Josh Harrison is in a very unique situation. He’s having a breakout season in 2014, and contending for the batting title, after looking like a bench player for his first three years in the majors, and at times looking like he didn’t belong in the majors at all. The breakout season is coming at the right time, since Harrison is about to enter his first year of arbitration.
The arbitration process relies on comparable situations to determine a player’s value and worth. The process also calculates the entire career of a player, and not just his most recent season. So while Harrison’s 2014 season will give him a boost, it won’t be the only thing to determine his value in arbitration. As for the comparable players, it’s very difficult to find someone who has a situation similar to Harrison.
I asked about this last month on Twitter, and got a few possibilities for comparable players. The first one I received was Brandon Moss, who had a big breakout season in 2012 with Oakland. A big difference is that Moss was a 2.3 WAR player that year, while Harrison is currently at 4.6 WAR this season. So even if Moss was a comparable, you’d have to adjust for Harrison being better this year. Moss received $1.6 M, which is almost $700,000 per win in his breakout year. That same rate would have Harrison as a $3.2 M player during his first year of arbitration.
Jose Bautista seems like an obvious choice, although he doesn’t really fit the bill. Bautista broke out with the Blue Jays, but had been arbitration eligible a few times before his breakout season, which complicates the situation.
Ben Zobrist is in a close situation. He had a breakout season after a few years as a bench player, although his breakout year came with one league minimum year remaining. Zobrist ended up signing an extension of four years and $18 M, which bought out control of his first two free agent years through club options. The arbitration years broke down as $4.5 M, $4.5 M, and $5.5 M.
The problem with an extension is that Harrison’s story carries a lot of risk. He’s having a great year, but he only has 492 plate appearances. He had 575 plate appearances prior to this season, and looked like a bench player in this years. What is stopping him from reverting back to that next year, or at least slipping enough to make him a very expensive bench player?
The flip side to this is that the Pirates could get a huge value if Harrison turns out to be legit. The Zobrist deal might not be the best, since Zobrist had an 8.5 WAR in his breakout season. But even if Harrison was guaranteed $18 M over four years, that would be a huge value if he ended up repeating his 2014 season and proving himself to be legit.
MLBTR took a look at Harrison as an extension candidate, noting what he might be in line to receive if the Pirates try to extend him. They pointed out that Pablo Sandoval received $17.5 M over three years, while Elvis Andrus got $14.4 M over his three arbitration years. But because of Harrison’s past, I could see him close to the $10-12 M range if he gets an extension, and around $3 M in his first arbitration year if he goes year-to-year.
Because of the lack of third base options in the system, the Pirates might be better off taking a gamble here and trying to go for the extension. That comes with the risk that Harrison could revert to being a very expensive bench player. The potential payoff would be that they’d have their third base situation answered for several years, possibly at a huge value if Harrison continues playing the way he has been playing this year.
Links and Notes