Analyzing the Arbitration Situation Between Ryan Roberts and the Tampa Bay Rays
By Robbie Knopf
The deadline for MLB teams and their arbitration-eligible players to exchange figures before a hearing is held is today. That doesn’t mean that the teams and players can’t agree to contracts after this and avoid an arbitration hearing, but everyone would like to get the contracts done as soon as possible to prevent the negotiations from getting too messy and understand where their payroll stands for next season before they decide what final moves to make in advance of spring training. In the case of the Rays, they have four arbitration-eligible players still unsigned and are going into overdrive trying to get all those deals done. With that process ongoing, here at RCG we’re breaking down each player, attempting to understand the issues yet to be resolved and how the two sides will come to a solution. After discussing Matt Joyce a couple of days ago, right now we’ll discuss Ryan Roberts.
Ryan Roberts is a very interesting case. He didn’t lose his rookie eligibility until 2009, when he was 28 years old, and had a nice season for the Diamondbacks, managing a .279/.367/.416 line (103 OPS+) with 17 doubles, 7 homers, 25 RBI, and 7 of 10 stolen bases in 110 games and 351 plate appearances. Then he wound up spending most of 2010 at Triple-A, managing just a .197/.229/.348 line (50 OPS+) in 71 plate appearances for Arizona. But then in 2011, Roberts completely reversed course, breaking out to the tune of a .249/.341/.427 line (108 OPS+), 25 doubles, 19 homers, 68 RBI, and 18 of 27 stolen bases in 143 games and 555 plate appearances to help lead the D-Backs to the playoffs. After the season, he was Super Two eligible and was rewarded handsomely for his breakthrough year, receiving a $2,012,500 salary. However, in 2012 between the D-Backs and Rays he could not live up to the same standard, managing just a .235/.296/.360 line (78 OPS+) with 19 doubles, 12 homers, 52 RBI, and 10 of 16 stolen bases in 143 games and 489 PA’s. The burning question is how much of a raise Roberts deserves from his 2011 salary after such a season.
It’s awfully hard to find a good comparison for Roberts, but the best we’re going to find are Mark Ellis and Clint Barmes. Roberts’ career path was a good partial season, a terrible season, a breakout year, and then a mediocre year. Ellis debuted when he was only 25 but came pretty close to that same pattern but with a middling season mixed in. He had a good partial season, mediocre season, year lost to injury, a breakout season that netted him $2,250,000 in arbitration, and then a mediocre year. Barmes followed the same as pattern as Ellis, only starting at 26 years old and trading the year lost to injury for a terrible season spent mostly at Triple-A. He received $1,625,000 in his first go-around in arbitration. How do these three players compare to each other through their first arbitration-eligible season? Here’s a table comparing them in various stats- but since Roberts was a Super Two, he made 500 less plate appearances than Ellis and Barmes (once again, it’s an unideal comparison), and because of that the doubles, home runs, RBI, and stolen bases in the table below are all per 500 plate appearances.
The slash stats are a little off, but we see that the counting stats per 500 plate appearances are extremely close to one another. As you can see from the OPS+ stat, Barmes’ stats are skewed by the fact that he played his home games in Coors Field in his entire career up to that point, and that’s probably why received less than either Roberts or Ellis his first time through arbitration. But overall, these are three players with decent power, some speed, and although you won’t see it on the table, above-average defense (not the arbiter hearing the case will care much about that). How much money did those skill-sets net Ellis and Barmes in their second times through arbitration? Ellis received 3.5 million dollars while Barmes got $3,325,000. Wait a second- Matt Schwartz of MLB Trade Rumors predicted only a 3 million dollar salary for Roberts? Why was he that low when he appears only a tick behind Ellis and well ahead of Barmes when factoring in park effects? Look how similar these three players’ career arcs were!
Obviously Roberts has one less season and Ellis missed a year from injury, but the pattern is extremely similar. But you can already see from that graph what distinguishes Ellis from the other two: his breakout season was far better. In 2005, Ellis managed a .316/.384/.477 line, an outstanding 128 OPS+. What about Barmes? As it turns out, Barmes’ final season lines up with the other two in terms of OPS+ but it was a much more exciting season because even while his .245/.294/.440 line was not that impressive, he hit 32 doubles and 23 homers while driving in 76. Roberts’ career numbers line up with Ellis and Barmes, but his numbers simply don’t have as much pizzazz, and pizzazz means a whole lot when you’re going before an arbiter in an arbitration case. Also, the fact that Roberts made so many fewer plate appearances than Ellis and Barmes can only hurt his case.
You have to think that Roberts and his agents, the Beverly Hills Sports Council, are trying to sell Roberts as being comparable to players like Ellis and Barmes and deserving of the same type of money, say 3.41 million dollars, the average of Ellis and Barmes’ salaries in their second arbitration-eligible seasons. The Rays’ counter-offer, though, would probably offer him something like 2.75 million dollars, and if the case when to an arbiter, they would argue that even at his best, Roberts didn’t hit 20 home runs or steal 20 bases and only hit .249 on the season, and he’s been nothing special at all other than that. If Roberts and the Rays would meet in the middle of those salaries that I’m suggesting, than Roberts would end up with a 3.08 million dollar salary for 2013, just about what Schwartz projected. With $660,000 potentially on the line, though, the Rays would likely be cautious not wanting to head into an appeal and give Roberts a touch more, maybe 3.2 million dollars.
As we can see, Ryan Roberts has a very interesting arbitration case, and we’ll have to see how it’s resolved. But considering the Rays tendered him a contract back in November, you have to think that they expect him to rebound towards his 2011 numbers next season, and if they value him that highly, they should have no problem giving him a touch over 3 million dollars if that’s what it takes. Hopefully the Rays and Roberts will agree to terms soon and the Rays will be able to cross his name of their checklist as they try to get these arbitration deals done and turn their attention to the needs their ballclub still has with under a month until pitchers and catchers report.