Contract hardball bad sign for Bo Bichette’s future with Jays


When the Blue Jays announced late Friday night that they had avoided taking 11 players through salary arbitration, Bo Bichette’s name was conspicuously absent from the lengthy list.

For the second consecutive year, the shortstop’s representatives and the Jays were unable to agree on what his salary should be for the upcoming season. Last winter, the apparent discord led to the Jays unilaterally renewing Bichette’s contract. This off-season, it will result in a hearing.

The Jays haven’t taken a player through arbitration since reliever Ryan Tepera in 2019. The year before, former ace Marcus Stroman and the now-disgraced Roberto Osuna lost their cases, saving the club a modest amount of cash in the process.

Fans might recall Stroman’s case because of how poorly it went. The right-hander had been seeking $6.9 million (U.S.) while the Jays offered $6.5 million. Despite the relatively small difference, the sides lobbied an independent arbiter, who ultimately ruled in the Jays’ favour.

To say that Stroman was unhappy with how the events unfolded would be an understatement. Shortly after the ruling became public, he lashed out at the organization on social media because his ego had been bruised during the delicate process.

“The negative things that were said against me, by my own team, will never leave my mind,” Stroman said at the time. “I’m thick-skinned, so it will only fuel the fire.”

Except Stroman’s outburst didn’t fuel much of anything other than his eventual departure. He remained with the Jays for another year and a half, but at no point did the sides seem serious about negotiating a long-term contract. After his public rant, one of many with the Jays, he was as good as gone.

Bichette and Stroman are different people, and there’s no reason to believe the Jays’ current star will hold any resentment, but a $2.5-million discrepancy in contract talks doesn’t bode well for the future, either. If Bichette and the Jays can’t align on a simple one-year deal, how will their values ever line up on a long-term contract?

This isn’t the first time Bichette and the Jays haven’t seen eye to eye. Last winter, they failed to work out a pre-arbitration deal. For players with zero to three years of service, the Jays use their own methodology to determine salaries. Service time, plate appearances and innings pitched factor in, as do major year-end awards.

Based on their formula, they extended a one-year offer to Bichette worth $747,100. Even though he had no recourse to argue for more, he declined out of principle. That resulted in the Jays assigning him a $723,550 contract, almost $25,000 less.

“It’s pretty simple: I disagree with sticking to a formula to value us as players.” Bichette told Sportsnet’s Shi Davidi earlier this year. “I think that there’s more to it than the way that they view us. I think that for players, that’s not the right way to do it.”

Considering last year’s dispute, perhaps this off-season’s issue was inevitable. Last spring, Bichette had to settle for whatever the Jays were willing to pay. This year, his representatives will make their case in front of an independent panel.

However, it’s worth noting these guys might not be reading from the same book, let alone the same page.

Bichette is asking for $7.5 million in his first year of arbitration, while the Jays countered with $5 million. The $2.5-million gap is by far the biggest of the 33 unsettled arbitration cases across the major leagues.

These talks are also just a preview of what’s to come between the Jays and one of their biggest stars. Bichette has three years of club control remaining before he becomes eligible for free agency and if his upward trajectory continues, there should be little doubt about his ability to cash in.

Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner, Carlos Correa and Dansby Swanson were among the shortstops who signed this off-season for at least $25 million per year on long-term deals. Last winter, Corey Seager and Marcus Semien were similarly well rewarded.

Bichette’s numbers compare favourably to just about all of them.

Since the start of 2020, he ranks sixth among MLB shortstops with 10.4 wins above replacement and fifth with 125 weighted runs created plus, per FanGraphs. He might not be as good an all-around player as Correa, but he’s a much better hitter than Swanson and, at 24, offers more long-term value than Semien.

A lot can change between now and 2026. By then, Bichette — set to hit free agency at the same time as teammate Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who agreed to a one-year, $14.5-million deal on Friday — could be well into his superstar years as a perennial all-star. Or perhaps he’ll struggle and be forced to accept less money than what previously had been thought possible.

Part of the unpredictability can be tied to Bichette’s inconsistency. As recently as Aug. 16 last year, he was dropped as low as seventh in the batting order while slashing just .259/.300/.427, well below his career norms. Then just when it appeared he was headed for a lost season, he transitioned back into one of the league’s top performers, hitting .367 with seven homers and a dominant .988 on-base plus slugging percentage the rest of the way. By the time the post-season began, his numbers were comparable to the year before.

In the short term, the lack of a mutually agreed upon deal doesn’t mean much of anything unless the process gets hostile, like it did with Stroman. Longer term, the lack of common ground should prove problematic.

As a first step, this one wasn’t great. Bichette and the Jays have three years to work out a compromise. Until they do, the clock will keep ticking, and it won’t be long before time is no longer on the club’s side.


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