We are a little more than three weeks away from the salary arbitration exchange deadline, which usually serves as a soft deadline and impetus for pacts to be made. The Dodgers have ten players eligible for arbitration this winter, and one of them should be a relatively easy call.
The Dodgers should sign ace Walker Buehler to a two-year deal that buys out both of his remaining arbitration years.
With four years, 168 days of major league service time, Buehler is eligible for arbitration for a third time this winter. He was a Super Two before the 2021 season, among the top 22 percent of players that year with at least two but not yet three years of service time. That gets him four years of arbitration instead of three.
If Buehler wants to sign for longer than his two remaining arbitration years, that would be great, but I don’t expect that to happen. The Dodgers really haven’t extended one of their young stars before hitting free agency since Clayton Kershaw’s record seven-year, $215-million contract before the 2014 season, what would have been his final year of arbitration.
On a smaller scale, the Dodgers signed pending free agents Max Muncy — picking up his 2023 option, and adding another club option for 2024 — and Austin Barnes — a two-year deal — during the 2022 season, which represented a departure from the norm for them.
A long-term deal might not make sense for either Buehler or the team at this point, anyway. Buehler is hurt and not expected to pitch for most if not all of 2023, and can rebuild his value with a strong 2024 season before hitting free agency. A long-term deal now for Buehler would be buying low, which could be attractive to the Dodgers, but it also comes with the risk of committing several years and dollars to a pitcher with two Tommy John surgeries under his belt.
So for now, let’s focus on the immediate future. Buehler has two more years eligible for salary arbitration remaining. It’s quite likely his career stats will be the same now as they are next offseason, considering his Tommy John surgery came on August 23, and also included flexor tendon repair.
In practice, when a pitcher going through the arbitration years misses a full season (or nearly so) he earns pretty much the same the next year, too. Mike Soroka got Cy Young votes in 2019 for Atlanta but tore his achilles tendon in 2020. He made $2.8 million in his first year of arbitration-eligibility in 2021, and after missing the entire season he avoided arbitration with another $2.8-million deal in 2022. After another lost season, including getting shut down with an elbow injury this September, the Braves in November signed Soroka for $2.8 million yet again for 2023.
John Means agreed to a two-year deal with the Orioles through 2023 after his Tommy John surgery in April (the timing was a quirk here, with the lockout forcing some arbitration hearings into May, well after the season started). He made $2.95 million this year, and is set to make $2.975 million in 2023.
Mike Clevinger signed a two-year deal with the Padres after his Tommy John surgery in November 2020, a contract that paid him $5 million in 2021 and $6.5 million in 2022, his final two arbitration years.
Considering that Buehler through the arbitration process would likely receive similar salaries in 2023 and 2024 anyway, a two-year deal wouldn’t substantially alter the average annual value, which is relevant given the Dodgers’ focus on the competitive balance tax.
Tyler Glasnow is probably the best comp for Buehler, in terms of career timing (Buehler blows him away in performance). The Rays right-hander had Tommy John surgery in August 2021, and made only 14 starts that season. He, like Buehler, was a former Super Two, earning him four years of salary arbitration instead of three. Tampa Bay avoided arbitration with Glasnow with a $5.1 million deal for 2022, a 27.5-percent increase over his $4-million salary the previous year.
Glasnow came back to make two shortened starts in the final week of last season, but before doing so agreed to a new contract with the Rays that will pay him $5.35 million in 2023, then $25 million in 2024, the latter buying out a free agent year.
Buehler signed a two-year deal before 2021 that bought out his first two arbitration years, which paid him $6.25 million in 2022. MLB Trade Rumors projects him to earn $8.1 million in 2023, a 29-percent increase over last year’s salary.
The going rate for premium starting pitchers is well over $20 million per year. Even Taijuan Walker got $18 million per year over for seasons in this year’s free agent market. A two-year deal for Buehler likely pays less in total, all while avoiding one, if not two potentially corrosive arbitration hearings.
A two-year contract for Buehler makes the most sense.