Arbitration deadline could mean more than it usually does
There’s an offseason deadline today that, in the past, you may not have thought much about but which, this year, is a bit more important. It’s the deadline by which teams and arbitration-eligible players who were tendered a contract back on November 30 must exchange salary figures.
Here’s what that means technically (and, yes, you may very well know this as we’ve discussed it often over the years):
- By close of business today, the arbitration-eligible player will say what he thinks he’s worth based on comparable players of his quality and service time and the team will propose a lower counter-figure;
- Generally, and usually, in the past, the parties would then use these proposals as negotiable figures and eventually reach a compromise deal, usually near the midpoint between the two figures, avoiding arbitration. This process often takes a few weeks;
- If a deal cannot be reached, the player and the team go to an arbitration hearing and arbitrators pick one of the numbers. They CANNOT give a compromise award. It’s either the higher player’s number or the lower team number, and that will be the player’s salary for the upcoming season.
Got it so far? Good. Now, here’s why things may be a bit different this year.
In the past, a handful of teams employed a “file- and-trial” approach to arbitration. That meant that they treated the figure exchange date -- today -- as a hard deadline after which they refused to negotiate with the player and stood content to go to a hearing and let the arbitrators decide. Not many teams did this, mind you. Most famous for this in recent years have been the Blue Jays, Braves, Marlins, Rays, and White Sox. Everyone else negotiates.
Last fall, however, Ken Rosenthal reported something that got very little notice at the time: the players’ union believes that all 30 teams will take a “file-and-trial” approach to arbitration this winter. We don’t know that to be true, but the union thinks it so and Rosenthal, who is the best-connected reporter in the game and who tends not to put wild theories out there, gave it enough credence to run with it.
What would that mean practically? Obviously it would mean more arbitration hearings. Last year, when only a few teams did file-and-trial, there were more hearings than in any offseason for the past 25 years. If everyone does it there will be a lot of busy lawyers in February.
Conceptually speaking, it’s also indicative of a far more hardball approach by front offices. For two reasons:
- It makes life more difficult for players and agents. By taking a file-and-trial approach, it makes the player and the agent work harder and earlier in order to be prepared to negotiate with the club before the file deadline (today). It also makes them work a lot harder to come up with a defensible filing number given that, rather than merely being an opening salvo in an extended negotiation, it’s something that they will certainly have to defend in open court; and
- Since teams have greater resources than the players and the agents, and since it’s less painful for them to pay for lawyers and hearing prep and to conduct the actual hearing, it really puts pressure on the players to offer lower, more team-acceptable numbers. There’s risk to the team, of course — they might lose and pay more than a settlement would’ve cost — but teams are obviously concluding that the risk is worth it.
Not that teams are doing anything wrong by doing this, of course. Sure, one might wonder, if all 30 teams do go file-and-trial, how that decision came about -- coincidence or . . . something else? -- but the technique itself is all laid out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. If they do this, the teams are merely exercising the rights they have, as negotiated.
But it’s also a fact that players hate arbitration hearings. And they can be uncomfortable for the baseball operations people too. To win, the team has to come and, basically, argue that the player isn’t as good as the player thinks he is. That can create bad blood at times. And of course the mere fact of the arbitration hearing can be a distraction to players, who often have to leave spring training workouts to spend a few hours with their lawyers and agents and then sit in a conference room for the hearing. All a major drag.
A drag that, if the union is correct, could impact a heck of a lot more players this year than it has in the past.