Red Sox should win arbitration case against Mookie Betts

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 13: Mookie Betts
BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 13: Mookie Betts /

The Boston Red Sox have a strong case to win their arbitration hearing against Mookie Betts but that may not be in their best interest in the long run.

When the deadline to submit offers to arbitration-eligible players came to pass on Friday, the Boston Red Sox had reached agreements on one-year deals with nine of the ten players they were negotiating with. The one player they could not avoid arbitration with also happens to be the most important of the group – right fielder Mookie Betts.

The gap between the two sides was a fairly significant difference of $3 million. Betts filed for $10.5 million while the Red Sox only offered $7.5 million, according to FanRag’s Jon Heyman.

The initial reaction from fans is that this is a low-ball offer and the cheapskate owners should have been willing to pony up more dough to keep the team’s best position player happy. That’s not an unreasonable take on the situation. $7.5 million is a tremendous bargain for a player of Betts’ caliber. Boston’s offer is well below the $8.2 million predicted by MLB Trade Rumors. While their projection model can’t be taken as gospel, they weren’t off by more than $600K for any Red Sox player. Their estimate for Betts was $700K more than what the Red Sox offered.

While Boston’s offer was surprisingly low, don’t be shocked if they win their arbitration case against Betts.

While many will scoff at the offer to Betts being too low, the Red Sox will argue that the figure Betts filed for is unprecedented for a first-year arbitration player without an MVP award on his resume. Betts was the runner-up for the award in 2016 behind Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout and finished sixth on the AL ballot last season.

There’s no shame in finishing second to the best player in baseball but it’s curious that Betts is asking for more money than Trout earned at the same stage of his career. Granted, it’s a slightly different scenario given that the Angels inked Trout to a 6-year, $144.5 million deal that bought out his arbitration years and a few more free agency seasons. The average annual value still makes Trout among the highest paid position players in the game but his salary in the first year of the deal was barely north of $6 million.

The Chicago Cubs recently gave Kris Bryant a record $10.85 million in his first year of arbitration. Bryant was the NL MVP in 2016 and followed with another strong season in which he ranked 11th in the majors with a .946 OPS.

Ryan Howard earned $10 million from the Philadelphia Phillies in 2008 as a first year arbitration player. That came on the heels of an MVP campaign in which he led the majors with 58 home runs and 149 RBI. Buster Posey made $8 million in 2013 after winning an MVP and two World Series rings with the San Francisco Giants.

For a reasonable recent comparison, look no further than Baltimore Orioles third baseman Manny Machado. He had a pair of All-Star appearances, Gold Gloves and top-10 MVP campaigns on his resume when he entered his first year of arbitration in 2016, same as Betts. Machado made $5 million that year.

It comes as no surprise that Betts will manage to top what Machado earned, but by more than double? While also earning more than reigning MVP’s made at the same stage of their career within the past decade?

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Betts is an outstanding all-around player and the best defensive outfielder by a wide margin. He’s also coming off a down year at the plate, which wasn’t the case for any first-year arbitration player to ask for a salary in this ballpark. Offensive production and MVP hardware are factors that arbitrators have historically weighed heavily in their decisions. It’s hard to imagine them siding with Betts given the precedent that would set.

The Red Sox should win this arbitration hearing but it may cost them in the long run. The figure Betts filed for was a bit ambitious but countering with an offer that values him far below the level he sees himself at risks irritating the face of the franchise. That’s a dangerous position to put themselves in with his free agency looming three years from now.

The $7.5 million salary Betts is likely to receive may be fair based on recent comparable players but the Red Sox should have been willing to split the difference. Even if it meant overpaying a bit now, the gesture could harbor some goodwill with a player they hope to be able to lock up long-term.

There’s always the chance that losing the arbitration hearing could sour Betts on the process, potentially lead to a long-term deal that offers him stability over the uncertainty of going through arbitration again. Maybe playing hardball with Betts will pay off in the end, but why risk it?

Next: Pros/Cons of signing J.D. Martinez

The Red Sox aren’t on the same page with their best player regarding how much he’s worth. Let’s hope that’s not the case when the time comes to negotiate that long-term deal or Betts will become the next star player to leave town.