TORONTO – The Toronto Blue Jays have renewed the 2017 contract of all-star right-hander Aaron Sanchez for the major-league minimum of $535,000, a decision influential agent Scott Boras described as the "harshest treatment any team could provide a player."
The renewal took place after Sanchez, who led the American League with an earned-run average of 3.00 during a spectacular 2016 season, declined to accept a modest increase on the minimum based on the club’s formula for calculating its pre-arbitration raises.
Under a policy in place for the past 10 years, the Blue Jays renew contracts at the major-league minimum if players don’t accept the raises offered to them.
"They offered him a very small raise above the minimum, which is not commensurate to his performance peers," Boras said in an interview with Sportsnet. "Some teams have very low payment standards but they say if you renew we understand, but you still keep the money we’re giving you. Toronto is so rigid, they not only have a very antiquated or substandard policy compared to the other teams for extraordinary performance, but if you don’t accept what that low standard is, they then have the poison pill of saying, you get paid the minimum. It’s the harshest treatment in baseball that any club could provide for a player. That’s why few teams have such a policy."
Each team has its own formula for calculating salaries for players before they become eligible for arbitration, and the Blue Jays’ system is believed to be primarily based on a player’s service time. Clubs can dictate the salary if a player refuses to accept an offer, something he might do as a way to protest a raise he feels is inadequate.
Blue Jays general manager Ross Atkins disagreed with Boras’ depiction of the policy as a punitive one "because it’s their choice, they could have accepted that number."
"This is a policy that was put in place 10 years ago," he added. "I don’t see it as punitive, we don’t see it as punitive because it’s your choice to not accept the higher number."
The disagreement comes in the first exchange over salary between the sides since Sanchez became a client of the powerful Boras Corp., over the off-season. Boras is known as one of the game’s toughest negotiators and fiercest advocates of players’ rights, and the concern whenever there is an issue such as this one is that it will impact the relationship between the sides.
Sanchez will be first-time arbitration-eligible after the 2017 season. He won’t be eligible for free agency until after the 2020 season.
Atkins downplayed any concerns about long-term implications, saying, "I’m confident that our relationship with Aaron will be fine."
"We focus on communication, resources, giving Aaron the best chance to be everything he can be and making sure we’re breaking down every possible barrier," Atkins continued during an interview. "There are times when there are disagreements and typically they’re about things like this, about areas of compensation. We try to be consistent and fair and not break precedents and not break policy. From our perspective, we’ll continue to focus on the relationship in terms of how we provide the best resources possible for him in terms of getting better."
Treatment of pre-arbitration players has evolved in recent seasons, with some teams moving to reward high achievers in more meaningful ways.
Prime examples from recent weeks include the Chicago Cubs giving Kris Bryant $1.05 million after his MVP campaign – having pushed him to $652,000 for 2016 after his rookie of the year performance in 2015 – and the Boston Red Sox renewing Mookie Betts at $950,000 when the sides couldn’t work out a deal.
"It’s the harshest treatment in baseball that any club could provide for a player. That’s why few teams have such a policy."
On the pitching side, the New York Mets are paying Noah Syndergaard $605,500 this season, and last year, in his final year before arbitration, they paid Jacob deGrom $607,000. Even the notoriously tight-fisted Miami Marlins rewarded the late Jose Fernandez during his pre-arbitration years, pushing him from the league minimum to $635,000 in 2014 and $651,000 in 2015.
Remaining consistent within one’s policy and treating all players the same is important for teams in order to maintain relationships and trust with agents, but some clubs are building leeway into their structures.
"We will at some point potentially reconsider it," said Atkins, "but at this time, with the increase in the major-league minimum, we didn’t think it was the time to do it."
Under baseball’s new collective bargaining agreement, the minimum salary in the big-leagues rose from $507,500 in 2016 to $535,000 this year.
As a result of the Blue Jays’ policy and his decision not to take their raise, Sanchez, who developed into one of the game’s elite starting pitchers last year and is relentlessly driven to remain there, will be paid the same as any rookie breaking into the big-leagues this season.
"Players who have achieved this type of performance who are not arbitration-eligible, other clubs, most recently the Mets and the Marlins and the Cubs, they redo their systems to account for extraordinary performances. In my 35 years of doing this, that’s commonplace with what teams do," said Boras. "Toronto has the right to do what they want to do and they have a very stern and rigid system where they don’t think like a lot of other clubs do in the 0-2 (service-time) area."