Entering this off season, the Tigers had nine players on their roster who were eligible for arbitration. They traded one, Doug Fister, and quickly settled with two potential non tender candidates in Phil Coke and Don Kelly, giving each of them a one year non guaranteed contract for about the same amount that they made last season.
Five of the remaining six players settled on January 17, the date that clubs and players were due to exchange arbitration numbers. Max Scherzer, Austin Jackson, Rick Porcello, Andy Dirks, and Al Alburquerque all agreed to terms for the 2014 season. But not Alex Avila.
The Tigers and Avila are still some distance apart. The Tigers offer is $ 3.75 million, which is actually just above the 3.7 million that he was projected to receive by Matt Swartz on MLBtraderumors.com. The former All Star catcher submitted a salary proposal of $ 5.35 million. If the two sides do not reach an agreement, the matter will be submitted to a panel of three arbitrators for a hearing some time from February 1 to February 21.
The panel will choose either the player's number or the team's number, not more or less and not somewhere in the middle. Nothing prevents the two sides from reaching agreement any time before the decision is given. For what it's worth, splitting the 1.6 million difference in half, the mid point would be $ 4.55 million.
It is worth noting that very few players actually have an arbitration hearing each season. This is because both players and agents have a very good idea of the factors that will be considered, and can make a very good estimate of the range where the player's salary is likely to fall. It is also worth noting that the Tigers have not taken a single case to an arbitration hearing during Dave Dombrowski's tenure with Detroit.
What factors will the arbitration panel consider? Contrary to how most fans place a value on players, performance on the field is not the primary factor, nor even the secondary factor in determining how much a player is to be paid in arbitration. The collective bargaining agreement spells out the factors to be considered, and some factors which may not be considered.
Factors to consider:
- Major League Service Time;
- The player's past compensation, and any physical or mental defects
- Comparable statistics with similar players by position
- Comparable salaries with similar players by position;
- In addition, the panel may consider any special awards or achievements, and the success of the team
- The financial health of the team, or ability to pay
- Comments made by the media or other "experts", except awards as indicated above
- Offers made during negotiations
- Salaries made by players signed as free agents
- Salaries of players in other sport
I have long believed that catchers are generally under valued, and that any attempt to measure their value by focusing on offensive numbers, or by measuring defense by caught stealing percentage or some of the measurable statistics, is inherently flawed. The primary job of a catcher is to catch. He calls every pitch, keeps the pitchers in a rhythm, and has to know the strengths and weaknesses of every opposing hitter. What he does all game behind the plate far outweighs what he does in four or so plate appearances. Yet, even to the extent that a player's statistics matter in arbitration, these factors are very unlikely to enter into the discussion of his salary in arbitration.
Avila will be compared with recent salaries of catchers who have had between four and five years of major league service time in the major leagues. The panel will look at his recent salary history- he made $ 2.95 million in 2013, and will consider any special awards or achievements earned over the past season. Avila's representatives will be quick to point out his selection to the All Star team in 2011, but that performance is well on it's way to becoming a distant memory, and appears to be the outlier, rather than typical of his normal production.
Arbitrators are not limited to just the salaries of players in 2013, or those who have agreed to contracts for the upcoming season, but the more recent data tends to receive more weight in making a decision. Avila has four years plus 61 days of service time- read 4.061, so look for players with comparable service time first, as that is a prerequisite for any comparisons.
Avila started just 96 games for the Tigers in 2013, leaving 66 games to his team mates. He ranked 18th in the majors in games started behind the plate. Offensively, his OPS of .693 ranked 16th among those with at least 350 plate appearances. He threw out just 17% of runners and his 0.7 WAR ranked 27th among major league catchers. Suffice it to say that he is not coming off a good season.
On the plus side, Avila's agent will argue that he ranks 12th among catchers over the past three seasons, with a 7.5 WAR. Those numbers are boosted by a strong All Star performance in 2011 and an OBP of .357.
Buster Posey has 3 years and 161 days of service time. He just signed a nine year contract for $ 167 million, including $ 10.5 million for the 2014 season. While he has fewer than four years of service time, he is in Avila's arbitration class. Clearly, this is the very top of the pay scale for arbitration eligible catchers. Posey has one MVP and another near MVP under his belt, and he helped the Giants to two World championships.
When a player works out a long term deal that includes both his arbitration years and some free agency years, the arbitration seasons are not always representative of the player's value, although in this case, it may be so.
Carlos Santana has 3.115 years of service time with the Indians, and has signed a five year contract worth a total of $ 21 million. That includes $ 6 million for 2014, and 8.25 million for 2015- which would be his fifth year as 2014 will be for Avila. Santana is also an All Star with much better offensive numbers than Avila, but he is in the process of being moved out from behind the plate. Santana posted a 3.6 WAR in 2013.
Matt Wieters has 4.129 years of service time, so he is in Avila's arbitration class. He earned $ 5.5 million in 2013 coming off a fantastic All Star season the previous year. The Orioles have not yet settled with their catcher for 2014. The figures submitted are $ 6.5 million and $ 8.75 million, one of the largest gaps of any unsettled case. Even in an off year for him, Weiters posted a 2.4 WAR in 2013.
Avila's agent will be drawing comparisons between Wieters and his client, and there are some similarities. However, Wieters, a Scott Boras client, is also nearer to the head of the class than Avila. He is a two time All Star and two time gold glove winner, though he was neither last season. He also made more than Avila the previous season, so salary history does not favor Alex getting that large of a pay hike in this comparison.
John Jaso of the Athletics has 4.032 years of service time, so he is in Avila's class, and will make $ 2.3 million for the 2014 season as he settled his potential arbitration case. Jaso made $ 1.8 million last year, so he's getting a $ 500K increase. Jaso logged only 249 plate appearances in 2013, giving way to Derek Norris for the bulk of the catching duties, but he still posted a WAR of 1.2 which is better than Avila.
Nick Hundley of the Padres has 5.059 years of service time. He signed a three year contract that paid him $ 2, 3, and 4 million with a 5 million option for what would be his fourth through seventh major league seasons. The relevant comparison here is the $ 3 million that he received in 2013, when he posted a WAR of 1.9. He has strong defensive numbers, but a weak batting line, not much different from Avila's line.
Jonathan Lucroy of the Brewers has 3.136 years of service time, so he is a year behind Avila, just missing out on super two status last year. He signed a five year extension before the 2012 season that will pay him $ 2 million for 2014, $ 3 million for 2015, and up from there. He also has a club option for a sixth year, and he has a no trade clause. Like Santana, Lucroy's WAR was 3.6 in 2013. If anything, the 3 million figure that he is set to receive in 2015 would be the relevant number.
Kurt Suzuki recently signed as a free agent with the Twins to replace Joe Mauer behind the plate. While his latest contract is not relevant, he did make $ 3.75 million, $ 5, and $ 6 million in his arbitration seasons, working mostly part time without terribly impressive numbers. Suzuki signed a three year contract with Oakland that would have paid him $ 9.25 million had he started 113 games last year, but that didn't happen. Here's another one for Avila's reps to point out, although multi year contracts are not the strongest comps.
AJ Ellis of the Dodgers is a year behind Avila with 3.151 years of service and he made $ 2 million in 2013, posting a WAR of 2.2 for the season.
Jason Castro was an All Star with the Astros in 2013 (yes, they had an All Star) and he has 3.115 years of service. In his first season of arbitration eligibility, he settled for $ 2.41 million for 2014. He's also a year behind Avila.
Wilson Ramos is also a season behind Avila, with 3.047 years of service. He settled his arbitration case for $ 2.1 million for the 2014 season, and posted a WAR of 1.8 last season.
Ryan Hanigan just signed a three year contract with the Tampa Bay Rays, with a club option for a fourth season. He has 5.077 years of service time. The Rays traded for Hanigan in December and inked him to the four year extension on the same day. He will earn 2.75 million in 2014, 3.5 and 3.75 million in the next two seasons, but those would be free agent years. Since Hanigan has been a back up for much of his career, Avila's salary should be a bit higher.
As you can see, we are now drifting farther away from Avila's situation in our comparisons. I won't even bother going into the salaries of free agent catchers, nor those not yet eligible for arbitration, as that information is excluded from the arbitration proceedings. The panel can use past salaries of current free agents, looking back to their arbitration seasons, should they wish to make comparisons.
It appears from the comps that Avila should receive a salary somewhere above John Jaso, but less than Matt Wieters. That's a large gap. Other contracts for similar players appear to fall closer to the range of the Tigers' offer than they do to Avila's request. Should this matter go to a hearing, I'd bet on the Tigers winning their case. But then, with Dombrowski doing business, I'd bet against a hearing every taking place.