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Corey Seager 2021 salary arbitration preview

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Seager is heading into his final season before free agency, unless the Dodgers sign him to a long-term deal

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Tampa Bay Rays - Game Five
“Corey, how far apart are you and the Dodgers in negotiations?”
Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Friday is the exchange deadline for salary arbitration, and arguably the most important player of the seven Dodgers still eligible for arbitration is shortstop Corey Seager, because he’s the closest to free agency.

Seager’s 2021 salary isn’t much of a concern, in that he’ll be the Dodgers shortstop this season no matter what. But since he’ll be a free agent after this season, and the two sides will be negotiating this week anyway, now is as good a time as any to talk extension.

It takes two to tango, of course, and it would be understandable if Seager wants to wait until free agency, when he could have several suitors bidding for his services to drive up the price. On the other hand, next offseason stands to be the most shortstop-rich free agent market in history, with Seager joining Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, and Javier Baez in a potentially loaded class.

Seager signing a long-term deal now would be striking while the iron is hot, coming off a dominant season that culminated in his winning both NLCS MVP and World Series MVP. The Dodgers signing a star a year before free agency happened just last year with Mookie Betts, who inked a 12-year, $365 million contract extension before he even played a game in Los Angeles. Last year was Betts’ age-27 season, just like 2021 will see Seager turn 27.

But there are other instances this decade of the Dodgers giving long-term deals to players close to free agency.

The most prominent examples are Clayton Kershaw, who signed for seven years and a then-record $215 million before the 2014 season, and Matt Kemp, who was rewarded for his near-MVP season in 2011 with an eight-year, $160 million contract. Both were signed during the offseason with one year until free agency, with Kershaw signing near the arbitration exchange deadline in January.

That’s where Seager is now, but even if he and the Dodgers don’t sign a long-term deal this week, there is still time to get something done before he reaches free agency. Recent examples of this include Chad Billingsley’s three-year, $35 million contract a few days before Opening Day in 2011, and Andre Ethier’s five-year, $85 million extension signed in May 2012, the same month the current Dodgers ownership group took control of the team.

But let’s put a long-term deal on the back burner for a moment, because we still need to figure out what Seager will make in 2021. That is no easy task, since as great as Seager was last year, it’s hard to know how a 60-game season will be valued by arbitrators.

Seager was on pace for 41 home runs, 111 RBI, and 5.7 bWAR, to name a few stats, over a 162-game season. His actual numbers were excellent, hitting .307/.358/.585 with 15 home runs. He co-led major league shortstops with 41 RBI, and ranked second at the position in slugging percentage, OPS (.943), wOBA (.394), wRC+ (151), and home runs.

With the help of the wonderful MLB Trade Rumors arbitration database, I looked at some recent infielders with, like Seager this offseason, at least five years of major league service time. I included a few third basemen and one second baseman, trying to get a look at some players with production at least reasonably comparable to Seager.

Infielder salary arbitration comparables

Player Pos Year Service time Salary Prev. salary % increase bWAR (yr) bWAR (career)
Player Pos Year Service time Salary Prev. salary % increase bWAR (yr) bWAR (career)
Corey Seager SS 2021 5.032 TBD $7,600,000 TBD 2.3 18.4
Marcus Semien SS 2020 5.118 $13,000,000 $5,900,000 120.34% 7.5 21.8
Anthony Rendon 3B 2019 5.130 $18,800,000 $12,300,000 52.85% 4.8 22.6
Xander Bogaerts SS 2019 5.042 $12,000,000 $7,050,000 70.21% 4.3 15.6
Didi Gregorius SS 2019 5.159 $11,750,000 $8,250,000 42.42% 4.8 17.3
Josh Donaldson 3B 2018 5.158 $23,000,000 $17,000,000 35.29% 4.6 34.2
Manny Machado 3B/SS 2018 5.056 $16,000,000 $11,500,000 39.13% 3.8 28.3
Todd Frazier 3B 2017 5.071 $12,000,000 $8,250,000 45.45% 3.4 17.7
Neil Walker 2B 2016 5.166 $10,550,000 $8,000,000 31.88% 2.2 17.8
Recent shortstops, third basemen, and second basemen with at least five years of major league service time

Josh Donaldson, with an MVP on his resume, is the outlier here, earning $23 million in his final year before free agency. He and Manny Machado had career numbers considerably better than Seager at that point in their careers so probably aren’t the best comps, but they fit a subset of this group of raises between 30-45 percent between their fifth and sixth seasons.

Marcus Semien had a breakout season in 2019, finishing third in American League MVP voting while hitting .285/.369/.522, a 137 wRC+, with 33 home runs and excellent defense. He parlayed that excellent launch season into more than doubling his salary. Seager made $7.6 million last year, so repeating Semien’s path means a salary over $15.2 million.

Maybe it’s Xander Bogaerts, who like Seager was the starting shortstop on the World Series champs heading into his final salary arbitration year, after hitting .288/.360/.522, a 133 wRC+, with 23 home runs. He got a 70-percent raise heading into his sixth season. The same for Seager puts him at about $12.9 million.

In Matt Swartz’s salary arbitration projections at MLB Trade Rumors in October, he accounted for the weirdness of a truncated season with three different projections:

Method 1: Applies model directly with actual statistics from this 60-game season

Method 2: Extrapolates all counting stats to would-be 162-game totals. One home run becomes 2.7 home runs.

Method 3: For non-first-time eligibles, finds the raise they’d get in a 162 game season, then gives them 37% of that raise

Using just the raw 60-game numbers, Swartz projected Seager at $9.3 million for 2021, a 22-percent raise. Extrapolating the numbers to a 162-game season (the best-case scenario), Swartz projected Seager at $15 million, almost double last year and near that Semien zone. Pro-rating that raise gives us Swartz’s third method, which for Seager would mean a $10.4 million salary in 2021, a 37-percent raise, more in the Donaldson-Frazier-Gregorius-Machado range.

Seager from his first arb year ($4 million) to his second got a 90-percent raise, and just continuing that would put him at $14.4 million in 2021. But it’s not quite that simple, since Seager’s first arb year (2019) came after a season almost totally wiped out by Tommy John surgery, and was based more on his career numbers.

Injuries that limited Seager in 2017 and 2018 puts him behind the group of shortstops in bulk career numbers, with Semien, Bogaerts, and Gregorius each having played over 200 games more than Seager, and at least a season’s worth of plate appearances separating them. But even with his playing time relatively lacking to date, Seager has been the far superior offensive player to date, leading this quartet in fWAR despite fewer games, while leading Bogaerts and Semien in bWAR.

Shortstops career numbers entering final arbitration year

Player Years G PA 2B HR wRC+ bWAR fWAR Salary
Player Years G PA 2B HR wRC+ bWAR fWAR Salary
Corey Seager 2015-2020 541 2,301 142 88 130 17.8 20.1 TBD
Marcus Semien 2013-2019 805 3,384 161 108 105 21.8 17.4 $13,000,000
Xander Bogaerts 2013-2018 759 3,232 176 74 106 15.6 17.7 $12,000,000
Didi Gregorius 2012-2018 769 3,038 131 94 99 17.3 16.6 $11,750,000
Players all with at least five years of major league service time

For that reason, I think Seager needs to beat Semien’s $13 million salary based on career numbers alone. And factoring in how incredible Seager’s most recent season (and postseason) was, even while shortened, he should probably get a bump there, too. So my guess (and yes, this is really just a guess) is that Seager gets $14.5 million in 2021.

Whether that’s a one-year deal or the start of a long-term contract is probably the bigger thing to watch for.