The baseball arbitration dance is set to its own rhythm. Things become a little more clear once players and teams have filed figures, but a lot is happening behind the scenes right now, and more will happen before figures are exchanged on January 15th. At that point, the game has fewer dimensions — and maybe no negotiation dimensions, if the team agrees that a switch to the file-and-trial approach to arbitration would be best for the team. Now, a few things can happen: team and player can jockey for better offers, they can entertain extensions, they can negotiate primarily to change the other party’s filing figure, or they can negotiate primarily to convince the other party they don’t want to file one. The sky is the limit.
And I love thinking those things out. Care to join? For this exercise, I’m assuming that keeping a lid on the 2018 salary is a priority. It’s not that the team has acted that way — it kind of hasn’t — but the all-in on 2016 and 2017 strategy doesn’t really do much to change the outlook here anyway. Of course the team wants to keep things down as much as possible, more than anything else — I’m just saying that cost certainty for 2018 also has value for the team. On the player side, I’m assuming that most players would like to secure their first fortune (as in, don’t need a job for the rest of life), but that maximizing salary overall is probably the top priority.
I’ll return to three other very fascinating arb cases (Shelby Miller, Welington Castillo, Daniel Hudson) in a follow up post. If you’re an arb hound, this particular D-backs offseason is the wild west and everyone is wearing a hat. It’s going to be fun to watch, and other than file-an-trial as a kind of umbrella strategy (below, I’m assuming that’s not on the table), players and teams seem very likely to adopt all kinds of different positions.
Rubby De La Rosa — MLBTR Projection $3.2M
Player: As a player agent, there are three ways to get the highest possible 2016 salary at this stage: negotiate a settlement as high as possible, have the most reasonable filing figure for the arbitrators, or get the team to file as high a figure as possible. With RDLR, it’s the last strategy that presents the best opportunity. Getting in front of an arbitrator is a good outcome; RDLR has counting stats to beat the band. I’m not afraid of that. At this point, I’m trying to figure out how high my filing figure should be, and fanning the flames for the team at the same time. The D-backs and especially GM Dave Stewart love RDLR, maybe more than they should. Bingo! Of all of the seven arbitration cases that remain with this team, RDLR presents the best player opportunity to get a repeat of the very big mistake made by the team with Addison Reed‘s case last year. The starting point for the team won’t be an MLBTR projection, and it might be a very subjective evaluation of RDLR’s worth. Demanding a salary in the $5.5M range and presenting it as reasonable seems like a good way to go. Best case, I settle around $5M. Next-best case, the team files a figure north of $4.5M, and I can’t really lose. The worst case scenario is actually filing a figure of $6M or thereabouts, and then finding out that the team was trying to trick me into doing so (with the team filing a surprise $3M figure after misleading negotiations). Go big.
Team: I expect the team to present its approach as aggressive, offering $3M to start and then trying hard to negotiate a settlement before figures are exchanged. In their shoes, this scenario is what a file-and-trial strategy is most intended to address. If that approach is not in the cards, therefore, I’m hewing as closely to that as I can. It will not always be best to be forthcoming about what one’s filing figure will be, but here it makes sense: I’m telling RDLR’s agent that I’m filing at $3M and will not budge. I would consider budging, up to $3.2M for sure, and possibly to $3.3M. Unfortunately, this approach broadcasts to RDLR’s agent what they should do: file a reasonably aggressive figure like $4M. If that happens, I then have to actually go to trial. RDLR’s record has plenty of warts to emphasize, and I would play up the likelihood that RDLR must become a reliever. I can’t come away with a resounding win here, but I can limit the player’s filing figure (that’s what file-and-trial is mostly about). Best case, I end up where I want to be, but at least I’ve still limited the worst case scenario to $4M or so. If the player then makes the mistake of filing significantly higher than that, all it does is increase the likelihood I’ll prevail at trial. Stick to my guns.
Randall Delgado — MLBTR Projection $1M
Player: Representing Delgado, I have to think that his market in MLB is much better than it is in Arizona, if you can call that a market. Some team out there has to wonder if Delgado is more than he’s been in Arizona — and what he’s been is a viable starter and a better-than-respectable reliever. The flexibility there also helps with Delgado’s value. It might be a one year deal, but if Delgado were a free agent, he’d present a very enticing opportunity to at least some teams. Still, there’s not a whole lot I can do to force the team to look at Delgado differently. “First fortune” is not a possible outcome at this point, and so I’m perfectly happy to go year to year with the team — if Delgado becomes too expensive for the D-backs’ tastes and for the spot in the staff where they slot him, I can finally get Delgado freed from this pitcher-killing environment and in a position to hit free agency as a completely different looking opportunity. Moving away from the extension possibility, I’m playing up the brave new world of relief pitcher contracts we’ve seen this offseason, and pointing out that Delgado’s extra innings make him more valuable and not less valuable than a short reliever. I can plausibly claim that the way relievers have been viewed in arbitration will change this winter, even though technically free agent deals cannot be used as comps in first-year arbitration hearings. I’m aggressive, and I’m looking for $2.5M in negotiation while hinting that Delgado’s filing figure could be in the $3.5M range. I also feel pretty safe in filing a figure north of $2M, despite the projection — it’s hard to see the team filing a figure below $1M, and a filing figure around $2.2M still makes me feel like I can win (and that I can settle after figure exchange for a better figure than $1M).
Team: From the team’s perspective, I don’t have much to lose. As a cheap reliever, he fits in the team’s plans and roster, although I can only assign so many bullpen spots to pitchers without options. It’s also a little like what the Addison Reed situation should have been: had they filed a fairly low figure there, their worst-case scenario would have been the actual outcome, and their best-case scenario would have been that arb control over Reed would have surplus value for an extra season. The single biggest consideration in arbitration may be that same player’s arbitration awards. If Delgado is only a reliever for me now, and if squeaking under a payroll limit in 2016 is not that big a concern, then I’m endorsing a strategy that at least opens the possibility of letting me pay a 2017 salary that I would be willing to pay Delgado to be a reliever. For that reason, I’m adopting a take-or-leave position of $1.2M in negotiation right now, and hinting that I think I might go lower than $1M as a filing figure. Depending on how I read Delgado’s agent, I’m filing at either $1M or $1.2M in arbitration; I don’t have to shoot the moon to “win” and keep open the possibility of paying Delgado a salary I’m comfortable with in 2017.
Patrick Corbin — MLBTR Projection $2.3M
Player: This one is really hard, and will come down to what Corbin really wants. On the one hand, he’s one major injury from having his career derailed in the short term, and he actually could negotiate a “first fortune” at this time. On the other hand, a strong Corbin-esque season would change his salary prospects for 2017 by quite a lot, and maybe more than any of the other six players that may have cases. Jeff dove into Corbin’s situation less than two weeks ago, noting that a four year deal could make sense for everyone — it would help extend the Contention Window, it would keep Corbin around for another season, potentially, and it could be done for just a $18M-$20M outlay for the three arbitration years. Representing Corbin, I’ve got to acknowledge that the D-backs would be conscious of the risk, and that a long term deal at this particular moment is unlikely to get anywhere near to where he’d get paid in those four years if he went year to year. That is always likely with an extension, but with a player that’s already reached his arb years, we’re talking something like 75%-90% value — Corbin would be taking a much bigger discount off of his best case, risk-fraught scenario (more like 50%). Still, that’s enough for Corbin to lock down financial security for the rest of his life. Regardless of the years involved, any deal that provided that security — by, say, offering more than $5M, or around $8M — would be tough to turn down. Still, it takes two to tango. If I’m representing Corbin, I’m definitely feeling the team out on an extension. If the team doesn’t want to go there or doesn’t meet that “lifelong security” line or Corbin is simply comfortable with the risk (which looks a lot like the last player below), I’m not going to be especially aggressive with a player figure. $3.8M looks good to me, and I can make the team think I really believe that. I’d have to base the actual filing figure on the tenor of the pre-filing negotiations. I want every damned penny this time around, but that means making sure I’m in a position to win if the case actually goes before a panel.
Team: With pitchers, my presumption has to be that year to year is always better. If something catastrophic happens, I can take a player right off the real arbitration ladder, like the team has recently done with Hudson and Matt Reynolds. If something catastrophic happens, I also want the financial flexibility to go get someone new, especially since the Contention Window is so important right now. Going year to year has its own, significant value, and unless Corbin is willing to go far below market with an extension, an extension doesn’t leave me with the right things to gain. With that said, I might consider doing something a little more creative, playing on Corbin’s likely desire for security while keeping security for myself. I’d start with proposing a Josh Collmenter -style contract with two options; I’m willing to make the buyouts significant (and I would never have to pay both). I’m filing around $1.5M, I would hint. But I would try an offer that would pay Corbin around $3M for 2016, with a $4M option and $1.5M buyout for 2017, and a $8M option and $2M buyout for 2018. With that contract, all Corbin has to do is get the team to exercise the first option in order to take away $9M total — lifelong financial security. And even if the team doesn’t do that, he’s still walked away with $4.5M, instead of the $2.5M or so he might end up with if he doesn’t sign an extension and something very bad happens this year. Without the second option, I’m less interested in a deal if I’m the team. I would still strongly consider a two-year deal, because it could really limit the 2018 salary anyway in a best case Corbin scenario, but the 2017 option buyout would go down. $3M for 2016, $4.5M option for 2017 but with only a $500k buyout. If no negotiation works, I don’t need to be aggressive with a filing figure; I just conduct the negotiations to try to keep Corbin’s figure down.
A.J. Pollock — MLBTR Projection $4.3M
Player: We already addressed Pollock’s case in the Offseason Plan, noting that for the team, a two-year extension makes sense now. The team has lost its opportunity to sign Pollock at a real discount, as Jeff has explained, and unlike with Corbin, there’s really no credible threat here that the team would pull Pollock out of the arbitration ladder if he suffered a serious injury this season. The injury would have to be of “will he ever play again” proportions, and those chances are small; no matter what, the team is going to tender Pollock a 2017 contract. From the player’s perspective, then, I can already count on the salary I’m about to get for 2016, and on a similarly- or greater-sized salary for 2017, also. Awesome! My lifelong financial security is already as good as settled. Now, it’s about maximizing those dollars as much as possible. Maybe I can break me off a piece of wherever that Greinke money came from; I’m happy to entertain offers for an extension. But I’m not optimistic that the team will present me with a number that makes sense. Also, Pollock would be playing the 2019 season at the age of 31. Selling even that one free agent year to the D-backs right now would have very large consequences to my best case scenario — if the team wants to give me something now a lot like the contract I’d be gunning for then, great. If not, let’s just make some money in the short term, and bet that Pollock’s defense will still be great enough in 2018 to blow the Jacoby Ellsbury contract out of the water three years from now. Even some recurring injuries shouldn’t prevent that. I’m playing up defense at an up the middle position, and getting away with making $5.8M seem reasonable as a demand. The idea is to see how high I can make the team’s filing number, knowing that if they don’t go higher than $4.5M, I have a great chance to get the salary I want with a hearing.
Team: Jeff’s Corbin piece two weeks ago applies to Pollock about equally, and as noted in the player paragraph above, if I’m the team, I know I’m about to spend some serious money on Pollock for two and probably three years. I desperately want that fourth year, but I can’t afford to pay for that fourth year with a guaranteed high salary in 2018, when the team’s finances will be very fragile. As explained in the Offseason Plan, it’s a two year extension that looks most attractive — because all I’m really guaranteeing is money I’m all but guaranteed to spend anyway, and by being generous in 2016 but not at all generous in 2017, I might be able to limit Pollock’s ceiling in his final year of arbitration. There’s probably no way for me to come away from this arbitration case with a “win” — all I can do is try to limit things a little, and try to prevent the Mark Trumbo outcome from last year, when Trumbo went wildly high with a filing figure and yet still managed to win. Let’s just make sure that doesn’t happen.
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