Bo Bichette on Blue Jays pre-arbitration system: 'I disagree with the formula'

Toronto Blue Jays designated hitter Bo Bichette steps in during a spring training game against the Philadelphia Phillies at BayCare Ballpark Saturday, March 19, 2022, in Clearwater, Fla. (Mark Taylor/CP)

DUNEDIN, Fla. — Over the course of the 2021 season, Bo Bichette played 159 games, led the American League in hits, represented the Toronto Blue Jays at MLB’s all-star game, and produced 4.9 fWAR for a team that finished with 91 wins. Meanwhile, Alek Manoah made 20 starts for that team after it promoted him for his MLB debut in May, pitching to a 3.22 ERA over 111.2 innings while producing 2.0 fWAR and finishing eighth in AL rookie-of-the-year voting.

This week, after neither player agreed to terms with the club on a pre-arbitration deal, the Blue Jays unilaterally renewed their contracts for 2022 — Bichette at $723,550; Manoah at $706,200 — under its formulaic process for determining pre-arbitration salaries, as reported by Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi. That came after Bichette turned down an offered salary of $747,100, and Manoah rejected his own at $712,400.

Why would either of these two players turn down those higher salaries, knowing that by doing so they would earn less — $23,550 in Bichette’s case; $6,200 in Manoah’s — this season?

“It's pretty simple — I disagree with sticking to a formula to value us as players.” Bichette said. “I think that there's more to it than the way that they view us. I think that for players, that’s not the right way to do it.”

“It was a decision that me and my agent came down to,” Manoah said, “Competitively, we think that this was the best decision and that it will help us in the long run.”

Each MLB club utilizes its own methodology to determine salaries for pre-arbitration players, some of them not even sharing the process behind the result with players and their agents. But upon overhauling their own approach prior to the 2020 season, the Blue Jays laid the formula out for all of their players to see.

Each day of service time is worth a slight increase; each plate appearance for a hitter and inning pitched for a pitcher, too. There are also $10,000 bonuses up for grabs if a player wins a major award or is a top-three finalist in MVP or Cy Young voting. Under the formula, players can earn a maximum of $15,000 for career active days on the roster and $25,000 for career playing time. That means the most a player could increase their salary — outside of a major award bonus — is $40,000.

Had he accepted the salary that formula produced, Bichette would’ve come pretty close to maximizing the scale this year, earning a little over $37,000 based on his 275 days of active service and 1,030 plate appearances of playing time, plus an additional $10,000 for being named an all-star last season. Meanwhile, Manoah’s service and playing time adjustments would have come out to a bit north of $12,000.

But each player rejected those raises, triggering a policy in the uniform player contract utilized in Toronto’s system that assigned them a renewal salary halfway between the major-league minimum — $700,000 this season under the game’s new collective bargaining agreement — and the figures the formula generated.

“I disagree with the formula. I think there's more to what players bring to the team,” Bichette said. “I think that it's very obvious that myself and Alek are both outliers in the situation. So, yeah, I just disagree with the formula.”

Manoah and Bichette were the only two among Toronto’s group of 18 pre-arbitration players to reject the salaries the club unilaterally awarded them. Jordan Romano received the highest salary at $728,400.

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. led the way in 2021, accepting the club’s offer of $605,400 — $34,900 above last year’s major-league minimum — ahead of a season in which he led the AL in fWAR and finished second in MVP voting. The two sides then agreed to terms this week on a $7.9-million salary for 2022, avoiding arbitration in the first of Guerrero’s four years of eligibility.

In the context of MLB contracts, the difference between the figures Bichette and Manoah turned down and the ones they ended up with is minuscule. But the implications these decisions could have down the road is anything but.

Rejecting a renewal offer is one way for players to demonstrate displeasure over the pre-arbitration salaries the club has assigned. It’s also a way for players to send a message to their organization that they’ll fight for what they believe is fair value, which could shape future negotiations with the club over arbitration-avoiding, one-year deals or potentially much-larger contract extensions.

Both Bichette and Manoah are exceptionally talented and can be reasonably expected to only get better as they enter their mid-20s. If they remain healthy and productive, they’ll continue to accrue strong statistical seasons on which future salaries will be based under MLB’s arbitration system, which Bichette will be eligible for next winter and Manoah could enter as soon as the 2023-24 off-season if he qualifies as a Super Two player.

What players in Bichette and Manoah’s position have to constantly consider is that any decision they make now — even any comment they provide for the piece you’re currently reading — could potentially be used against them in an arbitration hearing down the road.

In that situation, Bichette and Manoah would be arguing that they’ve been underpaid over the first three seasons of their careers relative to the value of their production. But by accepting the salaries the Blue Jays awarded them this spring, they could be giving the club leverage to suggest in a hearing that they were happy with what they were paid. If they weren’t, then why did they accept the salary?

It's a flimsy argument, but one the club could nevertheless make before a panel of independent arbitrators tasked with deciding which of two potential salaries the player will earn the following season — one filed by the club and the other by the player’s representation. By rejecting the salaries the Blue Jays offered them now, each player is making a subtle statement that they feel the figure doesn’t reflect what they’re worth and that they deserve to be paid more.

Essentially, each player could be sacrificing some salary now to potentially gain more in the future. And as two of the better young players in the game at their positions, both are uniquely positioned to make such a bet. After the Blue Jays selected him with the No. 11 pick in the 2019 draft, Manoah signed with the club for a $4.548-million bonus; a second-round high-school draftee in 2016, Bichette received a $1.1-million bonus. The $23,550 Bichette’s forgoing and the $6,200 Manoah’s losing pale in comparison.

And the gains they stand to make through the arbitration process are substantial. Arbitration salaries in a player’s first trip through are generally determined by comparing an individual’s case to a similar player who’s gone through the system previously. Career statistics are considered, with added weight given towards a player’s most recent season.

We obviously don’t know what those numbers will look like yet. But Bichette’s case could be a fascinating one. He’s one of only two shortstops to produce 100 runs and 100 RBIs — remember, arbitrators tend to consider more traditional statistics rather than advanced ones — in his age-23 season in the past 50 years. The other is Alex Rodriguez.

Bichette and Rodriguez are also the only two shortstops in MLB history to produce 25 homers, 25 steals, 100 runs and 100 RBI in a single season. And Bichette did it as a younger age. Mookie Betts and Jose Canseco are the only other players in MLB history to produce those stats in their age-23 season. Betts went to an arbitration hearing with the Boston Red Sox in his first year of eligibility, winning the $10.5-million salary he’d filed for over the $7.5-million one the Red Sox put forward.

That’s how the decisions Bichette and Manoah made this week to forego relatively modest sums could potentially have much greater impacts in years to come. Both players said they arrived at their choices independently, but have spoken about what went into their decision-making since. Manoah’s the older player by a couple of months, but younger in the league. He said going through the contract renewal process for the first time — on the heels of acrimonious CBA negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA, no less — was an education.

“My agent and I, coming to the conclusion that we did, that was something that we spoke about at length,” Manoah said. “I just think this is something I need to do to put myself in a position to help me out in the future.”

Bichette had been through the process before, accepting the $587,800 salary the club’s formula produced for him going into 2021. The difference then, of course, was that he’d yet to play a full season.

“I disagree with the formula. I understand that I am worth more,” Bichette said. “I think that I’m an outlier. I know that I’m an outlier.”

The Blue Jays would no doubt argue that their system is fair and based on objective measures such as MLB service and the prior season’s playing time. But that ignores the fact the Blue Jays control both those variables.

The club chooses when minor-leaguers make their major-league debuts and begin their service time clocks. They also determine how much time a player spends on the active roster throughout the season via minor-league options and injured list placements (IL time doesn’t count towards active service under Toronto’s formula). And they control how often a player is on the field accumulating the plate appearances and innings pitched needed to increase future salary under the system.

Of course, despite the lower salaries they accepted, Bichette and Manoah can still make up the money they forewent and then some if they continue on their upwards career trajectories and again finish among the game’s best players at their positions.

MLB’s new CBA established a $50-million pre-arbitration bonus pool from which players within their first three years of service time can earn additional income based on performance. Under the new system, players who win individual awards such as the MVP and Cy Young would receive bonuses of up to $2.5-million, with the remaining pool funds being distributed to the top-100 qualifiers within a WAR-like formula to be developed by MLB and the MLBPA.

But that new layer to the CBA cuts in another direction, too. As reported by Davidi, the Blue Jays opted not to increase the values awarded by their pre-arbitration salary system because they believe the new bonus pool will effectively do that for them.

If the pre-arbitration bonus pool existed last season, Bichette and Manoah certainly would have qualified for it. Bichette finished 22nd among all MLB position players in fWAR and 14th in bWAR; Manoah finished 77th among all pitchers in fWAR and 52nd in bWAR. And those rankings include players who have already surpassed three years of MLB service.

Ultimately, MLB’s economic system is what it is — and it doesn’t afford players in the early seasons of their careers any leverage with which to increase their pay. This last round of CBA negotiations did net those players a nontrivial increase in minimum salaries — this year, first-year players will earn $124,500 more than they would have last season — but it was never going to come close to adequately compensating high performers like Bichette and Manoah relative to the value they provide their teams.

Clubs still have complete control to unilaterally set the salaries of players who have yet to accrue three years of service, which is how Manoah and Bichette ended up where they are. And where things go from here is what could really be fascinating.

“That’s behind closed doors, between the representatives and the team,” Manoah said. “At the end of the day, my goal is to win a World Series with this team. Whether I'm making minimum or whatever the case may be. The goal is still to go win a World Series — to go work hard with these guys every day.”

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