan Papelbon, who signed a one-year, $12 million deal with the Red Sox. That's actually a fairly modest increase, just 28 percent more than the $9.35 million he made in 2010 and in line with what the top closers in the game are being paid. Joe Nathan has made $11.25 million a year since 2008. Francisco Rodriguez made $11.5 million in 2010 and will again in 2011. Brad Lidge has made $11.5 million a year since 2009. Francisco Cordero, who is a notch below Papelbon and company in the hierarchy of the game's closers, has made $12 million a year since 2009. Mariano Rivera has made $15 million since '08 and just re-upped with the Yankees for the same salary over the next two seasons. The Yankees also just signed former Rays closer Rafael Soriano to a three-year deal with an average annual value of $11.67 million to serve as Rivera's set-up man. Papelbon isn't a bargain at $12 million, is coming off his worst season, and closers are generally overpaid and overvalued, but compared to that lot, it's hard to argue that Papelbon's 2011 salary is out-of-line.
What's more, those comparisons make the $7.5 million Padres closer Heath Bell will make this coming season, the last of his arbitration years, look like a nice discount. That is especially true given the fact that he was the second-most-valuable reliever in baseball in 2010 according to Baseball Prospectus's win-expectancy-based WXRL (roughly Wins eXpected above Replacement, adjusted for the strength of opposing Lineups). Bell has been worth an average of $9.2 million over the last two seasons according to FanGraphs' Dollars. However, Matt Capps, a second-tier closer who settled with the Twins for $7.15 million, is clearly being overpaid, particularly as he's likely to lose the closing job once Nathan is ready to return from his March 2010 Tommy John surgery.
Capps' raise from the $3.5 million he earned in 2010 is one of the largest relative increases among players who have settled entering their third arbitration year. The largest is the 127 percent increase Rangers' pitcher C.J. Wilson got, from $3.1 million in 2010 to $7.05 million in the coming season. Wilson, though, is still a bargain at that price. As an ace set-up man in 2009, he was worth $8.8 million according to FanGraphs' Dollars. As a solid number-two starter in 2010, he was worth $17.7 million according to that same measure.
Save for Votto, all of the players above are entering their final year prior to free agency, and all earned salaries in excess of $3 million in 2010. Players are typically eligible for arbitration for each of their three seasons prior to free agency, and arbitration awards or settlements typically have as much to do with seniority as performance. For example, the average 2011 salary of the third-year-eligible players who have settled with their teams is $5.17 million, while it's $2.51 million for second-year-eligible players, and $1.81 million for first-year-eligible players.
Among players in their second year of arbitration eligibility, Marlins closer Leo Nuñez got the largest relative increase, nearly tripling his 2010 salary by settling for $3.65 million for the coming season. In raw dollars, that's comparable to the trio of young starters who lead the second-year gainers: new Cub Matt Garza, who received a $2.6 million raise to $5.95 million, White Sox lefty John Danks, who will make an even $6 million in the coming season, up from $3.45 million in 2010, and the Dodgers' Chad Billingsley, who will make $6.28 million, a $2.43 million increase.
As for first-year arbitration eligible players, Votto received the biggest pay day with the Indians' Shin-Soo Choo trailing considerably behind on a one-year deal for $3.98 million, an absolute bargain for one of the best and least appreciated outfielders in the game. FanGraphs' Dollars estimates that Choo, an outstanding defensive right fielder who has hit .300/.397/.486 with 43 stolen bases over the last two seasons, was worth more than $22 million in each of those last two seasons.
Though there are just 33 arbitration-eligible players still without contracts for 2011, including Frank Francisco and Jason Frasor, free agents that accepted arbitration from their 2010 teams, there are some big names in that group, including two of the American League's top hitters in 2010, MVP Josh Hamilton and 54-home-run man Jose Bautista. Jered Weaver, Francisco Liriano, Rickie Weeks, and Billy Butler are among the other compelling names on that list. Those players and their teams can come to terms on a contract at any point prior to the delivery of the decision of the arbitration panel, as Tim Lincecum and the Giants did with an 11th-hour deal a year ago moments before entering the hearing. Indeed, the glut of settlements on Tuesday reveals just how repellant the process has become to many players and their teams as so many didn't even want to have to submit salary figures.