It is a rare event in today's MLB for teams and players to actually go to an arbitration hearing to settle a contract. For the first time ever last season, no players went to a hearing. The vast majority of the time, teams and players agree on an acceptable valuation long before an arbitration hearing is scheduled. The process has been going on long enough that both sides have a pretty good idea of what kind of value the player has.
In the event that a player and team go to an arbitration hearing, the arbiter must choose which salary the player will receive. They can't just find a suitable midpoint between the team's submission and the player's. Such dramatic differences in perceived value can cause friction between the player and the team and have significant effects on future negotiations. It's an unpleasant process for all involved, which is why most players and teams settle on a compromise before an arbitration hearing is necessary. Still, there are some players and teams that file arbitration numbers that are significantly far apart. This year, Braves' closer Craig Kimbrel, new Nationals' starter Doug Fister and Reds' starter Homer Bailey are among them. Kimbrel is going through arbitration for the first time, Fister the second, and Bailey for the third and final time.
Kimbrel has been one of the most dominant closers in baseball the last few years, but apparently he and the Braves have very different ideas about what that is worth in terms of dollars. Kimbrel is eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter, and he submitted an arb number of $9 million, $3.75 million higher than the record for a relief pitcher in his first year of arbitration. The Braves countered at $6.55 million, $2.45 million under Kimbrel's filing number.
Kimbrel's record-setting arbitration filing is not unwarranted, as he is a record-setting closer. He has led the National League in saves for three straight years (every year he has been the Braves' closer) and has a career ERA of 1.39. If there is a relief pitcher out there worthy of a $9 million salary in his first year of arbitration eligibility, it's Kimbrel.
Of course, the Braves would argue that no such relief pitcher deserves that kind of salary, not even Kimbrel. Following the standard for arbitration raises, a player in his first year of arb eligibility is generally valued at 40 percent of what he would make on the free agent market. If Kimbrel was to get $9 million, that means his free agent value would be something like $22 million. That raises the question: Is there any relief pitcher out there worth over $20 million per year?
The Braves are a "file and trial" team when it comes to arbitration, which means after they file a number for arbitration they cease all negotiations with the player and wait for the trial. If that holds and this actually goes to an arbitration hearing, then Kimbrel's hearing will be historic not only in terms of money, but also for its impact on the market for relief pitchers in general.
The Nationals acquired Fister from the Tigers back during the Winter Meetings, marking the second time in his career the steady right-hander has been traded. The Nationals got him to bolster an already-dominant pitching staff, but they'll have to figure out what he will be paid first.
Fister filed at $8.5 million while the Nationals filed at $5.75 million. This is Fister's second go-around with arbitration. Last year, he settled with the Tigers on a salary of $4 million. Considering Fister's steady performance throughout his career (he has a career ERA of 3.53 and has averaged around 190 innings pitched the last four seasons) and the rising price of starting pitching, he stands a fighting chance of winning his hearing, should they not settle before then.
Bailey has come a long way since his days as a top prospect and he now finds himself going through arbitration for the third and final time. Bailey's case is interesting because his inconsistent performance early in his career and his relative success later on have led to wildly different evaluations from the player and the club. Over the first 436 innings of his career, he posted an ERA of 4.89. In his last 417 innings (which includes two no-hitters), his ERA is 3.58.
So it is no wonder why such a wide gulf exists between the Reds and Bailey. The Reds filed at $8.7 million while Bailey and his agent came back at $11.6 million. That's a difference of nearly $3 million. The two sides are discussing a long-term extension though, so perhaps an arbitration hearing can be avoided.