What we know (and don’t know) about arbitration hearing for Blue Jays’ Bichette

Toronto Blue Jays' Bo Bichette looks out from the dugout after he was called out on strikes during the fourth inning of the team's baseball game against the Seattle Mariners, Friday, July 8, 2022, in Seattle. (Ted S. Warren/AP Photo)

TORONTO — Later this week, a panel of arbitrators will sit in a Florida conference room and listen to competing presentations about Bo Bichette.

The purpose of this get together? To determine whether the Blue Jays infielder will earn $5 million, the club’s offer, or $7.5 million, Bichette’s request. The discussion won’t be open to the public — far from it. In fact, the date of the hearing itself remained a well-kept secret to all but those working on the case. What’s known now: Bichette’s hearing is scheduled for Thursday, according to a source with knowledge.

Behind the closed doors of that room, the Blue Jays will point to players they deem comparable to Bichette. According to experienced arbitration people who aren’t working on this specific case, names like Willy Adames, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story and Javier Baez will likely figure in here. Meanwhile, Bichette’s representatives will point to comparables that further his case. Players such as teammate Vlad Guerrero Jr. and Pete Alonso, for instance. Each side has a full hour. Then come the rebuttals — half an hour apiece — and, finally, a decision.

The process is clunky at best. Why should independent arbitrators like retired judges determine these salaries when they typically lack expertise in baseball? Why is Bichette, an all-star shortstop who’s led the American League in hits each of the last two seasons, making middle reliever money? And why all this secrecy?

“Hate it,” one longtime baseball person said of arbitration. “Absolutely hate it.”

No, it’s not ideal. But after nearly 50 years, arbitration is seemingly here to stay, collectively bargained into the sport’s structure by both players and owners. And it does have its supporters. But either way, maybe it’s actually best to skim past some of those questions and focus more on what the outcome of Bichette’s hearing will tell us.

Since this is the Florida native’s first trip through arbitration, a win here would have implications well beyond 2023. As a first-time eligible player, the full scope of his career is considered now, with his 2022 season mattering most. From here on, however, the 24-year-old’s raises will be determined solely on what he did in his most recent season.

Put simply, the base he establishes now will impact his 2024 and 2025 salaries, too. For instance: if Bichette has another great year in 2023 and earns a big raise, he might either reach $12.5 million ($7.5 million base plus $5 million raise) or $10 million ($5 million base plus $5 million raise) even though the on-field production would have been identical. For the Blue Jays, there’s a similar incentive to keep costs in check and maximize payroll flexibility for future seasons.

It’s a little uncomfortable (depending on the player, very uncomfortable) but it’s worth remembering that this is part of the game. Like it or not, players and teams are in opposition to one another on occasion.

With that in mind, it may be tempting to presume that we know what Bichette is thinking, especially after he said this about the team’s pre-arbitration salary structure this time last year: “I disagree with the formula. I understand that I am worth more. I think that I’m an outlier. I know that I’m an outlier.”

But remember: we haven’t heard from Bichette on the process that’s unfolding currently. The circumstances are different this year, with a much bigger salary coming his way. He deserves the chance to speak publicly before any assumptions are made about what this means for his future in Toronto. In the meantime, it’s clear he’s motivated to play often and play well, something that’s mutually beneficial for the next three seasons regardless of who’s paying Bichette for 2026 and beyond.

If this all sounds rather cold and unemotional, well, it can be. But part of the reason these battles are fought so fiercely is that larger forces are in play here, too. Knowing that one decision can shape future salaries across the industry, both MLB and the MLB Players Association work with individual teams and agents throughout this process. Regardless of what the arbitrators decide, this case could impact the likes of fellow major-leaguers Bobby Witt Jr., Jeremy Pena, and Oneil Cruz a few years from now.

But even with all of that said, a middle ground still exists. It’s not like the Blue Jays are going to non-tender Bichette before he hits free agency in three years’ time, which means there will be two more times the sides must agree on a salary. And whatever you think of this process, it’s not especially enjoyable for those involved. In theory, the Blue Jays could offer Bichette a two- or three-year bridge deal that prevents the need for these annual hassles without eating into his free-agent seasons.

It’s what they did with third baseman Matt Chapman a year ago, and no one’s complaining about that arrangement right now. The risk would be low for both sides. Granted, a big-picture question would still loom over Bichette and the Blue Jays in that scenario. But it could mean building some goodwill, taking the decision out of the hands of the arbitrators and allowing all involved to turn their focus back to the field.

If there’s traction for such an idea, we’ll know about it before long.

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