That’s certainly true for Soto and Turner. Bell, who arrived in a Christmas Eve trade, is a less certain part of the future. But avoiding arbitration hearings is a good way to keep everyone generally happy. Imagine quibbling over a pay raise, having to announce your ask publicly while your boss does the same with their offer, then sitting in a stuffy room — or on a Zoom call, of course — while your company lists off all the reasons you are not worth what you think you are. Then imagine waiting for a neutral arbiter to pick between the two amounts — nothing in between — and making a public decision so everyone, including your teammates, can see the goodwill fraying.
You would want to avoid an arbitration hearing, too.
The trick this winter is deciding how much stock to place in the results of last year’s pandemic-shortened, 60-game season. Soto, 22, was one of the league’s best hitters and won the National League batting title. Turner was one of the league’s best leadoff hitters and finished seventh in NL MVP voting. Bell, on the other hand, took a big step back after putting up all-star numbers in 2019. Now the Nationals, those players and their agents will decide what all that’s worth. Joe Ross, the team’s fourth arbitration-eligible player, agreed in early December to a $1.5 million salary for 2021.
Soto is first-time eligible after reaching Super 2 status. Typically, players become arbitration-eligible by accruing three-plus years of major league service time. They then have three years of arbitration eligibility before hitting the open market. But Soto — like Turner before him — has played enough to earn four years of eligibility before reaching free agency in 2024.
The record salary for a first-time arbitration-eligible player is $11.5 million, set by Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Cody Bellinger after he won the NL MVP award in 2019. Like Soto and like Bell, Bellinger is represented by agent Scott Boras. But because Soto’s big year came in less than half of the usual schedule, it’s unlikely he threatens Bellinger’s mark. It is certain that he will get a big raise on his team-assigned $629,400 salary for 2020.
MLB Trade Rumors, a website with typically accurate arbitration predictions, has Soto making either $4.5 million or $8.5 million this season. In a normal winter, MLBTR would offer only one figure for each arbitration-eligible player. But with the uncertainty of this cycle, the website is giving three numbers. The first is based on statistics from the 60-game season ($4.5 million for Soto), the second is based on scaling all counting stats to a 162-game season ($8.5 million for Soto), and the third, for non-first-time eligible players, determines the raise they would get from a full season and gives them 37 percent of it.
Again, this is a wacky process. MLBTR projects Turner to make $9.4 million in their first model, $16.6 million in their second and $10.8 million in their third. Any of those varying amounts would be a raise on Turner’s $7.45 million salary in 2020. This is his third year of arbitration eligibility, putting him on track to reach free agency after the 2022 season. Turner has established himself as a franchise cornerstone, and, as of December, General Manager Mike Rizzo expected to pick up long-term extension discussions in the spring.
Bell, the newcomer, is projected to make $5.1 million in MLBTR’s first formula, $7.2 million in their second and $5.7 million in their third. There’s less variance here because Bell underperformed in 2020 and is mostly due a raise for spending another year in the majors. He is in his second year of arbitration eligibility and is under the Nationals’ control for two more seasons.
If the Nationals and these players don’t settle on a 2021 salary by 1 p.m. on Friday, they can still do so in the following days and weeks. The deadline is just for filing salary figures to the MLB office. An arbitration hearing happens only if figures are filed and no agreement is made by mid-to-late February. The Nationals had hearings with Michael A. Taylor and Kyle Barraclough before the 2019 season. Otherwise, it is rare for Rizzo to leave this week without everything sewn up.
And in each of these three cases, familiarity with the players and agents should foster civility. So should the Nationals’ wish to keep Soto, Turner and Bell on their side.