Sanchez salary disagreement shows Blue Jays could use policy change

Aaron Sanchez talked about his contract situation with the Blue Jays and what he is focused on right now.

One year after leading the American League in ERA, Aaron Sanchez will be among the lowest-paid MLB players.

The Toronto Blue Jays renewed Sanchez’s contract for the league minimum salary of $535,000 Wednesday after the right-hander declined to sign off on a raise proposed by the club. Agent Scott Boras promptly responded by telling Shi Davidi that it’s “the harshest treatment in baseball that any club could provide for a player.”

Big picture it’s baseball business as usual. Teams unilaterally dictate salaries for pre-arbitration eligible players, so the league’s top young stars are often paid far less than they’d be worth in free agency. Sometimes players are upset along the way, but rarely do those contract talks rule out amicable discussions later on. By all accounts, Sanchez and the Blue Jays have already shifted their focus to the season.

At the same time, it’s a bizarre look for the Blue Jays, who would do well to adjust club policy to avoid similar situations in the future.

For context, there’s precedent around MLB for offering elite young pitchers salaries in the $600,000 range even before they’re eligible for arbitration. Jacob deGrom, whose 2015 numbers (14-8, 2.54 ERA, 191 innings, all-star, seventh in Cy Young voting) closely resemble Sanchez’s 2016 numbers (15-2, 3.00 ERA, 192 innings, all-star, seventh in Cy Young voting), earned $607,000 last year.

Beyond the numbers, Sanchez’s willingness to go to accept a minor-league assignment for the sake of the team late last summer should help him—at least in theory (Sanchez lost $11,500 in salary when the Blue Jays optioned him last August, but that’s not believed to be a lingering source of tension; the club had been expected to make him whole again).

The Blue Jays did offer Sanchez a raise—$550,000 was on the table for 2017, according to Jon Heyman—but after discussing his options with Boras the 24-year-old declined to sign off. Once Sanchez declined, the Blue Jays renewed his contract at the MLB minimum.

When a player declines to sign off on a salary increase, most teams will just go ahead with the proposed raise. That’s what the Mets did with Noah Syndergaard earlier this spring when he declined to sign off on a $605,500 deal. A smaller group—six or seven clubs, according to one estimate—will instead take back the raise and renew the player at the minimum. That’s what the Blue Jays did with Sanchez, citing club policy that dates back to Paul Beeston’s days as team president and assesses players on service time and playing time rather than performance.

“The team policy rhetoric is a cop-out,” one industry observer noted. “It’s a completely new regime.”

Players are paid based on performance in free agency and arbitration, so it makes sense to factor results into pre-arb deals, too. Otherwise there’s no difference between the player who wins the Cy Young and the player who posts a 5.00 ERA, as long as they have the same service time and innings. As Sanchez’s case shows, the Blue Jays should adjust their policy accordingly.

“We will definitely have discussions about how we can look to improve and make it better,” GM Ross Atkins told reporters Thursday. “It’s something that is not easy to do and it takes time.”

While they’re at it, the Blue Jays could take it a step further and remove the take-it-or-leave-it tactic to ensure players get raises regardless of whether they sign off on them.

That’s not to say the Blue Jays should have let Boras dictate the terms of Sanchez’s salary, of course. He’s certainly not going to be doing them any favours four years from now when his client’s eligible for free agency.

In a broader sense, players including Sanchez collectively agreed to a salary structure that underpays young players, and teams have no reason to undermine their own bargaining gains by paying pre-arbitration eligible players like they’re superstars.

But paying the reigning ERA leader the league minimum clashes with the notion that players get rewarded for performance. Instead of abiding by an old club policy, the Blue Jays would be better off making changes to ensure their next stars get raises when they excel.