The majority of arbitration cases are relatively simple. Players who have accrued between three and six years of big league service time and their clubs typically agree on a salary figure without ever needing to file for arbitration or have their cases heard before a panel.
There are always a few complicated cases, though, usually involving big-name players whose salary requests go well beyond what the club has proposed.
Now throw in the unprecedented nature of the 2020 season, and you’ve got a recipe for the perhaps most complicated arbitration process the sport has ever seen.
And the Nationals figure to be right in the thick of it.
Three of the Nats’ biggest stars - Juan Soto, Trea Turner and Josh Bell - must agree to terms on their 2021 salaries before Friday’s 1 p.m. deadline. If they can’t, they and the club must file competing bids to Major League Baseball and then have an arbitration hearing scheduled for February. The two sides can always continue to negotiate right up until the start of a hearing, but it may be more difficult than ever this time to find common ground.
That’s because nobody has clearly decided the proper method for using players’ 2020 performances for calculating their 2021 salaries. Should their 60-game totals be extrapolated out to 162 games? Should they only get credit for what they actually did in the shortened season? Or should the answer lie somewhere in the middle?
This dilemma could leave the Nationals and Soto, Turner and Bell millions of dollars apart as they try to negotiate on their own.
Soto was always going to be lined up to receive a huge raise in his first season of arbitration, no matter the length of the 2020 campaign. A so-called “Super Two” player, the 22-year-old superstar qualified for arbitration early because the Nationals called him up to the big leagues in May 2018 rather than wait another month and delay the process.
Soto was set to make $629,400 last season (before all salaries were prorated down to their 60-game equivalent) so he’s poised for a massive raise now. He led the majors in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, and agent Scott Boras might try to argue he deserves the largest salary ever awarded to a first-year arbitration player. (Cody Bellinger currently holds that title at $11.5 million.)
The Nats will argue Soto doesn’t deserve that much because he only played in 47 games last season. Somehow the two sides will have to find common ground or else go to court.
Turner’s case isn’t much easier to solve. Though he’s already been through the arbitration process twice before and made a healthy $7.45 million last season, he just put together the best offensive performance of his career and finished seventh in National League MVP voting.
How much raise does the star shortstop deserve? There’s a good chance he’ll top $10 million, an outside chance he could approach $15 million, depending on which formula everyone agrees to utilize. Turner’s agency, CAA, may not play hardball as much as Boras does, but it’s not about to roll over and accept whatever the team offers.
Bell is another Boras client, and he’s entering his second of three arbitration years after earning $4.8 million with the Pirates last season. Unlike Soto and Turner, the slugger is coming off a disappointing season in which his OPS plummeted from .936 to .669.
Bell still will merit a raise - it’s almost impossible for an arbitration-eligible player not to get one - but his salary won’t jump as much as his two new teammates’ will. The final tally probably will fall somewhere between $6 million and $7 million, and perhaps that lesser disparity provides hope of a settlement without filing for arbitration.