Just yesterday, I mused upon the slow start to the offseason and feared it may be reflective of the continuing freeze in relations between the players and the owners, and now another block of ice to throw onto the igloo.
Ken Rosenthal reports that, after a significant uptick in the practice last year, the players union believes all 30 MLB teams will now employ a “file and trial” strategy with respect to arbitration negotiations.
You’ll recall, in mid-January, teams and arbitration-eligible players exchange official salary requests for the following season. If the case proceeds to arbitration in February, the arbitrator is tasked with selecting one of those two salaries for the player (there is no middle ground). Historically, teams and players exchange figures, and then frequently come to an agreement thereafter to avoid arbitration.
By contrast, file and trial means that if no agreement is in place by the time figures are exchanged, then that’s it – it’s going to arbitration. Teams have used the practice to ensure that an agreement is in place earlier (and, let’s be honest, it’s a bargaining tactic to apply pressure to the players). There were rumors that the Cubs had become a file and trial team last year, and after not settling with Justin Grimm, the case actually proceeded to arbitration – a first in the Theo Epstein regime. So, yeah, it sure seems like the Cubs are file and trial now, and maybe every other team is, too.
Every league is a copycat league, and if this strategy proved effective and congenial (enough) for other teams, it’s not necessarily surprising or untoward that more team are going this route. But rumors of all 30 teams adopting a certain strategy with respect to how players are paid … well … it’s going to spark some unhappiness in the player quarters, and that ugly “collusion” word is gonna start popping up again, justified or not.
To be sure, file and trial is not necessarily more player unfriendly than team unfriendly – both sides have to pick a number and proceed to arbitration if a deal is not struck by whatever deadline is chosen. But this is also a reminder that teams increasingly want more certainty with respect to payroll as soon as possible, which, in turn, could raise the anxiety of free agents who worry about being frozen out again this offseason.
The flip side to that, I suppose, is that if the vast majority of arbitration-eligible players have their salaries set in mid-January, there could be a longer period of time later in the offseason when the league’s payrolls are more certain, and thus you could see more free agent activity organically taking place in January and February. In other words, more teams could be planning on more comfortably committing in free agency after arbitration numbers are set.
The Cubs have eight arbitration-eligible players this year, and you can read more about their projected salaries and the process here.