TORONTO – In a sense, baseball’s salary arbitration system ended up working as intended for Bo Bichette and the Toronto Blue Jays, the process driving them to strike a deal rather than argue their cases in a potentially damaging hearing.
Neither players nor clubs like tempting fate with an independent third-party panel, after making arguments that sometimes leave residual harm in a relationship. Typically, that leads to a slate of one-year deals for eligible players ahead of the annual filing deadline, with only a small handful of cases ending up before arbitrators.
Bichette and the Blue Jays didn’t get there on a one-year deal last month, putting them on a path to a clash since Toronto is a “file-and-trial” team, meaning once player ask and club offer are exchanged, the only way to avoid a hearing is with a multiyear contract.
At that point, they could easily have dug in, continued to stare each other down and gone for broke, consequences be damned. Instead, they cleverly manoeuvred around the abyss to land at a $33.6-million, three-year agreement, with escalators that could push the total value to $40.65 million, beating a second deadline after missing the first.
General manager Ross Atkins, during a Zoom chat with media Friday, termed the deal “win-win,” and given the ways this week could have played out he’s not wrong. Still, the entire episode is also demonstrative of how complicated, delicate, risky and rewarding arbitration can be.
“It’s just being respectful of what the process is built to do,” Atkins said of how the spectre of a hearing played into the contract. “If you’re not fully tapping into every aspect of the process, which a hearing is just a part of the process, then you’re not fully utilizing it and respecting it as it relates to running the best possible business. That doesn’t mean thinking about saving every possible dollar all the time. That means building the most efficient roster that you possibly can. As we do every single deal, what we have to always be cognizant of is building the best possible team around each deal. And that means having discipline. And sometimes that means being willing to go to a hearing.”
Sometimes that also means creating the space for a player to opt out of a hearing, which is what the Blue Jays did in this case with Bichette.
Had they gone to a hearing, the case of outfielder Kyle Tucker, who came in at the same $7.5 million ask as Bichette and on Thursday lost to the Houston Astros, who made the same $5 million offer as the Blue Jays, suggests the club was likelier to win.
For Bichette and Tucker to have won, they would have needed to prove that their amassed statistics were comparable to those of first-time eligible players who earned a salary of not $7.5 million, but one higher than the midpoint figure of $6.25 million between ask and offer.
Tucker obviously did not.
While Bichette’s agent, Greg Genske, wouldn’t have known that at the time he was negotiating with the Blue Jays, it’s notable that the 2023 salary in the three-year deal is $6.1 million.
A $7.5 million ask is in line with the first-year arbitration salaries of Vladimir Guerrero ($7.9 million) and Pete Alonso ($7.4 million) from a year ago, and while talent-wise Bichette belongs in that strata, his platform stats of 2022 might not have matched up enough to get him there.
Rather than chancing it, Bichette’s camp pivoted toward a 2023 number just shy of the midpoint and used that to lock in two more years. Now, if he wants to try and max out in free agency once eligible, he’s now got a nest-egg that mitigates his risk.
Hence, Atkins called this year’s salary “the foundation for finding a deal,” adding it “had been pretty well framed before we got to an extension discussion – we knew where they were seeing it and they knew where we were seeing it.”
From there, figuring out where to go on salaries for 2024 and 2025 – Bichette’s remaining years of arbitration before being eligible for free agency – became a balance between projecting where his salary could go and finding a middle ground between “what those raises could be … on the low side and we’re entirely focused on them being on the high side. That’s why we were excited to include the escalators for them.”
To that end, he’ll earn $11 million next year and $16.5 million in 2025, numbers that increase by $2.25 million if he’s named MVP, by $1.25 million if he’s second or third, and $250,000 if he’s fourth or fifth – offering Bichette some protection if he outperforms the set salaries.
Deft work by both sides, then, to find their way out of potential trouble.
“When you’re just talking one-year arbitration, everything is based on history. You’re always looking directly at comps and there’s sometimes a raise argument that comes into play as well. There are different comps that are factored in depending upon which strategy you take,” said Atkins. “When you go into a longer-term deal, that is the basis for how you’re determining those values, but it becomes less academic and more about how much risk you’re willing to share.”
They found a sweet spot and whether that leads to another extension down the line – “We’re always open to that. That dialogue is ongoing, as it is with many players,” said Atkins – for the moment is secondary.
Regardless of for whom an arbitration panel rules, the potential for bad blood in a hearing too often results in a net loss for everyone, which is why eligible players and teams usually end up avoiding them. That’s what the system is designed to do and Bichette and the Blue Jays made it work, eventually.