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Walker Buehler 2021 salary arbitration preview

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Dodgers RHP is eligible for arbitration for the first time

2020 World Series Game 3: Los Angeles Dodgers v. Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Cooper Neill/MLB Photos via Getty Images

After reviewing the salary arbitration case of a pair of Dodgers franchise pillars in Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger, we’ll switch to the pitching side today with Walker Buehler, who is eligible for arbitration for the first time.

With two years, 168 days of major league service time, Buehler is a Super Two, in the top 22 percent of players with at least two but not yet three years of service time. That gets Buehler four years of salary arbitration instead of three.

One option is for the Dodgers to sign Buehler to a multi-year contract extension now, which would have to satisfy the needs of both player and team. The Dodgers could potentially get some savings compared to Buehler going year to year in arbitration, and Buehler could achieve some financial security.

Or the Dodgers could simply call it a make-good for optioning Buehler to the minors during the 2018 All-Star break, enough to leave him only four days shy of a full year of major league service time at the end of the season. That ensured Buehler wouldn’t reach free agency until after the 2024 season instead of 2023.

With four years left until free agency, a multi-year deal could potentially have a lower competitive balance tax payroll number a few years down the road, because CBT counts average annual value over the life of the contract, at the cost of a CBT number higher than Buehler’s salary for the first year of two of the deal, for instance.

A high-end recent example of this is probably Luis Severino, who signed a four-year, $40 million contract before the 2019 season. Severino, who like Buehler now was a Super Two that year, had better overall numbers than Buehler both in his career to date and in the immediately preceding season.

Buehler may very well be content with going year to year in arbitration, seeing what he can get after each successive season. Here are four recent Super Twos who went year to year, and what they made during their four arbitration seasons.

Super Two pitchers through all four arb years

Pitcher Years bWAR (career) Career IP Career ERA+ arb1 arb2 arb3 arb4 Total arb
Pitcher Years bWAR (career) Career IP Career ERA+ arb1 arb2 arb3 arb4 Total arb
Walker Buehler 2017-20 5.7 365⅔ 129 TBD TBD TBD TBD TBD
Trevor Bauer 2017-20 5.1 552⅓ 96 $3,550,000 $6,525,000 $13,000,000 $17,500,000 $40,575,000
Marcus Stroman 2017-20 4.5 361⅔ 104 $3,400,000 $6,500,000 $7,400,000 $12,000,000 $29,300,000
Noah Syndergaard 2018-21 7.9 364 136 $2,975,000 $6,000,000 $9,700,000 $9,700,000 $28,375,000
Kevin Gausman 2017-20 5.7 453 104 $3,450,000 $5,600,000 $9,350,000 $9,000,000 $27,400,000
Gausman was non-tendered before his fourth arbitration season, and signed as a free agent.

Noah Syndergaard and Marcus Stroman were hurt during at least part of those seasons, and Gausman was ineffective and demoted to the bullpen for part of 2019, then got non-tendered before signing as a free agent last year in San Francisco. Those three all earned between $27.4-29.3 million in their four arb years, warts and all, which suggests it would perhaps take a little more than that for Buehler to want to sign such a deal now.

Trevor Bauer heading into 2017 wasn’t as effective as Buehler has been through 2020, but had higher bulk numbers, with roughly 51-percent more innings at that point in their careers. Bauer was healthy during his four arb years, and earned just over $40 million by going year to year.

This at least gives us some sort of a range of what a multi-year contract for Buehler might look like, at least through his arbitration years. But what about for 2021? There are quite a few Super Two pitches in the last four offseasons to give us an idea.

Super Two pitchers in their first arbitration year

Pitcher Year Service time Salary bWAR (yr) bWAR (career) Career IP Career ERA+
Pitcher Year Service time Salary bWAR (yr) bWAR (career) Career IP Career ERA+
Walker Buehler 2021 2.168 TBD 0.3 5.7 365⅔ 129
Luis Severino 2019 2.170 $4,500,000 4.1 11.0 518 123
Jacob deGrom 2017 2.139 $4,050,000 3.4 11.7 479⅓ 137
Trevor Bauer 2017 2.158 $3,550,000 2.2 5.1 552⅓ 96
Kevin Gausman 2017 2.151 $3,450,000 3.9 5.7 453 104
Marcus Stroman 2017 2.148 $3,400,000 1.4 4.5 361⅔ 104
Danny Salazar 2017 2.162 $3,400,000 2.5 8.1 484⅓ 114
Matt Shoemaker 2017 2.166 $3,325,000 2.1 5.4 436⅓ 102
Sean Manaea 2019 2.157 $3,150,000 2.5 7.1 464 105
Noah Syndergaard 2018 2.149 $2,975,000 0.5 7.9 364 136
Kyle Freeland 2020 2.144 $2,875,000 -0.8 10.8 462⅔ 119
Michael Fulmer 2019 2.157 $2,800,000 1.0 9.9 456 116
Matthew Boyd 2019 2.136 $2,600,000 2.2 3.5 460 86
Eduardo Rodriguez 2018 2.130 $2,375,000 1.8 4.7 366 105
Taijuan Walker 2017 2.142 $2,250,000 0.3 2.6 357 93
Junior Guerra 2019 2.155 $2,225,000 0.0 3.7 337 109
Mike Foltynewicz 2018 2.163 $2,200,000 1.4 1.5 382⅔ 85
Tyler Glasnow 2020 2.158 $2,050,000 2.5 1.4 257⅔ 93
Luis Severino signed a 4-year contract; this was the first year (including a pro-rated signing bonus)

Severino’s 2019 was the first season of his four-year deal. DeGrom is the semi-realistic upper limit here, but with an advantage in performance and bulk numbers (114 more innings than Buehler to this point) it’s unlikely Buehler gets paid that much this year.

Bauer has an even bigger innings advantage, but Buehler was by far the better pitcher when he pitched, and Buehler compares favorably with everyone else below Bauer on the list. And that’s before adding in Buehler’s postseason excellence, a 2.35 ERA in 11 starts. Buehler’s 83 postseason strikeouts over the last three seasons trail only Gerrit Cole among all major league pitchers.

In his salary arbitration projections at MLB Trade Rumors in October, Matt Swartz’s models had Buehler between $2.3 million and $3.1 million.

My guess is that Buehler does even better and gets $3.5 million in his first year of arbitration.