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Arbitration trepidation is fueling the freeze in MLB transactions this winter

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Confusion and wide-range estimates about arb-eligibles off the odd 2020 season are absolutely keeping pocketbooks tight, for now.

Cincinnati Reds v. Pittsburgh Pirates Photo by Dave Arrigo/MLB Photos via Getty Images

If one respected model is to be trusted, the Cincinnati Reds are going to be on the hook for roughly $11.2 million in salary in 2021 for the employment of the arbitration-eligible players they didn’t non-tender last month.

If a different respected model is to be trusted, that figure could be as high as $17.5 million.

The funny thing is, those two respected models are actually from the same respected source. MLB Trade Rumors and arbitration model guru Matt Swartz have been projecting arb salaries with typically excellent range accuracy for a decade, yet the unique circumstances surrounded the odd, shortened 2020 season have put arb-estimates for this year’s class all over the place. And while a $6.3 million variation wouldn’t be a complete back-breaker of a total in most every other baseball year, that’s enough in this revenue-light era of the game to perhaps cause teams to wait to outlay cash elsewhere until they know exactly how much they’ll be on the hook for with their in-house options first.

Obviously, pinpointing exactly how much they’ll have to pay for the services of Luis Castillo, Michael Lorenzen, Jesse Winker, Tyler Mahle, and Amir Garrett this year is one aspect to the freeze on transactions as a whole. Beyond that, though, any trades for any arb-eligible players on other teams put the future payroll up in the air until things get settled, too.

Swartz’s model shows Francisco Lindor’s arb3 estimate for 2021 as low as $17.5 million, and as high as $21.5 million. Again, not a difference that would likely cause any team to completely discontinue their pursuit of the superstar shortstop, but still a $4 million fluctuation that might force ripple effects further down the roster. Even the rare teams flush with cash this winter might be waiting for full disclosure due to the wide range of estimates this year, as New York Mets outfielder Michael Conforto has an even wider $4.6 million range for his case.

We simply don’t know how things will be emphasized after just 60 games played in 2020. Will hitters be docked because nobody hit 30, 40, 50 dingers? Will stats be extrapolated to what they ‘would’ have been over 162 games? Is everything prorated? Does anyone already know?!

It’s certainly not the primary reason we’ve seen both trades and free agency stall at epic levels this winter. That’s the larger pocketbook issue at play, obviously. Still, this is one more variable that has three commas on the ledger that won’t begin to be resolved until the January 15th deadline for sides to submit their requests, and there will be another month beyond that before all cases are formally solved.

In this weird scenario where almost every team out there is pinching pennies at every opportunity, though, there’s little doubt in my mind that these discrepancies are still a major hurdle for teams when it comes to setting their air-tight payrolls for the 2021 season. And until we see each case solved, we might not see a full thaw in the transaction market, putting that - and team-building as a whole - down to the very last minute before the actual 2021 season begins.