I don’t need to tell you that Mookie Betts is a superstar. The Red Sox right fielder came in a close second in AL MVP voting two years ago, and depending on which WAR measurement you use, he has either been one of the three or 10 best position players in the sport over the last three seasons. He’s only 25 years old. If Betts were a free agent tomorrow, he’d be in line for the kind of mega-contract Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will be receiving next winter.
Instead, Betts just cleared his first year of arbitration and somehow managed to win his hearing. He will make $10.5 million in 2018, $3 million more than what the Red Sox offered, and over $2 million more than what was projected for him. The case is nothing short of miraculous, given that all-around players like Betts don’t usually make the big bucks in arbitration. He’s now in line for another big raise next winter and the winter after that, should he not sign an extension.
That is the pressing issue for Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski. He would obviously love to lock up Betts long-term, saving oodles of money in the process. Unfortunately, Betts’ arbitration victory will only make that harder.
The reason that the 2018-19 offseason will be a bonanza is that two young, historically talented athletes–Harper and Machado–decided to avoid signing extensions with the Nationals and Orioles, respectively. Many excellent players over the past decade have thrown away their most valuable free-agent years for the short-term security of contracts that pay them far below their actual market value. Baseball players have historically valued the knowledge that their contracts are guaranteed, and are willing to leave money on the table to know that they will be employed for multiple years. It’s a sensible impulse, and for some players, it’s often the best course of action.
For players at the top of the food chain, it means that they were grossly underpaid in the mid-to-late 20s and risk taking smaller deals once they reach free agency in their early 30s. Evan Longoria was the poster child for this kind of contract. Buster Posey, Jose Altuve, and Christian Yelich were among those who followed suit to varying degrees. Mike Trout would have been worth $90 million per year on the open market in his 2016 MVP season; he made a sixth of that.
The tide may be turning for the latest crop of arb-eligible superstars to have emerged over the past half-decade. Teams use analytics to suppress free-agent prices now, but they also use analytics to identify and develop future franchise cornerstones. Betts, Bryant, Harper, Machado, and others such as Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, and Francisco Lindor all emerged in their early 20s, fully developed and aware of their own value. The three shortstops are all a year away from arbitration, but given the precedent that Harper, Machado and Bryant have set, one wouldn’t be surprised to see them follow in their footsteps.
Betts appears to possess a similar mindset. He stated a year ago that he was interested in going “one year at a time” through the first six full years of his career. Betts is not only great, but he is extraordinarily charismatic, which has opened up endorsement opportunities not too many players get. He’s young, he’s financially secure, and he’s going to be good for years to come.
Then he won his arbitration case. Betts can now use that eye-popping $10.5 million salary as precedent for arb raises next year and in 2019-20. If he continues to be a five-win player, he has the potential to make big arbitration paydays in the manner of Machado and Harper. He would be only 28 in his first year of free agency if he doesn’t sign an extension. Given all of these factors, why would he ever engage in serious extension talks with Dombrowski?
Part of the problem with this offseason is that ownership no longer has any incentive to spend money in free agency. The middle class of players will lose out in the long run; these are the players most vulnerable to signing early extensions and wasting their peaks at below-market prices.
The upper class doesn’t have anything to worry about, provided it holds the line and decides to get paid what it is worth. Betts, by all accounts, is in the catbird seat. Dombrowski will likely have to offer the moon in order to get Betts to sign on the dotted line before the 2020-21 offseason. Good luck.