Here we go again. The Blue Jays front office is almost $2M apart on a one-year deal for homegrown star Vladimir Guerrero Jr. for the upcoming season. While they settled with 11 of their 12 arbitration eligible players on a contract for 2024, Guerrero is asking for $19.9M while the Jays see his value at $18.05M. If they go to an arbitration hearing, the arbitrator will have to choose one of those figures.
They’ve exchanged their numbers now, and absent them agreeing to a multi-year extension like they did with Bo Bichette last year, the parties are headed to a hearing, likely in February. It seems like an odd time to play ‘chicken’ with a young star who’s heading into his age-25 season, one who’s now been part of the Blue Jays organization for nine years.
The dilemma here is that general manager Ross Atkins has clearly staked the 2024 Blue Jays offence on a mean reversion back to career averages for Guerrero, George Springer, Daulton Varsho and Alejandro Kirk. Let’s not ignore that Vlad is just two seasons removed from an AL MVP-finalist season, where he led MLB with 123 runs, and hit 48 home runs with 111 RBI, while slashing .311/.401/.601/1.002 with an OPS+ of 167. He’s also a three-time All Star and has a Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Award on his resume… with five productive MLB seasons under his belt at age 24.
So you’d think they might like to avoid any potential misunderstandings with one of their most bankable talents, one who puts fans in the seats when the Blue Jays need to sell ticket packages after the $300M upgrade to Rogers Centre? Especially a player who they are counting on to drive an offensive improvement from a 2023 season that was seen as “just a blip in terms of run-scoring.”
Recall that there was already some concern expressed by the MLB Players Association about the Blue Jays manipulating Vlad’s service time when he made his rookie debut on April 26, 2019 as a 20-year old. That delay in his call-up gave the team an extra year of team control, which means Vlad won’t be a free agent until after the 2025 season. Given the likely riches that await him in free agency, that lost year was likely worth $20M+ to Guerrero Jr.
Arbitration hearings can also be messy: what if the Jays say their $18.05M figure fairly values a player who has seen his batting average, slugging percentage and OPS decline for two consecutive seasons? Or if they bring up the obvious decline in his defensive metrics at 1B, where he went from the 2022 Gold Glove to a DRS of -6 in 2023, which ranked 13th among qualified 1B, and a league worst OAA of -13?
Their case could also site Guerrero’s 26 double plays grounded into which led MLB in 2022, which was followed by 23 GIDP in 2023, the third most in the league. The Blue Jays front office could argue that those metrics don’t support a $5.4M annual increase in salary from $14.5M in 2023, which is why they’ve anchored their offer at only a $3.55M raise for 2024.
Those are all valid arguments that the front office would likely make in an arbitration case. Guerrero would likely cite the $20.5M agreement between the NY Mets and their 29-year-old 1B, Pete Alonso, for the upcoming season as a comparable. Alonso is likely headed to free agency after 2024.
Guerrero’s agents at Magnus Sports could also point out MLB Trade Rumors, a benchmark used across the industry, had projected a $20.4M salary for Vlad in 2024. The vast majority of arbitration eligible players settled close to their projected numbers.
An opportunity for a two-year deal?
Hopefully Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet is right here (from 26:48) in his Friday morning chat with Ben Ennis and Brent Gunning on The Fan Morning Show, where they discussed Vlad’s contract/arbitration situation. BNS thinks the relationship between player and front office is fine, and that the exchange of arbitration numbers is just a part of the process.
But clearly the Blue Jays are anchoring their position that Guerrero doesn’t deserve $19.9M for 2024. BNS notes that Juan Soto saw a $4.9M salary increase to $23M in his second last year of arbitration for 2023 with the Padres. Soto had put up a 5.6 bWAR in 2022 ahead of that raise, whereas Vlad only put up a 2.0 bWAR in 2023. Does that merit a $5.4M annual increase for 2024?
The other question posed by BNS is, “What’s the incentive to do a two-year deal at this point?” Unfortunately, because the Blue Jays are a “file and trial” team, the only way to avoid an arbitration hearing now would be to come to a multi-year agreement with Vlad. It’s unlikely that he’s going to agree to a long term extension this close to free agency, so the only other option would be a two-year deal to buy out his remaining arbitration years through 2025.
But he’d likely want $40M+ for those two years; and, if he puts up a 6.0+ bWAR season in 2024 again like he did in his MVP finalist 2021 year, he’d be up for a Soto-like payday in his final year of arbitration if he only goes year-to-year. But if he’s around the 3.2 bWAR year that Pete Alonso had in 2023, he might only be up for $20.5M on a one-year deal in 2025.
There’s clearly risk that could be shared between the organization and their homegrown star here, so let’s hope there’s enough goodwill built up over the last nine years too see them through the hearing process. A two-year deal would be a great outcome; an unlikely long term contract extension buying out some of Vlad’s free agent years would be even better. As fans, let’s just hope they can avoid destroying that goodwill in a potentially contentious arbitration hearing next month.