Every offseason, come January, Major League Baseball's salary-arbitration process stands front and center. A player becomes eligible for salary arbitration for the first time in the offseason after he has reached three years total in major-league service time. He is then eligible for an arbitrator-determined salary for three consecutive seasons—his fourth, fifth, and sixth as a big-leaguer.
Nowadays, fans hear a lot about team control. The salary-arbitration process is a part of that. The team has control in that it initiates the salary-arbitration process by tendering a contract. Sometimes a club will release a player rather than tender him a contract, like the St. Louis Cardinals did earlier this offseason with Shane Robinson. Other times, a team will decide not to tender a contract to a player by the deadline to do so, as was the case with Daniel Descalso. Usually, though, MLB clubs do tender contracts because of the relatively low salary a player is likely to earn via salary arbitration. The general rule of thumb is that a player will earn approximately 40% of what he would make as a free agent in his first year of arbitration eligibility, 60% in year two, and 80% in his third year.
After the club tenders a player a contract, there is a deadline—usually in mid-January—when the club and team must submit salary figures for the upcoming season. This offseason, that deadline was Friday. As is so often the case in legal proceedings, a deadline spurred action on the part of many players and teams. Rather than submit salary figures to MLB, the Cardinals agreed to contracts with Lance Lynn, Tony Cruz, and Peter Bourjos, which allows the parties to avoid an arbitration hearing.
However, the Cardinals and Jon Jay could not come to an agreement prior to the deadline, which seems kind of odd given how close the two parties' proposed 2015 salary figures are. Jay submitted $5 million; the Cardinals, $4.1 million. As Derrick Goold observed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article, this gap appears readily bridgeable.
If it isn't, the Cardinals and Jay will proceed to an arbitration hearing. This is an either-or proposition. An independent arbitrator, selected by the parties, will decide whether Jay will earn $5 million in 2015 or $4.1 million. He or she will hear evidence and render a decision. Under the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) between MLB and the MLB Players Association, that decision is based on the following factors:
- Player’s contribution to his club during the past season (including but not limited to his overall performance, special qualities of leadership and public appeal)
- The length and consistency of his career contribution
- The record of his past compensation
- Comparative baseball salaries
- The existence of any physical or mental defects on the part of the player
- The recent performance record of the club including but not limited to its League standing and attendance as an indication of public acceptance
An arbitration decision is binding on both the player and club and covers just one season's salary.
How have the Cardinals' agreements with Lynn, Bourjos, and Cruz impacted payroll? Let's have a look at the updated 2015 Cardinals roster matrix. Jay's salary figure, which is in yellow, is his projected salary courtesy of MLB Trade Rumors. The rest league-minimum-eligible players' salaries are my best guestimation given the Cards' practice of paying those players slightly more than the minimum due to their respective amounts of MLB service time. I kept Jordan Walden and Lynn in blue since they were arbitration eligible entering the offseason even though they recently signed multi-year extensions that make their salaries guaranteed.