Newly named ‘MLB The Show 24’ cover boy Vladimir Guerrero Jr. has won his arbitration case for the 2024 season, and will be paid a record salary arbitration award totaling $19.9M. That’s a $5.4M raise from his salary last season of $14.5M, when he hit 26 home runs with 94 RBI and an OPS+ of 117.
Hearings between teams and arbitration eligible players unable to reach agreement on one-year deals are scheduled over the next two weeks in Scottsdale, AZ and are being heard by three-member panels of arbitrators. Of the 18 players going to a hearing, Guerrero sought the highest award. As per Forbes senior contributor John Perrotto, “Teams won 16 of the 19 cases last year and hold a 347-257 advantage since the arbitration system was instituted prior to the 1974 season.”
Toronto’s front office had countered with an $18.05M offer, but the arbitrators can only pick one number, and sided with the Blue Jays’ young star ahead of his age-25 season. That puts him close to the $20.5M salary New York Mets star 1B Pete Alonso agreed to before the filing deadline in January.
Vlad definitely seemed to be enjoying himself while in Arizona for the hearing, catching a 114-106 Phoenix Suns win over the Milwaukee Bucks and doing a jersey swap with Suns star Kevin Durant. Looks like he was in a good mood!
As a “file-and-trial” team, once arbitration numbers are exchanged, the only way for the Jays and their player to avoid a hearing is by agreeing to a multi-year deal like Bo Bichette signed last year. However, as Shi Davidi of Sportsnet pointed out, “it’s believed there have been no negotiations [with Guerrero] since the Jan. 11 filing deadline.”
Other players to win their arbitration hearings include Austin Hays and Jacob Webb of the Orioles, Taylor Ward of the Angels, Mauricio Dubón of the Astros, and Phil Bickford of the Mets. Players have been victorious in six of the first eight arbitration cases, with 10 additional players scheduled for salary arbitration hearings through Feb. 16.
Service time manipulation karma for the Blue Jays?
Recall the MLB Players Association questioned whether Toronto manipulated Vlad’s service time when they waited until late April 2019 to call him up for his big league debut in order to gain a seventh year of team control, which cost him a potentially lucrative year of free agency.
Ahead of that season, the MLBPA issued a statement saying, “The union’s position on service-time manipulation is clear. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and other great young talents around baseball have earned the right to play on the field for a Major League team. The decision to not bring him up is a business decision. It’s bad for the Blue Jays. It’s bad for fans. It’s bad for players and it’s bad for the industry.”
So there is probably some karma at play here, as the $19.9M award beats Vlad’s former teammate Teoscar Hernández’s $14M arbitration salary last year with Seattle. In fact, no matter whether he’d won or lost, Guerrero Jr.’s salary in 2024 will be the highest award in MLB arbitration history, with wider ramifications across the industry in terms of unlocking a new awards level.
While Hernández only received $14M instead of his requested $16M, that had previously been the highest salary for a player in a case that went to an arbitration hearing, topping the previous high of $13.5M for both Gerrit Cole and Max Fried.
What does this mean for the Blue Jays going forward?
Without using this window of opportunity since Jan. 11 to share some risk and successfully negotiate a long-term extension to buy out some of Vlad’s free agent years, it appears Guerrero Jr. will indeed be testing free agency as a 26-year-old following the 2025 season.
Perhaps that’s why the Blue Jays haven’t been willing to offer multi-year deals beyond 2025 to anyone except Cuban righty Yariel Rodríguez this offseason? No doubt the Jays also offering a $700M free agent contract to superstar Shohei Ohtani has convinced young stars Guerrero Jr. and Bichette — and their agents — that the money is there from ownership for $300M+ long term extensions, so why should they settle for anything less?
With all of their players now under contract for 2024, the Blue Jays’ luxury tax payroll should be close to $252M on Opening Day, down $6M from the level of a year ago. Whether that gives them some capacity to add to this team ahead of the season, or reserve some payroll capacity to add reinforcements for a postseason push at the July 30 trade deadline, remains to be seen.
And for long-suffering Blue Jays fans, the simple fact that team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Ross Atkins decided to take one of their best players to an arbitration hearing — over an $1.85M difference in what they think Vlad is worth — cannot be reassuring. These hearings can leave lasting scars, as we saw in the case of Marcus Stroman in 2018, especially given the alleged service time manipulation in 2019.
As Gregor Chisholm of the Toronto Star argues, “The Jays can afford to lose an arbitration case to Guerrero. What they can’t afford is to alienate one of their best players. In fact, that seems like something most competent teams would have paid an additional $1.85 million to avoid risking in the first place.”
The actual hearing yesterday also came just a day after the 2015 World Series champion Kansas City Royals locked up their 23-year-old, homegrown shortstop Bobby Witt Jr. to the largest contract in franchise history: an 11-year, $289M extension, per Jeff Passan of ESPN.
Many teams have locked up young stars in their pre-arbitration window to long-term extensions in recent years, including players like Ronald Acuña Jr., Julio Rodríguez, Luis Robert and Corbin Carroll. Top prospect Jackson Chourio, who ranked second overall in the most recent Baseball America top 100 (subscription required), signed an eight-year, $82M contract with the Brewers before ever playing a major league inning. No doubt the smart, new Baltimore owners will try for the same with their young core.
Now what for the Blue Jays?
So after an uninspiring offseason, where 8.8 bWAR walked out the door in Brandon Belt, Matt Chapman, Whit Merrifield, Hyun Jin Ryu, Jordan Hicks and Jay Jackson — only to be replaced by 2.2 bWAR in Isiah Kiner-Falefa and Justin Turner, as well as Rodríguez, who’s never pitched in MLB and only threw 7.1 innings last year in the March World Baseball Classic — Jays fans have reason to be disappointed. That’s a deficit of 6.6 wins using the Baseball Reference WAR methodology.
This isn’t a great way for the front office to build up fan expectations following the completion of the $300M Rogers Centre renovations this offseason. They need to sell season ticket packages and seats;and, after failing to land the best player on the market in Shohei Ohtani, MVP-type talents like Juan Soto or Cody Bellinger, or former Cy Young winners Corbin Burnes and Blake Snell, there’s not much buzz for them to market.
Compare that to an Orioles team that won 101 games last year with an exciting, young core, as well as the top overall prospect in baseball in Jackson Holliday. With a new ownership group that already traded for Brewers ace Corbin Burnes and issued a statement saying, “Our collective goal will be to bring a World Series Trophy back to the City of Baltimore.” When has Ed Rogers ever said that?
In fact, taking the key player you’re counting on to drive ‘internal improvement’ this season to an arbitration hearing is just the cherry on top of a dismal offseason. If the starting pitching was to regress in 2024, offsetting much of that internal improvement expected from the hitters, there’s a very good chance that this team could regress again right out of the playoff picture. And then what?