I’m frequently surprised by how aggressive some people are in negotiation — and how frequently it works. I tend to stake out ground and defend it, rather than go all over the place. The benefit of that kind of general reasonableness is that you get to take an unreasonable position from time to time and garb it in that same reasonableness. The D-backs pulled off a very clever maneuver with their arbitration cases this offseason, and I didn’t see it coming — and it’s actually pretty similar to garbing the unreasonable with the clothing of reasonableness.
Last year, the D-backs treated arbitration like the Academy Awards treats celebrity gift baskets. Somehow, they staked out very player-friendly ground with both Mark Trumbo and Addison Reed, losing the former in a hearing and losing the second before figures were ever exchanged. They sent a signal that for an agent, an aggressive position was best, and that an aggressive position would probably work. It looks like the D-backs used that to their advantage this offseason. If they are the team with whom an agent would love to negotiate, did it follow that agents were predisposed to trust in the D-backs a little?
I urged a switch to the file-and-trial approach to arbitration in large part because I thought it would be a good way to separate this offseason from last offseason, when things went awry. But the D-backs turned it to their advantage, it seems. According to the agency database at MLB Trade Rumors, several of the game’s top player agencies were represented among the eight D-backs players who were eligible for arbitration this offseason. None, though, represented two. Every player had a different agent. The D-backs were suddenly very aggressive in most of their arbitration cases, and yet no player agent was in a position to see that as a trend — it may have looked instead like the D-backs had picked that particular player for taking a stand.
I tend to trust the MLB Trade Rumors projections from Matt Swartz unless I can point to a way in which the player’s case would be very unusual in a way that would matter, as when Gerardo Parra‘s defense was so spectacular that both player and team would likely make a large mental adjustment. None of the players this offseason were like that, and yet every one did have something “weird” about them. In every case, there was a way for the D-backs to say “no, we’re taking a stand with this guy” in a plausible enough way for an agent to believe it. Instead of using something like file-and-trial to make a big, public stand that every agent would have to take seriously, they accomplished just about the same task, maybe, by convincing each agent that his player’s case was just different for the team, and they wouldn’t be willing to budge.
That’s pretty cool. It might not work as well a year from now, and it may not work as well with A.J. Pollock (discussed last below), now that the other settlements are public. But that’s okay — we knew that this year’s arbitration cases were especially difficult, because they set the stage for each player’s subsequent arbitration (mostly with respect to Miller, Corbin and Pollock), and because the cost associated with these players in 2018 could easily make the difference between the Contention Window closing before that season or after it.
The D-backs settled six arbitration cases at the end of last week, nearly all of them on surprisingly favorable terms. Kudos, D-backs. Mission accomplished. What’s even more impressive: the D-backs clearly drew a strong line with the three most important cases, meaning they worked off the idea that first-year arb salaries for potential cornerstones are very, very important.
Shelby Miller — $4.35M Settlement, $4.9M MLBTR Projection
More than ten percent under projection! The MLBTR projection took into account Miller’s sparkly 3.02 ERA last season and also his blinding 6-17 record. It took into account his great debut and his merely decent 2014. There was every reason to think that going year-to-year with Miller was good for the D-backs, and every reason to think they knew that; it’s just oh-so-likely that pitching in Arizona will have a deleterious effect on his pitching, and you might as well pay Arizona rates for Arizona pitching. It’s puzzling that Miller came in so low — it’s not like the D-backs could have threatened to marginalize Miller, and in justifying the trade, the D-backs gave Miller’s reps at CAA an entire presentation to work with on his value. Looks like the D-backs drew a line in the sand, though, plausibly claiming that after paying so high a cost to obtain Miller, they needed this win and were willing to take this one to the mattresses. I was way off on where to start Miller (with a $4.5M offer), and way off on his agent’s likely demand. That’s the virtue in starting at extremes — you don’t risk giving the other side the benefit of the doubt.
Welington Castillo — $3.7M Settlement, $3.6M Projection
We wrote in the Offseason Plan that staying flexible by signing Castillo to a one-year arb settlement was a good idea, although it would also probably be tempting for the D-backs to try to lock up Castillo’s first free agent season, that all-important 2018 that may or may not be part of the Contention Window. Pretty vanilla; this one was either dominated by the projection or by his 2015 salary. That’s okay — the D-backs will take it.
Daniel Hudson — $2.7M Settlement, $2M Projection
This is the case for which I thought the parties would be widest apart, and considering the low projection, that’s really saying something. My advice for both sides was to head out as far to the extremes as could be justified, especially for Hudson’s agent (insisting on $5M at the outset of negotiations). Either that’s what Hudson did, and the D-backs were willing to move a lot in response, or the D-backs went high on Hudson. The latter seems unlikely given what they’ve done with these other cases, but then again, they were a whopping $900k over the MLBTR projection on Addison Reed a year ago (and any time a team’s figure is over the projection at all, it’s really weird). It’s also possible that the D-backs thought Hudson was a $3M reliever, with a discount owed them due to arbitration rather than free agency.
Patrick Corbin — $2.525M Settlement, $2.3M Projection
From mostly-unheralded prospect to succeeding where few had succeeded, in Arizona — to a season and a half missed for Tommy John surgery. It wouldn’t have been hard for the D-backs to paint Corbin as unusual, despite all of those things getting factored in for the $2.3M projection. It’s a little surprising that the sides didn’t work out some kind of short-term extension, but not very surprising — the D-backs have low incentive to crystallize his salary, given the slight chance things could go south and the team gets another Daniel Hudson situation. Corbin, on the other hand, is probably betting on himself — we could see a first fortune type contract for Corbin one year from now, if he’s made his way through 2016 with good health. Dunno if the $25k comes from the sides being $250k apart (say, $2.4M and $2.65M), or if the D-backs drew a line in the sand at $2.5M and then bent slightly.
Rubby De La Rosa — $2.35M Settlement, $3.2M Projection
But for the successful Miller negotiation, this has to be the D-backs’ biggest win. Not sure what happened here — this is the type of thing we might have seen if the D-backs had said they would tell the arbitration panel that he had failed as a starter, and now was only worth something in relief — but the D-backs go from having another sloughed-off-before-his-time Addison Reed situation and being reasonably sure that RDLR will be in a uniform again, at least in 2017. Great deal for the D-backs, although I’m not saying RDLR is all that important for the team’s fortunes.
Randall Delgado — $1.275M Settlement, $1M Projection
Hey, I think I got one right! $1M would have been very hard to hold onto, in part because the D-backs really couldn’t have started under $1M with a straight face. But they could have presented Delgado’s case as unusual — they could have indicated that they weren’t certain they wanted to keep him in his current role, maybe, at least not for all years of club control. I suggested they start and finish with a “take or leave” $1.2M offer, and maybe that’s what they did — that $75k has the look of “bend without being seen to bend” money. Also a good deal for the D-backs.
A.J. Pollock, $3.9M Player Figure, $3.65M Team Figure, $4.3M Projection
How in the world did the D-backs get Pollock to come so far below the MLBTR projection? How could Pollock’s agents not be salivating over the possibility of winning $5.5M or more in arbitration? I really don’t get this from the player’s side, but holy hell is this great news for the D-backs. Last we heard, extension talks were off, but the D-backs were optimistic about a one-year deal. I dunno — going year to year suddenly looks great for the D-backs, in part because Pollock is likely to miss a little playing time here or there, enough to impact Pollock’s counting stats. There’s less to gain, now, in signing an extension. They’ve already won this thing.
In a piece on Monday, Steve Gilbert quoted GM Dave Stewart as saying, more or less, that the two sides were so close on Pollock, that they could probably avoid a hearing. That’s probably true, and yet if the case settles, it’s still much more likely to settle closer to Pollock’s $3.9M than to the team’s $3.65M. Expect a figure of $3.8M or above, or expect a hearing.
Or, maybe, expect a change in representation.
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