Elite Talent Exists When It Comes To Arbitration-Eligible Starting Pitchers

Major League Baseball’s record setting spending spree this offseason is evident in free agent contracts which has totaled approximately $3.8 billion according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan. Besides the astonishing values and length of contracts awarded to several prominent free agents, ball clubs have also acted in an expeditious manner when it comes to compensating arbitration-eligible ball players. Out of the 239 arbitration-eligible ball players identified by MLB Trade Rumors, only 33 did not agree to terms on a contract by the January 13th deadline. Instead, they exchanged salary figures with their respective ball clubs hoping to avoid contentious arbitration hearings. The depth of talent when it comes to arbitration-eligible starting pitchers will be a topic of great interest throughout the 2023 season.

According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, Los Angeles Angels designated hitter/starting pitcher Shohei Ohtani agreed to a one-year, $30 million contract in October which represents the largest one-year contract ever given to an arbitration-eligible ball player. Presently, 12 arbitration-eligible ball players have agreed to one-year contracts worth at least $10 million in value with five being starting pitchers (excluding Ohtani): Julio Urías ($14.25 million), Brandon Woodruff ($10.8 million), Lucas Giolito ($10.4 million), Shane Bieber ($10.01 million), and Jordan Montgomery ($10 million). Out of the 33 arbitration-eligible ball players who have yet to agree to contracts for the 2023 season, eight are starting pitchers.

Using Baseball-Reference’s calculation of Wins Above Replacement (bWAR), four of the top ten pitchers in terms of bWAR last season in Major League Baseball are arbitration-eligible: Dylan Cease (6.4), Shohei Ohtani (6.2), Max Fried (5.9), and Zac Gallen (5.1). Each of the starting pitchers also finished in the top five of their league’s Cy Young Award voting. Other noteworthy arbitration-eligible starting pitchers who were also top five finishers in voting are Julio Urías (4.9) and Framber Valdez (3.7). As a pre-arbitration starting pitcher, Alek Manoah of the Toronto Blue Jays posted a 5.9 bWAR and finished third in the American League’s Cy Young Award voting last season.

Fried is the only one in this group who has yet to come to terms on a contract for the 2023 season. In his third year of arbitration-eligibility, Fried is looking for $15 million while the Atlanta Braves are comfortable at $13.5 million. Last year, he had gone to arbitration and won his case against the Braves earning $6.85 million. A runner-up in the National League Cy Young Award voting, Fried won a third consecutive Gold Glove Award and made his first All Star team last season.

In their first year of arbitration-eligibility, Dylan Cease and Zac Gallen have provided an exciting preview of Major League Baseball’s next generation of elite starting pitchers. A right-handed pitcher for the Chicago White Sox, Cease was the runner-up in the 2022 American League Cy Young Award voting. Besides posting a sparkling 2.20 earned run average over 32 starts (184 innings), Cease struck out 227 batters supported by a pitching repertoire that strongly emphasized sliders and four-seam fastballs. Cease agreed to terms on a one-year contract worth $5.7 million according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

Gallen, a right-handed pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, flirted with history this past summer with his 44.1 consecutive scoreless innings streak. Besides setting a franchise record, Gallen now has the seventh longest consecutive scoreless innings streak in Major League Baseball history. During a six ball game stretch during the streak, Gallen had struck out 46 batters over 41.1 innings while only surrendering eight base on balls. According to Baseball-Reference, Gallen was tied with Justin Verlander for the lowest opponent batting average (.186) while featuring an arsenal of pitches that included four-seam fastballs, curveballs, cutters, and changeups. Gallen agreed to terms on a one-year contract worth $5.6 million according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts after finishing fifth in the 2022 National League Cy Young Award voting.

Some might argue the 2023 salaries for Cease and Gallen fail to align with last season’s impressive performances regardless of arbitration-eligibility. Even as the word “undervalued” might be used to describe both starting pitchers, each are properly compensated given recent trends. Based on the $700,000 minimum salary for the 2022 season according to the collective bargaining agreement, Cease ($750,000) and Gallen ($745,600) are receiving at least a 650 percent increase in compensation as both must establish consistency before they seek eight figure contracts during their arbitration-eligibility seasons. Sustained excellence matters greatly for ball players throughout the arbitration-eligibility process.

The record salary for a starting pitcher in their first year of arbitration-eligibility is held by Dallas Keuchel who received $7.25 million after winning the 2015 American League Cy Young Award for the Houston Astros. The 2021 National League Cy Young Award winner, Corbin Burnes of the Milwaukee Brewers, was awarded with a one-year, $6.5 million contract in his first year of arbitration eligibility last season according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. He has yet to agree to terms on a contract for the 2023 season. Burnes is seeking $10.75 million while the Brewers are willing to pay $10.01 million for his second year of arbitration-eligibility.

In 2020, Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Guardians won the American League Cy Young Award as a pre-arbitration starting pitcher earning a prorated salary of $230,815 due to the pandemic-shortened 60-game schedule. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, his original salary would have been $623,200. The following season, Bieber had earned $679,900. After reaching his first year of arbitration-eligibility at the conclusion of the 2021 season, Bieber secured a one-year, $6 million contract. Bieber has already agreed to terms on a one-year, $10.01 million contract in his second year of arbitration-eligibility.

Along with Cease and Gallen, three other starting pitchers have agreed to one-year contracts in their first year of arbitration-eligibility worth more than $3 million: Logan Webb ($4.6 million), Nestor Cortes ($3.2 million), and Jose Urquidy ($3.025 million). Only Urquidy (1.2) failed to produce a 4.0 bWAR or better last season among this group. Out of the eight arbitration-eligible starting pitchers who have failed to settle on a contract for the 2023 season, three have requested salary figures of at least $3 million: Cristian Javier ($3.5 million), Tony Gonsolin ($3.4 million), and Brady Singer ($3.325 million) according to Mark Feinsand of MLB.com. Each are in their first year of arbitration-eligibility.

A period of transition has begun this offseason. As future first ballot Hall of Famers such as Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander have secured short-term contracts with nothing left to prove in their illustrious careers, the next generation of starting pitchers are beginning to make a name for themselves as they move through the process of arbitration-eligibility. Kershaw and Verlander, along with a few others such as Max Scherzer and Zack Greinke, will pass the baton to those who have demonstrated an innate ability of becoming an elite starting pitcher. The pressures and responsibilities are enormous but appears as if there are many who are ready for the challenge.

Source: https://www.forbes.com/sites/waynemcdonnell/2023/01/23/elite-talent-exists-when-it-comes-to-arbitration-eligible-starting-pitchers/