The arbitration filing deadline went quite well for the the Yankees, who agreed to 2020 salaries with all nine of their eligible players. For the 11th time in the last 12 years, the Yankees will not have to go to an arbitration hearing, which is good news, as those can be contentious and break down relationships between players and teams.
Instead, the Yankees ponied up and paid their players what they’re worth. Or did they?
First up is Gary Sanchez. After slashing an excellent .246/.328/.518 since 2016, Sanchez was rewarded a healthy pay increase, from his previous $660,000 yearly salary to a $5 million payday in 2020. This makes Sanchez the league’s 12th-highest-paid catcher, which suggests that the Yankees might still be underpaying him relative to his market value. Sanchez is a divisive player, but we can all probably agree that he’s better than the 12th-best catcher in the game.
However, this was just Sanchez’s first trip through arbitration, and players historically see their salaries rise as they accrue more years of service. This is not to say at all that the Yankees are low-balling Sanchez, it’s more so a critique of the system. After all, Sanchez still earned one of the highest deals ever given out to a first-time-eligible catcher, and will only see his pay climb closer towards his full market worth in future years. It was a fair deal given how the system works.
James Paxton’s case is also interesting. This was Paxton’s last year of arbitration eligibility before he becomes a free agent next winter at age-32, and he earned almost a $4 million raise for 2020, going from a salary slightly over $8.5 million in 2019 to an even $12.5 million in 2020. Paxton might have been a bit underpaid in 2019 to be honest, but the new contract seems fair. Big Maple would likely earn a deal north of $17 million per season on the open market, but this current valuation works (like with Sanchez) because players under team control make less money than free agents do. However, it also doesn’t nickel-and-dime him.
The real intriguing case here is Aaron Judge. Judge is sort of a unicorn—there has never been a player like him before. There’s no track record of a player with such a large frame putting up such huge numbers and playing dominant defense, which makes it hard to pinpoint his value. Plus, there are underlying concerns about his long-term durability and how a player with his profile will age. He’s older than you might think, entering his age-28 season.
In the here and now though, Judge deserved a big raise, and he got it. Like Sanchez, Judge’s rookie deal never paid him more than $700,000 over his first three-and-a-half seasons. In 2020 though, Judge will make a cool $8.5 million, a hearty raise of over 1,100 percent.
For the Yankees, there is no reason whatsoever to try and cheap out on paying Judge, who is the franchise’s best player and probably worth at least $27 million yearly on the open market. Both sides played the game well here. Judge and his team of agents know that as a first-year-arbitration-eligible player, the Yankees weren’t going to offer him a transcendent contract. Fair or not, it’s not how baseball works. However, it’s a good sign that the Yankees still showed Judge how much he means to them by offering $8.5 million, which is one of the highest sums given to a first-year-eligible player.
It’s less than Kris Bryant got in 2018, Francisco Lindor in 2019, Mookie Betts in 2017, Ryan Howard in 2008 or Cody Bellinger this year (who all cracked $10 million). Four of those five players were former MVPs and had played in a World Series at the time of their negotiation, though. Given how the arbitration process works, where a player’s awards are the most important factor, Judge still earned an impressive and fair contract. He can expect to see even bigger raises in the future as he continues to lead the Yankees to success.
The Yankees haven’t always had the best track record at arbitration season, but they handled this year’s class well. Sanchez and Judge weren’t going to be able to be paid (relative) peanuts forever, and the team didn’t go out of its way to shortchange its stars. Now, the Yankees can focus solely on spring training, and not have to worry about any messy contract disputes with their best players.