Red Sox star right fielder Mookie Betts on Wednesday was ruled the winner of his arbitration case, pulling in $10.5 million, a near-record salary for a player in his first year of arbitration eligibility.
An arbitration panel heard Betts’ case on Tuesday. The Red Sox filed for a $7.5 million salary in 2018. The panel chooses between the two figures rather than settling on a midpoint, which the parties attempted to do but could not, leading to the hearing.
It’s a big win for not only Betts, 25, and his reps at the Legacy Agency, but for all first-year eligible players and the Players Association. Teams thus far have stayed away from older free agents this winter, leading to some thought that the system needs to be changed so that younger players are better compensated. This decision doesn’t overhaul the system, but does set a new precedent in the arbitration process.
The runner-up to Mike Trout for American League MVP in 2016, Betts made $950,000 in 2017.
Kris Bryant and the Cubs settled at $10.85 million earlier this month, setting the record salary for any first-year arbitration-eligible player. Betts’ salary is a record for a first-year eligible player who actually went to a hearing and did not settle beforehand.
An arbitration hearing is never desirable for either party. A player has to sit in a room and hear, from the team, why the club thinks he deserves less money than he wants. But fears that Betts' relationship with the Red Sox will be hurt long term are overstated. Betts is on track to make a ton of money via free agency (or via an extension), and whatever hard feelings may arise won't alter that overall picture: Betts is going to require a hug sum of money at some point as long as he stays healthy.
The bottom line is the Sox someday must pay up or see Betts walk. They should not be looked at as villains simply because they went to a hearing with a star player.
Salary arbitration is a different valuation than the free-agent, open market. Betts, were he a free agent, is worth much more than $10.5 million -- easily. But within the framework of the system, Betts' ask was bold. The Red Sox have gone to two hearings in the last 16 years. Fernando Abad's case last year, which the Sox won, was the team's first since 2002. They're not ones to strong arm players in the arbitration process. The team's history and the filing numbers involved in this case made the hearing an understandable outcome.
Now that Betts is in the arbitration system, and he has his first seven-figure payday, any urgency to take a long term deal is likely lessened. But there was never a sense he felt urgency to do so previously.
Unlike Bryant, Betts neither won an MVP or Rookie of the Year award. It's possible that the arbitration panel valued Betts' defense (and, potentially, advanced defensive metrics) more highly than it would have in the past.
Players accumulate service time every year they’re in the majors. After three years of service time, you typically become arbitration-eligible for the first time. Players become free agents after six years of service time.