Before arbitration figures were exchanged almost two weeks ago, I thought the arbitration case of Gerardo Parra was unique and uncommonly interesting — there isn’t a modern arbitration precedent for an outstanding defensive player in right field. It has been interesting thus far, with the Diamondbacks filing a number that was actually higher than the $4.2M projection of Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors.
But it may be Mark Trumbo’s case that ends up being the more interesting of the two. Trumbo’s $5.85M figure was well over $2M more than the D-backs’ $3.4M number, a gap that was third-largest in MLB in terms of dollars (fifth-largest by percentage). Swartz’s projection was $4.7M, so Trumbo is closer, if not by much. That may embolden Trumbo to actually go to arbitration — if they elect to buy him out of his arbitration bet, the D-backs may need to meet him more than halfway.
At the beginning of last week, I suggested that in Trumbo, the club “isn’t necessarily getting a boatload of production — they’re just getting the expensive kind.” And it’s true that Trumbo’s resume features the counting stats (HR, RBI, etc.) that traditionally get rewarded in the arbitration process. Freddie Freeman (almost the same amount of service time) was a better hitter than Trumbo in 2013 — he created runs at a clip 50% above average (wRC+ 150 to Trumbo’s 106). But Freeman’s career RBI (280) and HR (68) don’t match Trumbo’s totals (284 RBI, 95 HR), and while Freeman asked for a Trumbo-esque $5.75M, the Braves countered at $4.5M. So what is the D-backs front office thinking?
I think there’s a method to their madness, especially in light of the Parra strategy. They clearly think that the arbitration process is more than ministerial — they think an arbitrator will be swayed by the unusual aspects of both cases. I applaud them for that.
Freeman is a slightly better comparison to Trumbo than I realized — it looks like Trumbo is the better first baseman, and Trumbo’s overall defensive numbers are better than Freeman’s, which are pretty bad (although Freeman was average-ish in 2013). They’re both “run producers.” But gee whiz, that 150-to-106 discrepancy in wRC+ is enormous. It’s a dropoff much bigger than that from Aaron Hill (124 wRC+) to Gerardo Parra (96 wRC+). Yes, Trumbo has the counting stats. But in the arbitration figures filed on January 17, we saw the D-backs bet on being able to make the arbitrator see past the home runs.
Keep in mind that we’re not talking about a mere $2.45M here — that’s a platform from which Trumbo’s subsequent arbitration salaries will be raised. I think that effect is proportional, with the discrepancy growing year to year, but I could be wrong (there’s no way to know for sure). Even if the discrepancy remained stable, we’d be talking about $7M or so (in D-backs terms, “Putz money”).
Seems like I enjoy reading tea leaves when it comes to arb negotiations, but I think what happened here is that the club made its expectations clear to Trumbo before the filing deadline. Maybe they even dusted off the old Mark Reynolds file — although Reynolds did get $5,333,333 in what would have been his first year of arbitration, the Orioles non-tendered him after he made $7.5M the next year, adjudging him not worth $11M (club option amount), but also not worth $9M or so (Swartz had him at $8.9 in arbitration if the option was declined). And before you say Trumbo is better than Reynolds, keep in mind that Reynolds signed that deal before the 2010 season (with a year to go before arbitration eligibility), coming off a 44 HR, 127 wRC+ campaign that is a fair sight better than any of Trumbo’s three seasons. If a free agent Trumbo would be worth just $9M or so (and the Reynolds history makes that seem possible), why would he be awarded more than half that amount in his first year of arbitration?
My initial reaction to the Trumbo trade was that it was terrible, in part because it was a bad move value for value, in part because Trumbo has been a below-average major league position player, and in part because Trumbo’s skills happen to be the expensive kind, and money could be better spent elsewhere. I haven’t learned anything new to move me from that position, but if the D-backs were planning to take this tack with Trumbo all along, the trade makes a bit more sense.
The D-backs may have informed his representatives that they thought the Swartz projection was unrealistic for Trumbo, drawing a line in the sand. If Trumbo’s team then felt fairly certain that the D-backs would put this big a cushion between themselves and the Swartz number, that might explain why Trumbo was so assertive (although he’s not getting anything Reynolds didn’t get). The sides may be at an impasse, and the guess here is that if either side felt comfortable with the Swartz number ($4.7M), a deal would be done right now.
But back to the trade. Surely, you might think, it’d be hard for the D-backs to argue that Trumbo is only deserving of $3.4M next year, after clearly valuing him so highly in trade. But the two things are not unrelated — the club may not have given up quite so much if they thought he’d get so close to his market value so quickly (after all, Mark Reynolds was available). No, maybe the D-backs would not end up making the case to the arbitrator that they thought Trumbo would be undervalued. But if Trumbo’s reps bring up the trade return as some evidence of Trumbo’s worth, expect the D-backs to come back with the contention that they would not have pulled the trigger if they thought Trumbo would so quickly become overpaid.
Still, it’s separately very interesting that team and player were so far apart after a trade like this one. Stranger still is that Logan Morrison, also recently traded and also eligible for arbitration for the first time, was also far apart from his new team (he filed for $2.5M, Seattle filed for $1.1M, Swartz projected $1.7M). Not sure if there’s an explanation that works for both discrepancies, other than the plain fact that in the circumstances of a recent trade, club and player have had less of a chance to advance the negotiation (if you have another idea, please submit it in the comments).
I do find the D-backs’ approach to its arb-eligible players extremely encouraging. The Brad Ziegler extension was outstanding, the Josh Collmenter extension was excellent, and the Matt Reynolds extension was also very good. On a scale of -10 to 10, I’d give the Thatcher deal a 0, nothing to write home about. But the figure the team filed for Parra was extremely well played, and if an extension is not worked out, I’d expect Parra to settle with the team at a number very close to the team filing amount. Parra got outflanked.
As for Trumbo, the D-backs seem to have taken an aggressive stance long before any numbers became public, and it looks like the team is motivated to teach Trumbo’s representatives the error of their free-filing ways. There were no arbitration hearings last year, so the chances are good for any player that he’ll have a deal worked out before a hearing. In that context, I think there’s a particularly good chance that Trumbo and the Diamondbacks will end up in front of an arbitrator. Both sides will have their work cut out for them in terms of persuading the arbitrator. But with a Swartz number almost at the midpoint, and with the Swartz projection probably inflated with respect to Trumbo’s “true” value, I think Trumbo will have more trouble persuading the arbitrator than will the team.
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