BOSTON — By pushing for his 2018 salary to be determined by an independent third party, Mookie Betts bet big on himself.
On Wednesday, he won.
In a decision that could have far-reaching ramifications, Betts defeated the Boston Red Sox in an arbitration hearing held Tuesday in Phoenix, the team announced. A panel of three judges ruled in favor of the star right fielder, who will make $10.5 million this year rather than the Red Sox’s desired salary of $7.5 million.
Betts’ victory is consequential for his representatives at the Legacy Agency in that it is nearly a record for a first-time arbitration-eligible player. It also bodes well for young players who will be going through the process in the coming years. Earlier this month, Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant settled on a record $10.85 million mark, although that number was agreed upon without the sides going to a hearing.
An arbitration showdown hardly seems like the ideal way for a team to settle a salary dispute with its best player. But the Red Sox and Betts mutually agreed to go that route even before they exchanged figures two weeks ago. If they kept negotiating until the hearing, it’s possible the sides would’ve reached a compromise. But once the case landed in the laps of Daniel Brent, Mark Burstein and Phillip LaPorte, the arbitrators were allowed to pick only one number or the other after listening to arguments from both sides.
Betts’ camp seemed overly ambitious in filing for $10.5 million. As a two-time All-Star with a career adjusted OPS of 120, Betts is comparable to Bryant while lacking one notable achievement. Bryant has a National League MVP award, while Betts’ best finish came as the American League runner-up to Mike Trout in 2016.
MLB Trade Rumors, which reliably projects arbitration awards, pegged Betts’ salary at $8.2 million, much closer to the Red Sox’s number. But the arbitrators viewed Betts far more favorably, especially after Bryant’s settlement and relative to the $7.5 million figure submitted by the Sox.
In losing the case, the Red Sox might have suffered a double defeat. Former Houston Astros president and arbitration expert Tal Smith has long insisted hearings aren’t as contentious as they seem to outsiders. One source recently said the “file-to-trial” approach, in which the sides agree to go to a hearing rather than continuing to negotiate, has become more common over the past few years. Still, it involves a team citing its player’s flaws as a reason not to pay him as much as he wants. Under those circumstances, it might be natural for hard feelings to set in.
This also isn’t the first time Betts has disagreed with the Red Sox over his compensation. Last year, the team renewed his pre-arbitration salary at $950,000 when they were unable to reach a mutual agreement. Betts is eligible for arbitration again in each of the next two offseasons and can’t become a free agent until after the 2020 season.
“Ideally, I’ve always been of the mindset that you would rather settle the deal yourself,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said recently. “You’d much prefer that. We’ve gone to arbitration before. Those things happen. No, it doesn’t overly faze me. I’d prefer it to be the other way, but that’s part of the game.”
Betts batted .264 with 46 doubles, 24 homers, 102 RBI and an .803 OPS in 153 games and won his second consecutive Gold Glove last season.
In addition to Betts, Legacy Agency has upcoming arbitration hearings scheduled for clients George Springer, Jonathan Schoop, Marcus Stroman, Kevin Gausman and Roberto Ozuna. Legacy also represents Carlos Correa, who will be eligible for arbitration next winter.