At noon on Friday, each of the roughly 175 big league players eligible for arbitration will either (1) have agreed to a salary with his team for the 2019 season or (2) head towards an arbitration hearing.
Here’s how that works, in short: If no agreed contract is in place by Friday, each player and team will submit a proposed salary for that player for the upcoming season, and one of those two salaries – not an average, or any other in-between agreement – will be chosen by an arbitrator, after each side gets a chance to support their figure (Brett has more details on the process, here). However, that wasn’t always the case – at least, in practice.
Although the rules haven’t recently changed, the way teams handle arbitration has. In years past, this deadline still mattered, but it wasn’t exactly the end-point of negotiations. Often, teams would continue negotiating after each figure was submitted, and middle-ground was frequently found before the hearing. Theo Epstein was famously good at not taking players all the way through the arbitration process, which always felt like something to be proud of, given the potentially contentious nature of the process.
But over the past few years, every team in baseball unofficially became a “file-and-trial” organization (some were sooner than that, but now every team is). That means that if no agreement is made by the deadline and the final figures are submitted, the team will not allow any more negotiations before the arbitrator makes a decision in February.
Strategically, that might seem wise for the club, but logically (and especially in the long-run) you can see how that’s just one more perceived wedge shoved between the players and the owners at a critically unstable time in that relationship.
If you’d like to see which Cubs are eligible for arbitration, what year they’re in, and how much they’re projected to earn, check out this post from earlier in the week.
But now, players don’t seem particularly interested in lying down.
In a must-read piece at ESPN, Jeff Passan discusses the “wonky world of MLB salary arbitration,” and suggests that the players and their agents/the union might have finally found a place to fight back: “I hope every damn agent holds the line,” one agent with arbitration-eligible clients told ESPN. “This would be a wonderful year to see if they can do it. And if not? Go to trial.”
The point that agent is trying to make is simple: Last season, 22 players went to trial – which was one of the highest numbers since the beginning of arbitration! – but that still amounted to only 10% of the eligible players. If more players hold to lofty requests this week, however, and ultimately take their cases to trial, they might just win more of these battles. And because arbitrators often use past cases and comparable players to make their decision, any battle won today – either in arbitration or with a higher-negotiated number – is like two battles won tomorrow.
“[A]ttacking the arb system,” player agent Jeff Berry wrote in a recent memo, which was obtained by ESPN’s Buster Olney, “is an ideal battleground for MLBPA/players/agents to take a unified stand and to feel empowered and proactive rather than victimized.”
Despite the apparent momentum and just-cause, there are legitimate reasons against this effort, and many more why it could fail – all outlined in the ESPN piece. But one thing is becoming clear: the players union and league are at an ever widening gap in their relationship, and if the players don’t get a win soon (and this would be a fair, legitimate way to earn a win), I think the likelihood of work stoppage at the outset of the next CBA is all be certain.
Check out much more on this process, the potential outcomes, and why the Red Sox played a video of how good Kris Bryant was at their arbitration hearing for Mookie Betts last winter.