Reading through the arbitration rules, it's hard to say what Beltre could net in arbitration. He breaks the system. Basically, teams can only compare players signed to 1-year deals with comparable MLB service time to the player in question.
Even though Beltre is 30 years old, he already has 12 years of service time. Players with around 12 years of service time that have signed one-year deals in recent history include Mark Loretta, Nomar Garciaparra, and Garret Anderson. In other words, veterans signing as stopgaps or bench players.
The group Adrian Beltre can be compared to in arbitration doesn't describe Beltre at all. Technically, the "comparable" players might allow the Mariners to offer something absurdly low, like $1.5 million.
However, if I were Beltre's agent (who by the way is Scott Boras), I'd take a different approach. I would highlight the unique nature of Adrian Beltre, and how any player with comparable service time is not all that comparable, given that Beltre made his MLB debut at 19 years old. I might also highlight that Mark Loretta, a player with 12 years of experience in 2008 when he went to arbitration, ended up with a raise. I might also point out that David Weathers, the only player with over 10 years of MLB experience to file an arbitration figure last year, was guaranteed a raise even if the team had won (the two sides ended up agreeing to a contract before the hearing).
Then, after presenting that data, I would have asked for around $9 million. In total, Adrian Beltre earned $13.4 million last year. So, as Beltre's agent, I would be asking for 33% pay cut after showing that the only recent players with comparable MLB experience earned raises in arbitration. Furthermore, if Beltre were not a free agent, the Mariners would have to offer at least 80% of Beltre's 2008 compensation to him, which would be $10.72 million.
Doesn't $9 million sound like a reasonable asking price, especially if the M's actually went with "comparable" players that signed one-year deals, and offered $1.5 million? Remember, one side or the other wins. Would anybody really agree that Adrian Beltre deserves an 89% pay cut?
I don't think the M's would really offer such a low figure. Maybe the would offer something like $5-6 million. That's not my point though. I think it is reasonable to suppose that Beltre could get awarded $9-10 million in arbitration. That still might be the biggest pay cut in arbitration history.
On top of that, it's equally reasonable to suppose that Beltre won't get $9-10 million in the current market. There is no way he gets more than Figgins annually, and it looks like Chone will get somewhere around $9 million per year.
Why wouldn't Adrian Beltre take a gamble with arbitration? Let's say he agrees to $6 million. That's over a 50% pay cut, so I think that's a very low estimate. Furthermore, let's say he could have got the same money as Chone Figgins in free agency, $9 million annually for 4-5 years. That should be an upper estimate for what he could get in this free agent market.
In this scenario, Beltre earns $3 million fewer dollars in 2010 than he would have as a free agent. Now, let's suppose that Beltre has an average year for him. That would include an OPS almost 100 points higher than last year's, playing in about 35 more games, and challenging for a gold glove, if not winning it.
Unless Garrett Atkins has a huge year, Beltre would unquestionably be the top third baseman available in free agent next off-season. Now, to offset the money he didn't earn in 2009 in this scenario ($3 million), he would have to make it up with an even bigger contract than the hypothetical 4-5 years at $9 million annually he turned down. In other words, he would have to get a minimum of 3-4 years, $30-39 million to break even. As the top third baseman in the market, at 31 years old, in an economy that should be stronger than it is right now, that is highly doable.
Why wouldn't Beltre seriously consider arbitration? I don't think he gets $9 million per year in this market. I think he can get more than $6 million in arbitration too. A return to career averages would likely get him more than $10 million annually in free agency, especially if he is the top free agent option at the hot corner in a better economy than the current one.
Maybe it is a sure bet that Adrian Beltre is gone. After watching him play baseball the past five years, I have no doubt in my mind that he cares about more than money. A chance to join a team like the Red Sox or Angels would certainly appeal to him. On paper though, arbitration is not a bad route for Beltre to go, and that's why I don't think it's a slam dunk that he rejects it.