The Miami Marlins and starting pitcher Anibal Sanchez went to arbitration this weekend to decide between a salary of $6.9 million (Marlins) and $8 million (Sanchez), and in this case, Sanchez won his offer (H/T MLB Daily Dish). It turns out that this deal is actually the largest that a pitcher has ever received when going to arbitration, though obviously pitchers have earned much more during their arbitration years due to extensions and such.
Sanchez will earn about $2 million more than was expected of him by MLB Trade Rumors' projected arbitration salaries, but the Marlins anticipated this and actually offered around $7 million for the righty starter. Either way, this ensures that Sanchez will be a Marlin through 2012 and that he will also test the free agent waters following this year. If you will recall, I have previously advocated signing Sanchez to an extension to ensure that he is on the team for the next four seasons after 2012. With the Marlins unlikely to get a deal done with free agency imminent, it is very likely the team will let him sign on with a bigger fish.This is not surprising and perfectly normal of the old Marlins style. In the past, the Marlins have twice allowed good pitchers (mind you, not great pitchers) walk away in free agency after their final arbitration season. In consecutive seasons, the Marlins allowed Carl Pavano and A.J. Burnett to enter free agency and make big-money deals elsewhere. Those two cases are also fairly similar to Sanchez's in that both player were also of similar age; like Sanchez in 2012, both Burnett and Pavano were 28 years old in their final arbitration season.
Here are the stats for the three pitchers in their final three arbitration seasons. Note that I'm only including the 2010 and 2011 seasons for Sanchez.
Sanchez lies somewhere in between the consistent but underwhelming Pavano and the more electric but oft-injured Burnett. In two seasons, he already surpassed Burnett in innings and, if he remains off the disabled list, should surpass Pavano's innings totals as well. If he can continue the pace he has kept up in the last two seasons, Sanchez should be in line to outperform both those pitchers.
Pavano earned a deal worth almost $10 million a season in a time when one Win Above Replacement (WAR) was worth $3.5 million to start. Burnett earned a five-year deal worth $11 million a season at a time when wins were worth about $3.7 million to start. Assuming teams expected the sort of boom in the baseball free agent market (prices for WAR went up 10 percent per season until 2009 according to FanGraphs' estimations), teams were expecting about 2.5 WAR per season for both of these guys over the course of their contracts. This puts their starting WAR at about 3.5 or so with a half-win decline per season.
Does this sound reasonable for Sanchez? Considering his last two seasons have included an average of 3.5 wins per year, it does sound appropriate. If he ages as those guys did, how much would a free agent contract for Sanchez cost? Presuming similar expectations as those of Pavano and Burnett in terms of performance decline and a projected dollars-per-WAR total as seen in previous articles here, one would expect a five-year deal worth $65 million in the offseason. However, that seems low given the extensions and contracts we have seen this season for starters. In our previous example, we saw that a pitcher of Sanchez's caliber may be worth five years and $78 million based on comparisons to pitchers like C.J. Wilson and John Danks.
Would the Marlins be willing to pay a price between those two figures, especially considering that, in this case, they would be competing with other teams for his services? I am unsure about this. The Marlins do have a looming free agent pitcher decision in Josh Johnson, and allowing Sanchez to walk may give the team the money it need to re-sign Johnson long-term. However, if the team sees a limited future with Johnson, it would not surprise if they turned to Sanchez, even if he is a significantly inferior option in terms of pure skill. Nevertheless, losing either player would be a big blow to a rotation that will not have many players on which to fall back given the team's weak pitching depth. It will be interesting to see how the Marlins manage Sanchez's situation, but for now, he remains a Marlin for another season.