What is MLB Arbitration and Who Will the Pirates Tender During This Process?

Christopher Horner/Tribune-Review

The MLB has one of the most complicated free agency structures in all of sports.  While the NFL and NBA are starting to catch up with their Franchise Tags and “Super Max” contracts, baseball has always had a complex system.  The term arbitration will come up every offseason as teams must decide which players they should “tender” a contract to.  Here is arbitration broken down.

When a player has reached three years of service time, they are no longer contracted by their current team.  However, unlike unrestricted free agents, the team gets the first chance to extend or 'tender' an offer to the player if they choose.  If a team does this, the team and player must agree on a salary.  If the team does not offer a contract, the player is considered non-tendered and they are eligible to sign with any other team. This occurs sometime between the Winter Meetings in December and Spring Training.  If both sides can not come to an agreement they go to arbitration.

Arbitration is the process where both the team and the player submit a salary number they feel is most correct based on their performance relative to the league.  In a hearing, both sides fight for their number in front of independent arbitors.  Then the arbitors rule in favor of either the team or the player.

Typically, both sides will either agree to a number before reaching that point or teams will “buy out” players’ arbitration years through a contract extension.  Taking a player to arbitration can often strain a relationship between a team and a player.  The team is fighting in open court as to why the player is less valuable than the player believes they are.  So, it is the more desired option to reach an agreement before reaching arbitration.

Definite Tenders

This discussion has come to light recently because MLB Trade Rumors projected what the eleven Pirates players who were eligible for arbitration would require.  The three highest amounts are outfielder Bryan Reynolds at $4.5 million, infielder Colin Moran at $4.0 million, and pitcher Chad Kuhl at $3.0 million. 

I think Reynolds and Moran are guaranteed to get tendered by the Pirates.  Even with Ke’Bryan Hayes now taking the lion’s share of the starts at third base, there is nobody in the organization who is imminently on the verge of taking Moran’s spot at first base.  Mason Martin may debut next season, but he is certainly not ready to take on the position full-time out of the gate.  I also think the Pirates are committed to giving Oneil Cruz every chance at his native shortstop position and not transitioning him to first.

Also, while a tendered offer to Reynolds is guaranteed, I hope the Pirates take the alternate route mentioned above.  I would very much like for them to extend Reynolds through and passed his arbitration years and even buy out some of his free agent years through a long-term deal.  It would show loyalty from the team in their best player and show the fans that the front office is committed to this rebuild.

I also think catcher Jacob Stallings and relievers Chris Stratton and Chasen Shreve will be extended offers by the team.  Stallings will remain the starting catcher for the Pirates until this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Henry Davis, is ready to take over the role.  Stallings had an outstanding season, especially defensively.

There was also already chatter about whether Stratton or David Bednar will be the closer next season.  Therefore, I don’t think at a $2.2 million valuation they will let Stratton go, especially with how well he performed after the Pirates traded closer Richard Rodriguez at this year’s trade deadline. 

With the bullpen being weak other than Bendnar and Stratton, I think that forces the Pirates’ hand on Chasen Shreve.  Shreve is good enough to be tendered an offer anyway, but I don’t think they’ll want to let a left-handed reliever slip away at a projected $2.3 million valuation. 

On the Edge

Steven Brault is very interesting.  He is a left-handed starter, which is still coveted in the MLB, and has shown flashes of great pitching.  However, an injury derailed his 2021 season, and the Pirates may want to get their young prospects more innings as they develop.  I do think Brault is extended an offer from the team, but I am not as sure as I am those mentioned above.

I also think while the commitment to Oneil Cruz at shortstop helps the value of Colin Moran, it devalues outfielder Ben Gamel and second baseman Kevin Newman.  Cruz at short would force Cole Tucker to play either outfield or second base.  I do think that Tucker showed enough to warrant one final shot from the Pirates at regular playing time.  This would alleviate the need for either Gamel, Newman, or both, and I could potentially see neither of them getting tendered by the Pirates.

On Their Way Out

That leaves utility-man Wilmer Difo, starter Chad Kuhl, and catcher Michael Perez.  These are the three I could most likely see being non-tendered.  Wilmer Difo does not perform well enough, nor play a significant enough role to continue to take innings from developing young prospects.  He also does not have the investment of a first-round pick into him as a Cole Tucker does.  It does not feel as much of a sunken cost letting Difo walk as it would if they moved on from Tucker.

Michael Perez is just terrible.  Even at a small $900k valuation, the Pirates can find someone who will perform better than Perez did this season.  I just have to imagine there are better backup catchers out there who will sign for not much more than $2 million.  Perez batted .143 with 68 strikeouts this season.

Chad Kuhl could be non-tendered for the same reason Brault may be.  The Pirates have a lot of young pitchers they want to get innings at the big-league level.  We already saw Miguel Yajure, Bryse Wilson, Wil Crowe, and Roansy Contreras get some starts this past season and the front office appears to want to keep that going. 

These are not times of ole where the Pirates were overly patient with their prospects.  The young pitchers are here and they are chomping at the bit to get some innings.  This front office also showed they will move on from underperforming starters as they did Trevor Williams this past offseason.  Especially since Kuhl already lost his starting job this season, I could see him non-tendered at his estimated $3.0 million. 

So out of eleven arbitration eligible players I think three have a real shot being non-tendered and three players are on the edge.  I believe Difo, Kuhl, and Perez will not be offered contracts, and there is a chance Gamel, Newman, and Brault are non-tendered as well.  Time will tell, and potentially some of these players can save their spots by agreeing to numbers lower than the projections.