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An Arbitration Update

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The Astros will take two players to arbitration this year while settling with four others before the deadline.

MLB: Texas Rangers at Houston Astros Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports

Sparingly throughout the last few years, specifically during the offseason, I have made it a point to read certain sections of MLB’s Collective Bargaining Agreement. I find it a worthwhile endeavor to at least make an attempt to learn what is going on within the game below the surface. Admittedly, there are numerous provisions of the document where I am not qualified enough to provide an opinion worth more than the paper it is printed on. However, there are a few where I find something to interesting write about, even if briefly. One such area is admissible statistics during the arbitration process.

Here is the excerpt from the CBA itself (Page 28, Paragraph 10 (c)):

Admissible Statistics. Only publicly available statistics shall be admissible. For purposes of this provision, publicly available statistics shall include data available through subscription-only websites (e.g., Baseball Prospectus). Statistics and data generated through the use of performance technology, wearable technology, or “STATCAST”, whether publicly available or not, shall not be admissible.

That last sentence, in particular, stands out to me, which states that “STATCAST” data is not admissible during the hearing between the club and respective player. I can’t help but wonder if the next CBA will have different language surrounding the subject, especially with the application of that data showing continuous improvement in the last few years. There are still shortcomings in the metrics generated by the Statcast data, yet the tools already available provide new insights into baseball analysis. Of course, it shouldn’t be overlooked that Statcast is a league-owned operation and the league answers to the owners. It is hard to blame the MLBPA for not feeling confident that they can trust the end result of that data when it is also generated by the league, even if the information is public. Players, after all, have a valid reason(s) to express skepticism when it comes to club ownership.

Now, back to the immediate subject at hand.

Entering the arbitration-deadline on Friday to exchange salary figures with players, the Astros had yet to settle with Carlos Correa, George Springer, Brad Peacock, Aledmys Diaz, Roberto Osuna, and Chris Devenski. If an agreement wasn’t reached between the parties, the team and player(s) would be on a collision course for arbitration in February.

By the end of the day, the Astros had deals in place with the following players for the upcoming season. The club already agreed to one-year deals with Lance McCullers Jr. and Joe Biagini, who were both arbitration-eligible, earlier this offseason.

2020 Arbitration Details

Player 2020 Salary
Player 2020 Salary
Carlos Correa $8,000,000
Brad Peacock $3,900,000
Roberto Osuna $10,000,000
Chris Devenski $2,000,000
Lance McCullers Jr. $4,100,000
Joe Biagini $1,000,000

All in all, Houston had spent $29 million on six arbitration-eligible players this offseason. Each final figure were within reason of what was projected across numerous sites. Nothing too extreme this year, right?

Sort of.

The Astros failed to reach an agreement with two eligible players: Springer and Diaz. That is not an unexpected development as Jeff Luhnow and his front office are a notorious file-and-trial club. It would’ve been a surprise if that staff didn’t take any for an arbitration hearing. But while there isn’t anything too unusual about Diaz’s case ($2.6M player claim; $2.0M team claim), Springer’s has the largest gap of all the scheduled arbitration cases this winter with a $5 million difference between the two sides.

For the Astros, these last two cases hold considerable sway over their upcoming luxury tax bill. Depending on which site you prefer, the numbers may look a bit different. Personally, I prefer Cot’s Baseball Contracts, which you can find at Baseball Prospectus. Once updated with the applicable arbitration figures for 2020, Cot’s calculations point to the Astros hovering near that $228 million threshold, which determines whether there is an additional twelve percent surtax on any salary overage between $20 to $40 million. The club is already paying twenty percent on any amount over $208 million, barring a sudden change in course.

If Springer’s case is ruled in his favor, the odds of the Astros remaining below that $228 million threshold for the additional surtax noticeably lessen. For example, if both Springer and Diaz win their respective cases, Houston’s payroll for tax purposes would equate to about $229.565 million. Even if Diaz loses his case to see his salary adjusted to $2 million, Springer’s case alone would exceed the threshold by at least $965,000.

That said, it is a bit odd to see the Astros lowball Springer by $5 million in their offer compared to his request. Yes, the thirty-year old outfielder recently earned $12 million this past season as part of his two-year, $24 million contract that he signed prior to the 2018 season, which eliminated two arbitration cycles. The fact of the matter is that Springer is one of the most dynamic outfielders in baseball. By Statcast, which, again, isn’t admissible, the 2017 World Series MVP consistently ranks in the upper percentiles across various categories.

  • Hard Hit Rate - 82nd percentile
  • Outs Above Average - 94th percentile
  • Sprint Speed - 83rd percentile
  • xwOBA - 96th percentile

Since his debut in 2014, only Mike Trout (52.5), Mookie Betts (37.2), Christian Yelich (31.8), and Bryce Harper (26.6) have posted a higher fWAR than Springer (24.6) among all qualified outfielders. Betts, who is in his last year of arbitration like Springer, recently agreed to a $27 million salary for 2020 with the Red Sox. The 2018 AL MVP has a slightly different profile than Springer, but there shouldn’t be a nearly $10 million divide between these two outfielders.

Injury concerns, though, are a likely factor in the lowball offer as he has only played in more than 140 games during a single season only once (2016) in his major league career. Age is another possible factor in these salary discussions. Of course, the Astros could be using this situation as an opportunity to have Springer trade a bit of annual salary off the top to help with tax purposes if the club offers a favorable extension.