Jose Lobaton’s First, Last, and Only Arbitration Case With the Rays

By Robbie Knopf

Jose Lobaton went to play hero to nonentity with the Tampa Bay Rays in the span of just a few months. The Rays re-signed Jose Molina, leading us to believe that they were getting ready to go with a Molina-Lobaton catcher pairing again, but then they traded for Ryan Hanigan to be their primary catcher, leaving Lobaton without a spot. It is all but a certainty that Lobaton will be elsewhere by the time spring training ends. But Lobaton still has value, even if it will not come with the Rays, and the Rays have to agree with him on a contract. Lobaton is arbitration-eligible for the first time as a Super Two player, and Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors projects a $1 million contract. Is that Lobaton will really get? Let’s attempt to find out.

Jose Lobaton is coming off a breakout season that saw him hit to a .249/.320/.394 line (100 OPS+) with 15 doubles, 7 homers, and 32 RBI. Here’s the issue: Lobaton is eligible for arbitration for the first time, and that means that not just his most recent season but his entire body of work in the major leagues will be relevant in determining how much money he will receive. Unfortunately, his performance prior to 2013 was not so great, leaving him with just a .228/.311/.343 line in 191 games and 564 plate appearances. That amounts to an 84 OPS+, and it’s important to note that 13 of the 30 MLB teams had their catching corps manage an OPS+ of 88 or less in 2013. But the players that immediately come up as comparables for Lobaton do not paint a good picture about what he will receive.

Lobaton dreams of getting the money received by David Ross. After a .231 average and a .313 OBP before he went to arbitration for the first time, Ross received $1.6 million in the first year of a two-year deal he signed with the Cincinnati Reds prior to the 2007 season. But there’s one big statistic missing: Ross’ .469 slugging percentage, including 21 home runs in 2006. Without showing nearly the power that Ross displayed, Lobaton will fall far short of that. Jason LaRue had a .239/.312/.404 line, managing a slugging percentage not too far from halfway between Lobaton and Ross, and he got $1.25 million. But he hit 32 home runs, not that far off from Ross’ 40, and that helped skew his earnings in his favor. Take away the home runs, and the salary comes crashing down. Take George Kottaras. Kottaras had a similar .223/.306/.411 line and 15 home runs from 2008 to 2011, but he received just $700,000. Kottaras’ agents may not have done the best job, but also receiving $700,000 was Lobaton’s most similar player, Wiki Gonzalez. Gonzalez had a .242/.317/.369 line from 1999 to 2002, and even his 17 home runs couldn’t get him more than that figure. The good news for Lobaton is that Gonzalez received that money eleven years ago. Adjust that to 2013 dollars, and it’s $888,296. But Lobaton has just 9 home runs, and that figure may even be too high. And unlike Kottaras and Lobaton, Gonzalez was able to throw out a couple attempted basestealers. Jose Lobaton’s arbitration case is not looking so good.

Jose Lobaton is not getting a million dollars in his first go through arbitration. There is almost no chance. The Rays can find the comparisons to tear him apart or go to work on his defense, and they have all the leverage here. People talk about how there are no hard feelings after arbitration hearings, but the Rays have already shattered Lobaton’s hopes and dreams and they don’t even care about that at this point. The Rays will offer Lobaton $800,000 and tell him that it’s a gift. He will take it.