We’re all familiar with the game on the field. And there are a bunch of rules that maybe don’t make much sense yet we accept that we need rules and move on. Why does a pitcher have to face a batter but a batter doesn’t have to face a pitcher? Why is it okay to deceive a batter but not okay to deceive a runner? Why can a runner go past first and home but not second and third?
It’s no different with the game off the field. Well, maybe it’s a little easier to explain, as the rules started out to benefit the owners over the players and anything that approaches fairness for the players was won thanks to the efforts of the MLBPA. Still, at the end of the day, there are rules in place and you use the rules to the best of your ability, no different than busting it down the first base line and going 10 steps beyond the bag. Because you can.
The arbitration system in baseball is good. Now, we can argue about how long it takes to kick in and how long a player is subject to arbitration before he becomes a free agent but what’s not up for debate is that it sure beats the alternative. Don’t believe me? Just look at football and Le’Veon Bell. One of the top backs in football, Bell couldn’t agree on a contract with the Steelers and his only choices were to accept what the team offered or hold out. He’s opted for the latter and hasn’t played a snap this season.
Holdouts used to be more common in baseball, perhaps the most famous example was when Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale teamed up on a holdout to get more money. But we have arbitration now and that no longer happens.
As Mets fans, we know that barring a trade or injury, Jacob deGrom is going to pitch for the team. We know he’s going to be there for Spring Training and we know he’ll be there on Opening Day. Without the arbitration system, it’s very likely that deGrom would be like football’s Bell, a holdout trying to get something close to fair value for his services
To be certain, arbitration salaries are still significantly lower than what a star player could get on the free market. But they’re much closer to fair market than what pre-arbitration players can get. The system is still stacked in favor of the owners. Players get paid not just on their production but also on a tiered system. A player just starting arbitration will make less than a player in his last season of arbitration, talent being equal. Also, if the owners feel like a player is going to get more in arbitration than they want to pay, they can opt out of the game by not tendering the player a contract.
But these are the rules.
MLBTR puts out arbitration forecasts for all eligible players. This year’s projections are out and they have deGrom meriting a $12.9 million salary, more than twice what they predict for Noah Syndergaard. Is deGrom twice as good as Syndergaard? He was last year, in part because of the time missed by Syndergaard. But few would argue that in terms of true talent level that deGrom was that superior. But he’s forecasted for that edge because he got to arbitration earlier as a Super Two and he’s on his third year of arbitration, while Syndergaard is on his second.
What might deGrom’s salary be if he was a free agent? Well, FanGraphs pegs his 2018 season being worth $70.1 million. Now, no club would pay him that. But it’s safe to assume he would get more than $12.9 million if all clubs could pursue him. Last year, Jake Arrieta received a complex free agent contract that paid him $30 million in 2018 as part of a 3/$75 million deal with various opt out and team option clauses. It seems likely deGrom would get a better deal than that.
During the last offseason, deGrom’s agent publicly called for the club to sign his client to a long-term deal. Because deGrom was not eligible for free agency, there was zero economic incentive for the Mets to honor that request. But, in a development that no one saw at this time a year ago, deGrom’s agent is now the GM of the Mets. Does the GM still hold the belief that the former agent had?
Well, he shouldn’t.
The rules of the game give the Mets the opportunity to go to arbitration with deGrom this year and next year. And deGrom will earn a boatload of money in those two seasons but still well short of what he would command if he was a free agent. For years now, we’ve heard that the Mets should sign deGrom to a long-term deal. Everyone wants the peace of mind knowing that he will be with the team for his entire career.
But what the fans want doesn’t equal what’s good business sense for the team. And what’s good business sense for the team could/should translate into a better team for the fans. Would you rather pay market rate for deGrom today or would you rather pay him a depressed arbitration salary and use those savings to buy J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins or pick up a free agent like Wilson Ramos or Craig Kimbrel?
Additionally, what’s working against deGrom is that he made the majors as an older player. With younger players, it makes sense for both sides when a club buys out a few years of free agency. The player gets more money than he would in his arb years and the club gets a break on the free agency ones. But the equation is different for a guy like Bryce Harper, who’s hitting free agency at age 26 than it does for deGrom, who’ll hit free agency at age 32.
Going back to Arrieta, in his age 29 season in 2015, he put up a 7.3 fWAR en route to a Cy Young Award. At age 30 he put up a 3.8 mark and at age 31 he was at a 2.4 level. If the Cubs had given him a long-term deal after 2015 – when he still had two seasons of arbitration left – they would have massively overpaid for him.
That’s just one example and by no means does one example mean that’s what will happen with deGrom. It’s beyond the scope of this piece to examine how every pitcher in his late 20s with two years of arbitration left performed. But Arrieta is a shining example of why the Mets should ignore the pleas of agents and cries from fans to rush out and give deGrom a long-term deal. It makes more sense to do a deal of that type with Syndergaard. Or possibly Zack Wheeler if you think his season-long results in 2018 are indicative of what he’ll do going forward.
Supposedly, the hiring of Brodie Van Wagenen as GM indicates a new boldness for the club. One indication of boldness is the willingness to go against the wishes of your fan base when you know it’s not in the best interest of your team. Will the Mets and Van Wagenen be bold with his former client? My guess is that they won’t. The fans in 2018 will be thrilled if/when deGrom comes away with a long-term contract. But will they feel the same way in 2022?