Much of what general managers do involves negotiation, but a handful of general managers use a strategy involving arbitration-eligible players that brings an early end to the customary give-and-take. As Tim Dierkes of MLBTR detailed in January, five teams take a stance known as “file to go” or “file and trial” with players who are up for arbitration. Four more clubs dabble in the practice of ending negotiations with players and their agents once the MLB-imposed deadline for the two sides to exchange figures arrives. That forces an arbitration hearing, and that's a venue in which Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman, a file-to-go proponent, has never lost.
Friedman is 5-0 in arbitration, and he won his first case, against catcher Josh Paul in 2006, just months after taking over Tampa Bay’s front office. It seems as though Friedman, with such a sterling record in the courtroom and with the successful turnaround of the small-market Rays on his resume, would relish every chance he gets to outfox his competitors. Yet he told MLBTR that part of the rationale for file to go is to curb the subtle maneuvering that takes place on both sides.
“There are a lot of reasons behind the policy, but the aspect that is most beneficial is that it keeps the discussions leading up to the deadline reasonable and grounded in the overarching point of the process,” he said. “At its heart, the process is meant to pay players fairly for what they’ve accomplished. No more, no less. When both sides are held to numbers that they’ve been artificially forced to swap, it adds a level of gamesmanship to the process that distracts from the real purpose of the whole exercise. Our goal is always to get to a fair settlement that rewards the player for what he’s done. Adding this extra layer only complicates that.”
Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos told Jordan Bastian of MLB.com that one of the reasons he uses the strategy is to speed up negotiations in an effort to strike a deal before the deadline. It’s unclear whether file to go had a significant effect on the lack of arbitration hearings this year, but the policy hasn’t prevented the Rays from going to trial more often than any other American League team in the time since Friedman’s been in charge.
The Rays came close to going to an even greater number of hearings. They avoided arbitration with three out of four eligible players right before the deadline to exchange figures in 2010. That year, players union executive director Michael Weiner disputed Friedman’s theory that the union put pressure on agents of players negotiating with file-to-go teams.
“With respect to the file-to-go strategy, or the file-and-trial strategy, the union has long believed, and has expressed to the commissioner’s office, that that strategy stands the purpose of salary arbitration on its head,” Weiner told Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. “Years ago, many clubs took the view that it didn’t make sense to talk until after we exchanged numbers, and to say that we won’t talk if you exchange numbers in our view is not consistent with the way the system was designed to operate. But clubs are entitled to negotiate as they see fit.’’
Friedman told Topkin that, with two more teams adopting file to go in 2010, he thought the union wanted to stop the strategy from becoming more widely used. When Friedman spoke to MLBTR recently, he was quick to dispute the idea that file to go continues to grow across baseball, pointing out that a sizable majority of teams aren’t in the file-to-go camp.
Friedman and the Rays have had 15 potential arbitration cases come up in the last three years, but as our arbitration trackers show, they went to trial with only one of them, against Hendricks Sports client Jeff Niemann in 2012. Niemann was once more eligible for arbitration this past winter, but the two sides avoided a hearing and settled on a one-year, $3MM deal. That was a raise on Niemann's $2.75MM salary from last year, but still not as much as the $3.2MM he asked for going into his hearing in 2012.
Had Niemann gone to trial a second time, he could have followed a path similar to Paul, a Dick Moss client who lost in arbitration to the Rays in back-to-back seasons. When Paul hit free agency the following winter, he didn’t appear to hold a grudge and re-signed with Tampa Bay. Niemann didn’t address his arbitration when he spoke to MLBTR this spring, but he praised the Rays for their ability to develop a deep store of talent and gave no indication of any hard feelings. That’s just the sort of attitude Friedman hopes to foster with file to go.
“Simply put, we think that our policy gives both sides the best chance of getting to a number that each of them can feel good about,” Friedman said. “In essence, it adds a level of rationality to a process that, on occasion, can get emotional. It helps keep us grounded.”