To people like you and me, a hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. But for a baseball team, spending another hundred thousand is essentially the equivalent of a family getting an extra appetizer for dinner. Sure, it might be nice to have that extra $15 later in the week, but a year from now, nobody is going to be upset that some extra money went towards getting pretzel bites.
The same holds true for a baseball organization. Saving an extra $100,000 is by no means a bad thing, but is that organization really going to be saying "damn we should have pocketed that cash" over a year from now? Probably not; which makes it all the more strange to see how the Pirates and Mets are treating Gerrit Cole and Jacob deGrom.
On February 27th, Cole signed his contract for the 2016 season, which will pay him $541,000. Pittsburgh uses a formula to determine salaries for non-arbitration eligible players, and that seems to be the source of this issue.
In 2015, Cole earned $531,000. He threw 208 innings, posted an ERA of 2.60 along with an FIP of 2.66, and accumulated an fWAR of 5.4; the ninth best figure among all pitchers. He just completed his third year in the league, and after 2016, he'll be arbitration eligible. His salary will rise by a significant amount, and while the Pirates undoubtedly want to keep his future earnings as low as possible (assuming they can't reach an extension with Cole), giving him an extra $100,000 won't have a real impact on his 2017, 2018, and 2019 salaries.
Not only will his contract for 2016 pay him a shockingly low amount, but apparently Pittsburgh's first offer was even lower.
"According to Cole, the team's initial offer last week was for $538,000 - which was less than his total pay last year. The team refused to go higher than $541,000.
'They even threatened a salary reduction to the league minimum if I did not agree'...
'When you perform at a level that draws the praise of management, teammates, coaches and fans, you expect appropriate compensation. I understand the business of this game, but it is hard to accept that a year of performance does not warrant an increase in pay.'"
Cole is rightfully annoyed, and he even shortchanged himself. He's pitched well for two consecutive seasons now, and over his last 54 starts (since the beginning of 2014), Cole has a 3.02 ERA, a 2.89 FIP, and has posted a 7.8 fWAR; the 20th best figure among all starters. He's become one of the NL's premier pitchers, yet he's still being paid like he's an unproven rookie.
Jacob deGrom found himself in a similar situation, and while he'll earn $607,000 compared to Cole's $541,000, that still seems light. In fact, deGrom has refused to sign his contract, which won't change anything, but at the very least it draws attention to a poor practice being run by some front offices.
"'We respect the Mets' right to determine a pre-arbitration player's salary and their effort to be consistent with their players', said agent Brodie Van Wagenen, co-head of CAA Baseball. 'But given Jacob's standing as one of the top pitchers in Major league Baseball and his 2015 performance, his worth cannot be properly valued by a formula.'"
deGrom is coming off a season in which he posted a 2.54 ERA, a 2.70 FIP, and a 5.2 fWAR. He made 30 starts, and pitched 191 innings. He struck out 205 batters against 38 walks, and is undoubtedly a huge factor in the Mets' future success. On the surface, deGrom's 2016 salary seems reasonable, especially in comparison to Cole's. However when we look at how the Cubs treat their young players, the Pirates and Mets' respective choices seem even more ridiculous.
"The Chicago Cubs re-signed 21 players with 0-3 years of service time, including rookie of the year Kris Bryant. With no obligation to give him a raise, the Cubs increased Bryant's salary from the prorated minimum to $652,000.
Other notable contracts include Kyle Schwarber ($522,000), Addison Russell ($527,000), Tommy La Stella ($532,000), Kyle Hendricks ($541,000), and Javier Baez ($521,000)."
While the Cubs could have simply decided to renew all of their young talent at the major league minimum, they instead gave everyone at least somewhat of a raise. Bryant, who has played just 151 games in his big league career, will make $111,000 more than Cole; Hendricks, who's made 45 starts at the big league level, will earn just as much as Cole; La Stella, who's nothing more than a back-up utility infielder, will make $9,000 less than Cole; Russell, who has 523 MLB plate appearances, will make $14,000 less than Cole; and Schwarber, who has just 273 plate MLB plate appearances, will make $19,000 less than Cole.
Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer clearly understand what the Pirates, Mets, and likely other teams don't get; that it's vitally important to take care of your franchises' young players. The goal of every team in baseball is to ultimately have a successful season; however what that means is different depending on where each club stands. While the Pirates and Mets will still likely have good years in 2016, why wouldn't they want to ensure that their respective star players are taken care of, and happy with what they'll earn?
That doesn't mean that they should sign them to multi-million dollar deals, but for Cole, a raise north of $100,000 would have gone a long way; and for deGrom, who's won the Rookie of the Year award, and placed seventh in the Cy Young voting process, a contract closer to $700,000 likely could have prevented this awkward standstill.
Thanks to their playoff run, New York could have earned as much as $45 million in revenue, and a raise of $143,125 (which would get deGrom to $700,000) represents 0.31 percent of that projected figure. As for the Pirates, this offseason they extended back-up catcher Chris Stewart with a 2-year deal worth $3 million, which also contains an option for a third-year valued at $1.5 million; yet they can't, or simply won't increase Cole's salary by more than $11,000?
While both teams have tried to deflect attention by pointing to the fact that they use a formula to determine salaries for pre-arbitration eligible players, that excuse doesn't hold much weight. Cole and deGrom have established themselves as elite talents, and if a formula thinks that neither one deserves a significant raise, it's clear that something needs to change.