We are nearing that time again, time for salary arbitration. Players not yet eligible for free agency who will earn more than the minimum salary but less than an open-market rate, will haggle with teams to get it. The Dodgers have seven such players eligible for salary arbitration this winter, including new acquisition Juan Nicasio.
The deadline to tender 2015 contracts for players on the 40-man roster is Dec. 2, a little more than a week away. For some of the Dodgers' arbitration-eligible players that deadline is essentially irrelevant. Kenley Jansen, Dee Gordon and Justin Turner aren't going anywhere, and there is plenty of time to talk contract with them in the next seven weeks before exchanging final salary figures on January 16.
For others on the fringes of the roster - Drew Butera, Darwin Barney and Nicasio - the tender deadline provides an ultimatum of sorts to get a deal done by next Tuesday or become a free agent. Last offseason, the Dodgers signed three of these players - Butera, Scott Elbert and Mike Baxter - to 2014 deals just days before the tender deadline. Look for more of that in the coming week.
One player who straddles the line between the two groups is catcher A.J. Ellis, eligible for salary arbitration for the third time.
Ellis made $3.55 million in 2014, but had a poor year. He hit just .191/.323/.354 with three home runs and 12 extra-base hits in 93 games, by far his worst MLB season.
It's nearly unheard of to go through the arbitration process and take a pay cut. Should Ellis go to arbitration, the lowest possible salary he could receive in 2015 is $2.84 million, the maximum 20-percent reduction allowed by the collective bargaining agreement.
Ellis is also going to turn 34 in April, and has caught 935 games in the majors and minors. He is coming off a season that saw a pair of disabled list stints, and his second surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee in three years.
But the Dodgers also don't plan on evaluating Ellis simply on his 2014 performance, which seemed more of a worst-case scenario than a new established skill level. Plus, with Russell Martin now in Toronto, the catching options on the free agent market are the very definition of underwhelming.
Without a clear replacement in mind, it seems unlikely the Dodgers would actually non-tender Ellis, but the threat of it might be enough to spur along negotiations sooner rather than later.
What might a potential Ellis contract for 2015 look like? As always, the arbitration process is all about finding comparable players, similar in age, service time, production and position. Catchers are generally extremely difficult to project.
Here is a look at some catchers with between roughly similar service time to Ellis, and their career numbers:
|Comparable arbitration-eligible catchers|
|*Part of multi-year contract|
Among the group Napoli was the only other Super Two, with the exact same service time as Ellis, but also superior numbers across the board. Same goes for the second Montero comp, after his 2011 season, when Montero leapfrogged Ellis in career production, not to mention a better season leading into arbitration. So ignore those two salaries ($5.8 million, $5.9 million) for a moment.
Jaso through 2013 has similar WAR numbers to Ellis through 2014, and in 2013 Jaso hit .271/.387/.372, albeit with worse defense. But that $2.3 million seems on the low end of possible comps.
Montero after 2010 had fewer career WAR and was a similar offensive contributor in total than Ellis is now, and was coming off a .266/.332/.438 season (102 OPS+) with nine home runs in 85 games. Ellis could argue for higher than that Montero salary ($3.2 million) based on better career numbers in bulk to date, though coming off a worse immediately preceding year.
Avila, coming off a better launch season and with better career numbers, has a salary ($4.15 million) that seems a bar too high for Ellis to shoot for.
The closest comp might be Hanigan. The former Reds catcher was acquired last winter and then extended by the Rays under Andrew Friedman, who gave Hanigan $10.75 million over three years, plus an option for a fourth season. Hanigan was also coming off a season in 2013 when he hit .198/.306/.261 with Cincinnati, a 59 OPS+ even lower than the 68 OPS+ Ellis had last year.
Hanigan made $2.75 million in 2014, the first year of the deal, which looks like a solid low-end for Ellis, perhaps given a few up ticks for Hanigan sacrificing some present value for long-term security.
At MLB Trade Rumors, Ellis was predicted to earn $3.8 million in 2015. That seems a little high to me, so I'll guess $3.4 million for Ellis next year.
Just keep in mind, I guessed $3 million for Ellis in 2013, and he earned $2 million. I guessed $3.1 million in 2014, and he earned $3.55 million. In other words, take my guess with an unhealthily large dose of salt.