With $3 million at stake, the Boston Red Sox wanted to create the most compelling argument possible against Mookie Betts without alienating or insulting him. So last January, as they tried to convince a three-person arbitration panel that Betts deserved the $7.5 million salary they were offering and not the $10.5 million he requested, the Red Sox fashioned a novel approach in the typically staid, lawyerly arbitration room: They played a video talking about how good Kris Bryant was.
The purpose, multiple sources in the room told ESPN, was not simply to lavish praise on the Chicago Cubs' third baseman but to make their case: As great as Mookie Betts may be, he isn't Kris Bryant. And in the world of arbitration -- an opaque, wonky process that determines salaries for about a quarter of the league every year and has taken on significantly more meaning as economic turmoil roils the baseball landscape -- the single most important factor is comparable players.
So when Betts won the first case of 2018, a year that saw the most hearings since 1990, it wasn't merely a victory for him or a sign that Bryant, and his $10.85 million salary, was indeed a fair parallel. It reminded players that with the free-agent market spiraling and pre-free agency contract extensions increasingly rare, arbitration is among the last avenues for players to seek salary gains amid the sport's financial correction.
That's what makes the next 48 hours so compelling. At 1 p.m. ET on Friday, the 175 or so players eligible for arbitration will have settled on a salary for 2019 or reached an impasse that leads to a hearing. With all 30 teams adopting the so-called file-and-trial approach -- if the sides file a number, they'll head to trial, cutting out the post-exchange-date negotiations that were prevalent even five years ago -- Friday marks an underappreciated day on the baseball calendar.
One on which Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado will set a record for arbitration salary -- or head to trial in February. And where the first-time-eligible class of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Corey Seager represents the biggest influx of talent -- let alone talent from a single position -- into the arbitration system in years. The leaps taken by Cy Young Award-winning starter Jacob deGrom and lockdown closer Blake Treinen could portend significant raises as well.
Then there's the case of Betts, who followed his leap in arbitration with one on the field. The arbitration system gives special favor to those with hardware, and Betts is coming off a season in which he won the American League Most Valuable Player and a World Series. Will he seek to beat Max Scherzer's record $8.8 million raise for players already in arbitration? Might he see Arenado's $17.75 million salary as a third-time-eligible player and settle in that neighborhood to mitigate the risk of a trial? Could he go for broke and file for $20 million-plus, looking to set a new benchmark in a landscape where they're few and far between?
"I hope every damn agent holds the line," one agent with arbitration-eligible clients told ESPN. "This would be a wonderful year to see if they can do it. And if not? Go to trial."