This offseason saw more arbitration hearings than any in recent history, with 14 players going to trial to determine their 2015 salaries. Many of the hearings were over relatively small amounts of money, a few hundred thousand dollars, prompting frustration from fans who view the process as a cheap means of cost-savings. However, executives who spoke to MLBTR used a different word — “responsibility” — to describe the process. Not financial responsibility in regards to their own payroll, but rather, responsibility to the rest of the league.
“At some point, there’s a sense of fairness to the fact that this deal not only reflects on this player and this club, but that this deal also reflects on other similar players and similar clubs,” Giants assistant GM Bobby Evans told MLBTR. “So you have somewhat of a responsibility within the market to be reasonable on both sides so you’re maintaining the correct market for a player and not creating an unfair low market or an unfair high market.”
As MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz has explained throughout his Arbitration Breakdown series, arbitration salaries are largely determined based on statistically similar players with similar service time to a player that is currently eligible. “You don’t want to go out there and make a deal that wouldn’t be fair on either side for the players that are not involved in the deal,” said Evans. In a strange way, the result of this sense of responsibility is a sense of collaboration among entities that spend every other waking moment trying to gain an edge over each other.
“It’s the one time of the year — at least in the baseball operations realm — where the clubs are working together,” said an AL exec who preferred not to be named. “Usually we’re competing on the field … we’re competing for player talent in free agency. We’re competing to get the better end of a trade. There’s 30 of us and we’re all trying to win the World Series. But, I feel like there’s a collective responsibility that we all feel to each other in salary arbitration to not try to allow that market to escalate too far.”
It may be puzzling to see a team head to trial over sums as seemingly negligible as $200K (Jerry Blevins) or $450K (Vance Worley), but when it comes to the arbitration process, “There is no such thing as trivial amounts of money,” Braves assistant GM John Coppolella said to MLBTR. “Whatever you negotiate is not only behalf of your club and ownership, but also other teams throughout the league.”
Perhaps of greater concern to fans than the financial implications is the potential to damage the relationship with a player. Arbitration hearings aren’t a friendly process; the player and his representatives are in the room with representatives from the team as the two sides argue back and forth over a player’s strengths and weaknesses. Last year, then-Indians reliever Vinnie Pestano expressed surprise to hear the team use statements he’d made to the media against him in a hearing that he eventually lost. Pestano said at the time that he “definitely” thought it would affect his views going forward, and while he didn’t express any ill will toward the team, it may be telling that he was traded to the Angels roughly six months after his hearing.
“If you look at the history of players who have gone to arbitration hearings, for whatever reason, very few remain with the same team for the long term,” said Coppolella. “I don’t think the hearings are contentious per se, but the process isn’t exactly friendly and heartwarming.” The Braves did have a hearing with Mike Minor this offseason, from which Minor emerged victorious, but Minor told reporters after the fact that it was “just business” and he didn’t have any grudges against the team.
The player’s acceptance of the situation may come down to how the team approaches their side of the hearing. As one former NL GM told MLBTR’s Zach Links, “It was always very important that in any arbitration case … I wanted to see us be straight factually, bottom line. Never ever do anything to diminish the ability or the skills of the player. … What arbitration is all about is reaching a comparative level. … The meeting isn’t the easiest path, but you don’t want to damage any relationships.”
Ultimately, the impact on the player likely varies from case to case, however. As Evans explained, “Some players might just be very curious about the process and therefore not be the least bit offended. … Some players may be inconvenienced by it and irritated that the club wasn’t making an offer to their liking. … It really depends on the spirit of the negotiation.” The aforementioned AL exec had a similar notion: “Some players and some teams are going to be more emotional and more stubborn than others. … Sometimes you know who those players are. You’ll say ‘This guy is not the right guy to take to a hearing. He’s a little soft. This could stick with him for awhile.’ Other players are much more corporate and can handle it.”
I asked Evans if that makes it more difficult to negotiate with players with whom the team does not have a longstanding relationship. For instance, San Francisco acquired third baseman Casey McGehee from the Marlins this offseason and immediately had to begin negotiating a contract in an effort to avoid arbitration. Evans felt that history was secondary to how the two sides handled the negotiation, adding that he was happy to have avoided a hearing.
Another similar case to McGehee is that of the Angels and outfielder Matt Joyce. Angels assistant GM Matt Klentak went a bit more in depth when discussing the pros and cons of negotiating with a player just acquired in an offseason trade. “I think sometimes it’s easier to go to a hearing with a player you’ve never met,” said Klentak (although he was glad to have avoided one with Joyce). He continued that while teams try to be objective in these proceedings, it’s difficult to completely eliminate the bond that has formed when seeing a player develop, triumph and rise through a system to the point where he’s eligible for arbitration. That element is removed when negotiating with new players.
“I still haven’t met Matt Joyce. I’ve negotiated his contract with his agent, we’ve traded for him, but I’ve never personally met him. … I’d really have hated for the first time I met this guy to be wearing a suit, sitting across a table, arguing over a million dollars. But, that is easier when you don’t know the person.”
Arbitration can be contentious, and for onlookers it’s easy to question the motives of a team or of a player when seemingly small gaps are bridged through a potentially inflammatory process like a hearing. But those small gaps compound over time, and the overriding theme when speaking with executives is that the responsibility of managing a market shared by all sometimes makes these hearings a necessary evil.