In his time as President of the Chicago Cubs, Theo Epstein has never taken a player to arbitration.
We mention that frequently when arbitration season rolls around, but it probably never quite gets enough positive attention. Sure, it means the Cubs sometimes pay just a hair more, on average, for a player than they would if they were more aggressive and contentious. But doing so ensures that you’ll never have a situation like the dumpster fire that erupted in New York today.
I’ve gotta circle back to set this up.
Starting at the start, the Yankees and reliever Dellin Betances have already had, as I understand it, a contentious relationship about his pay. Betances was a failed starting pitching prospect who was moved to the bullpen for the 2014 season, and instantly became one of the top five relievers in the game. He repeated that absurd performance again in 2015, and, after being offered a small, token raise (not uncommon for pre-arbitration players, though the best of the best often get slightly more substantial raises), Betances rejected his contract, and was renewed for 2016 at the Major League minimum salary.
That’s background for the two sides not agreeing on a deal to avoid arbitration this year – Betances’ first pass – and then going to a hearing with a relatively huge spread between their numbers. Betances asked for $5 million, which had previously been the level elite young closers could hope to get in their first pass at arbitration, and the Yankees countered at $3 million, which would be the upper limit for what young set-up pitchers would get.
Today, the Yankees won the hearing. Not only will they save $2 million in 2017, but because subsequent arbitration dollars are frequently based on how much of a “raise” they are from the previous year, today’s decision may ultimately have cost Betances upwards of $10 million when all is said and done.
It’s a terrible precedent, because you hate seeing such a clear example of “saves” making an enormous financial difference to a player, especially in an era when we know a pitcher can be just as valuable moving around, and not being the “9th inning guy.” It immediately makes you think about the delicate dance a manager has to do when his decisions about a pitcher’s usage will SO DIRECTLY impact his earnings, even if his performance is identical.
But, that said, it was not a shocking decision, given the way non-closers have been treated by arbitration in the past. And it all could have been left there, grist for pundits and bloggers to deconstruct, analyze, and criticize.
Except then Yankees President Randy Levine decided to take this as an opportunity to blast Betances’ agent for the process, and throw the team’s own star reliever under the bus in the process.
The requested $5 million, Levine told reporters in a conference call (Daily News), had “no bearing in reality,” and was “like me saying, ‘I’m not the president of the Yankees, I’m an astronaut.’ I’m not an astronaut and Dellin Betances is not a closer.”
Levine went on to explain, “[A]nybody who knows about this process would know that the history is very well-established that $5 million goes to elite closers, people who pitch the ninth inning and have a lot of saves. Dellin didn’t have that record. He never did. He’s a great, elite setup man.”
For his part, Betances had planned on saying little and just moving on, but after hearing Levine’s comments, he felt he had to respond. You can tell that this is an upset player, who feels like he had done everything in the right way, only for this to happen:
Dellin Betances said that he was going to put the hearing behind him until he heard about Randy Levine's comments: pic.twitter.com/L15yFk0eiq
— Bryan Hoch (@BryanHoch) February 18, 2017
Betances isn’t the only one upset, either, as his agent and a union executive had some harsh, eye-opening words here at Fox Sports. Clearly, Levine’s words were not well-received.
Moreover, Betances openly wondered, having heard the things he heard in the arbitration hearing, whether he should be as open to pitching in every single type of situation as he has in the past (New York Post).
As much as folks might say, “Oh, don’t worry, it’s just a business and everyone understands,” that’s not how it always plays out in arbitration. Sometimes, the players do take it personally and do become upset by the things that are said while a team is trying to win a case. More than that, the cases can create aftershocks if the wrong person decides to pontificate about the player and the process, as happened today with Levine.
As for the future, it’ll be interesting to see how the Yankees now handle their star, 28-year-old set-up man. Aroldis Chapman will slide back into the closer’s role, but will Betances’ usage be less flexible now? Consider, Betances wasn’t just a stud these last three years in his results, he was also extremely versatile and heavily leaned on. His 247.0 innings – for which he was paid a total of about $1.5 million and was worth a league-leading 8.5 WAR – led all relievers by 14.0 innings. This guy has been an absolute beast for the Yankees. And then today happened.
It’s ugly. I’m glad the Cubs have not faced this situation during the five years of the Epstein administration, and here’s hoping they don’t over the next five years either.