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Jeff Passan — Inside wild, wonky world of MLB salary arbitration – WSAIGO Sports
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Jeff Passan — Inside wild, wonky world of MLB salary arbitration

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With $3 million at stake, the Boston Red Sox wanted to create the most compelling argument possible against Mookie Betts without alienating or insulting him. So last January, as they tried to convince a three-person arbitration panel that Betts deserved the $7.5 million salary they were offering and not the $10.5 million he requested, the Red Sox fashioned a novel approach in the typically staid, lawyerly arbitration room: They played a video talking about how good Kris Bryant was.

The purpose, multiple sources in the room told ESPN, was not simply to lavish praise on the Chicago Cubs‘ third baseman but to make their case: As great as Mookie Betts may be, he isn’t Kris Bryant. And in the world of arbitration — an opaque, wonky process that determines salaries for about a quarter of the league every year and has taken on significantly more meaning as economic turmoil roils the baseball landscape — the single most important factor is comparable players.

So when Betts won the first case of 2018, a year that saw the most hearings since 1990, it wasn’t merely a victory for him or a sign that Bryant, and his $10.85 million salary, was indeed a fair parallel. It reminded players that with the free-agent market spiraling and pre-free agency contract extensions increasingly rare, arbitration is among the last avenues for players to seek salary gains amid the sport’s financial correction.

That’s what makes the next 48 hours so compelling. At 1 p.m. ET on Friday, the 175 or so players eligible for arbitration will have settled on a salary for 2019 or reached an impasse that leads to a hearing. With all 30 teams adopting the so-called file-and-trial approach — if the sides file a number, they’ll head to trial, cutting out the post-exchange-date negotiations that were prevalent even five years ago — Friday marks an underappreciated day on the baseball calendar.

One on which Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado will set a record for arbitration salary — or head to trial in February. And where the first-time-eligible class of Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Corey Seager represents the biggest influx of talent — let alone talent from a single position — into the arbitration system in years. The leaps taken by Cy Young Award-winning starter Jacob deGrom and lockdown closer Blake Treinen could portend significant raises as well.

Then there’s the case of Betts, who followed his leap in arbitration with one on the field. The arbitration system gives special favor to those with hardware, and Betts is coming off a season in which he won the American League Most Valuable Player and a World Series. Will he seek to beat Max Scherzer‘s record $8.8 million raise for players already in arbitration? Might he see Arenado’s $17.75 million salary as a third-time-eligible player and settle in that neighborhood to mitigate the risk of a trial? Could he go for broke and file for $20 million-plus, looking to set a new benchmark in a landscape where they’re few and far between?

“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 biggest question is just that: With the arbitration system in some ways serving as a microcosm of the rest of the labor market for players — with less manpower than the well-organized league office, fractious goals for players adversely affecting others and the risk in front of sometimes-inconsistent panels palpable — just how aggressive can the players afford to be?


In a mission statement distributed among some players, Jeff Berry, who helps run the baseball division at CAA, outlined a number of steps he believes are necessary to rectify the imbalance of power in the relationship between MLB and the union. It was no surprise that his first target was arbitration. “[A]ttacking the arb system,” Berry wrote in the 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.”

The use of arbitration as a potential weapon in a burgeoning labor conflict runs in contrast with the system’s intention. Arbitration exists to bring sides with disparate goals together in hopes of compromise. The players want the highest salary possible. The clubs want to pay players as little as possible. Détente is somewhere in the middle, and following the labor wars of the 1980s, it was the standard.

Amid the freeze of the free-agent market last winter, 22 players went to trial, one of the highest numbers since the advent of the system in 1974. Still, it amounted to barely 10 percent of those eligible for arbitration, illustrating the point some hawkish agents make: Players could upend the system the way clubs have free agency and have tried to do to arbitration by adopting file-and-trial practices.

Whether that would be prudent is a different question altogether. A number of factors make the scenario, enticing though it may be, a near impossibility. First is the scourge of the union: bad settlements. While MLB works diligently and impressively to coordinate the arbitration targets of its 30 teams — this behavior is sanctioned under the collective bargaining agreement and not considered collusive — agents occasionally make far-under-target settlements. The effect, in a comparison-based system, is devastating: A bad settlement can linger and depress prices at a particular position for years.

Further, while some of the brightest minds at the MLBPA focus on arbitration, the sharp and efficient MLB labor relations department (plus the sheer quantitative power housed in clubs’ supercomputers and the minds of those who run them) leads to a theoretical inflection point of cases. The union did well balancing 22 cases last year, winning 12. The league historically has won well more than 50 percent of cases. At 30 or 35 cases, or even more, the volume could leave the players at a disadvantage.

Another complicating factor is the cost to agents. Going to trial can be pricey, particularly for smaller agencies that do not have in-house lawyers with enough expertise or experience to argue an arbitration case. Hiring outside counsel costs up to $55,000, an expense that falls on the agent. And when the spread, or the difference between the sides, is minimal and the 5 percent fee on the difference won’t come close to covering the attorney fees, the incentive is clearly to settle — a fact that teams know and leverage.

All of which leads to the awkward dance currently playing out. On Monday and Tuesday, staffers from clubs reached out to agents to introduce themselves, say they are a file-and-trial team and throw out a name they believe is a good comparison. In most cases, there is little substantive movement on Wednesday and Thursday. Only on Friday, the day of the deadline, do the sides seriously engage. It’s by design: Barreling toward a deadline, teams often feel as though they have the advantage, and their willingness to wield it for gain is clear.

Between 8 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET on Friday, team and agent offices, and those of the league and union, will serve as nerve centers for a manic dash. Good and bad settlements will be celebrated and lamented. The ever-narrowing window will be used as a vise in both directions. Some will panic. Some will hold steadfast. And all will know that absent a settlement, they’ll meet a few weeks later in a setting with rulings every bit as binary as ball or strike.

Arbitration cases start at 9 a.m. or 1 p.m. Typically, about 30 people are in the room — 10 on the player’s side, including the player, and 20 on the team’s. Each side brings 12 copies of its brief. The opposing side gets four of the copies, and a number of people then decamp to suites to begin constructing the rebuttal argument that will come later in the hearing.

To begin, the player’s side gets an hour to make its argument. After a 15-minute break, the team gets an hour. Following a 30-minute break, during which both sides finalize their closing arguments, the player’s side gets a 30-minute rebuttal and the team gets the same. Players often sit through a savaging of their accomplishments. Arbitration hearings are not for the weak of heart.

The arguments throughout a case run the gamut. Arbitrators have long rewarded home runs and saves, so they are featured prominently among the players with them, like Oakland’s Khris Davis, who could seek a raise from $10.5 million into the $18 million range. At the same time, the arbitration system is not the antediluvian, abacus-using Luddite-fest it has been portrayed as. The wins above replacement metric is used extensively. So are fielding independent pitching for starters and leverage index for relievers. Statcast data is not allowed in cases, mainly because the league has a far greater plethora of it than the union; and in 2016, when the CBA was signed, the accuracy of spin-rate and launch-angle metrics so vital to modern baseball was not tested out over a large enough sample to warrant their inclusion.

When the presentations are done, the panel of three independent arbitrators renders a winner-take-all decision. Sometimes the spread is hundreds of thousands. Other times it’s millions. And in a moment where the average salary dropped year over year, arbitration, which exists to give raises, is a salve for players amid all the losses elsewhere.


Exactly how much Mookie Betts makes next season is important because it ups the benchmark for the next generation of players to come through arbitration. Is it $18 million? Or $19 million? Maybe $20 million? And what of Arenado? Does he play it safe and seek a raise to beat Josh Donaldson‘s single-season arbitration-salary record of $23 million? Or does he compare his situation to free-agent deals, as those in their final season of arbitration are allowed to, and try to shoot the moon to, say, $27 million? Or $28 million? Or even higher?

The biggest gains, one longtime arbitration expert noted, are not necessarily made in cases like Betts’ last year or Ryan Howard’s seminal $10 million win in his first year of eligibility in 2008. It’s the strong negotiated settlements that resonate best because they’re admissions from both sides that this is the actual market value and not just a number chosen by three people who happened to like one argument better than another.

It’s why for all the intrigue of trials, and for all the fight the rank and file may want to muster against the league, the settlement, unsexy though it may be, is the backbone of arbitration. It’s moving the ball in three yards and a cloud of dust instead of running the fly pattern on every play.

Because incremental progress is still progress, and the lack thereof in other avenues frightens players. The contraction of the free-agent market is real. If the rationale of teams is they don’t want to spend revenues on players in their 30s, the logical countermove would be to spend it on players in their 20s. And yet the long-term offers being made to pre-arbitration players are similar to those of a decade ago. Revenues have increased by more than 50 percent, and that’s to say nothing of the windfall MLB came into from its internet arm and the coming riches of its gambling partnerships.

So the message from the union to players — particularly the best players — is clear: Be aggressive in arbitration. Push clubs. If they’re unwilling to pay what the union believes is market value before or after arbitration, at very least use the system to ensure they do so during arbitration.

The message from the league to clubs is similar: Be smart, be organized, communicate and function as one. It’s how the league has transitioned from a labor laughingstock to the one that knocks. With Betts and Arenado and the parade of incredible young shortstops, MLB has plenty to lose this arbitration season, particularly in a moment when it’s not accustomed to losing.

That’s the new world order of baseball, one that will be tested in a frenzied five hours on Friday, with big names and big money and big stakes. The league is confident. The players are hopeful. Let the madness begin.

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Chicago Cubs ownership says giving second chance to Addison Russell ‘was the right thing to do’

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CHICAGO — Chicago Cubs ownership on Thursday reasserted its stance that having suspended shortstop Addison Russell under contract for 2019 is not an endorsement of his having violated the league’s domestic abuse policy, but rather is the right thing to do for all parties.

“The fact that we have decided — after talking to lots of experts, after talking to Addison multiple times, talking to the league — that we’d rather support him through the process than just cut him and let him go, that doesn’t mean it’s in conflict with support for victims of domestic violence,” owner Tom Ricketts said on ESPN 1000. “I think that it’s not an easy decision and not a decision that anyone takes lightly.”

Ricketts spoke publicly on the matter for the first time since signing Russell — who was suspended for 40 games last September when his actions came to light via his ex-wife — to a $3.4 million contract for 2019. He won’t be eligible to play until May, and the terms of his contract are well below what he would have received if he was in good standing with the league and the club.

Nevertheless, some fans have been vocal in their opposition to Russell ever wearing a Cubs uniform again.

“We knew that it would be unpopular in some ways,” general manager Jed Hoyer told ESPN 1000. “People have a visceral reaction to reading about what happened. So did we. The more that we worked and talked to experts and worked through it … we felt like having a conditional second chance was the right thing to do. It was recommended by experts.”

Independent domestic abuse experts interviewed by ESPN also agreed a second chance was warranted if Russell was following through with counseling and therapy. The Cubs also expressed concern for his ex-wife and have stayed in contact with her throughout the process.

“It’s something that every team has to decide for themselves, but I do give a lot of credit to Major League Baseball for having good protocols and policies on this,” Ricketts stated. “There was a process for him. He’s already begun doing some of the things that the league requests, and he’s doing things beyond what the league requests. So, we’ll see where it goes.

“I think he knows the gravity of the situation. I think he knows what he has to do. Let’s just hope that he follows through on promises he made to himself and the promises he made to the team.”

The Cubs can cut Russell for one-sixth of his salary or he could be traded, even while under suspension. He won’t attend the annual fan convention this weekend, but he is slated to be with the team for spring training next month.

Manager Joe Maddon recently spoke with Russell and indicated he’s on the right path.

“He seems to be in a good place,” Maddon said. “He’s really working to get things behind him and make sure he does and says the right things moving forward. It’s a maturation process on his part.”

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Free-agent relief pitcher Adam Ottavino to sign with New York Yankees

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The New York Yankees have agreed to a three-year, $27 million deal with free-agent relief pitcher Adam Ottavino, league sources told ESPN’s Jeff Passan on Thursday.

The 33-year-old Ottavino was a big piece of Colorado’s bullpen last season, going 6-4 with a 2.43 ERA as the Rockies reached the NL Division Series as the wild card before losing to Milwaukee. His 112 strikeouts ranked fourth among all major league relievers, and he held opposing hitters to a .158 batting average.

Ottavino, who earned $7 million while serving as the setup man for closer Wade Davis, has always been a great matchup option facing right-handed hitters but has continued to flash the right pitches to get lefty hitters out, too. He’s prized for great control of his two-seamer and slider, which lends to his durability.

“He turned himself into one of the best relievers in the game,” Rockies outfielder Charlie Blackmon told The Athletic last season.

Ottavino underwent Tommy John surgery on his right elbow in May 2015 soon after he was promoted to be the closer. He returned to action in July 2016.

A first-round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2006 amateur draft, the right-handed Ottavino made his major league debut four years later before being acquired off waivers by Colorado in 2012. He just finished his eighth season in the big leagues and seventh with the Rockies.

For his career, Ottavino is 17-20 with 17 saves, a 3.68 ERA and 464 strikeouts.

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Will Bryce Harper and Manny Machado sign before Super Bowl Sunday and other burning questions

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When the offseason began two-and-a-half months ago, the baseball world waited breathlessly to see where marquee free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would sign.

We’re still waiting.

As the saga drags on, we ask three of our baseball writers the burning (smoldering?) questions about where — and when — Harper and Machado will finally sign, and for how much.

Are you surprised that neither Harper nor Machado has signed yet?

Eddie Matz: Nope. The Machado bone is connected to the Harper bone, and the Harper bone is connected to the Boras bone, and the Boras bone is connected to waiting as long as humanly possible.

David Schoenfield: After what happened last offseason, with J.D. Martinez and Eric Hosmer signing after spring training had already started, not surprised at all. If anything, the only surprise is how few teams have been mentioned as possible suitors. It’s not often 26-year-old star players hit free agency, yet most teams apparently aren’t interested.

Sam Miller: I think back to last year, when many of us were speculating that the slow offseason was due to teams hoarding their money for this offseason. GMs must have laughed when they read that.

Who do you think will sign Harper?

Matz: In less than a month, the Dodgers have quietly slid from front-runner to borderline “mystery team” status, thanks largely to their deafening radio silence. I’m not buying it. I still think Harper lands in La La Land.

Schoenfield: I thought he was headed to the Dodgers after they traded away Yasiel Puig and Matt Kemp to open up right field — and maybe that will still happen — but it’s looking like Phillies versus Nationals and I’m going to bet on a return to D.C. at this point.

Miller: The Dodgers, but it doesn’t really feel like we’ve yet read any Bryce Harper rumor — with any team — that feels like a true prelude to the final signing.

Who do you think will sign Machado?

Matz: All the talk about the Phillies flirting heavily with Harper in Vegas this past weekend could be legit. Or it could be a ploy to make Machado flinch and take whatever Philly is offering. Feels like the latter to me. I still see Manny donning red pinstripes.

Schoenfield: The funny thing, it’s to the advantage of both players to wait for the other to sign first — especially if the first one to sign doesn’t go with the Phillies. We know the Phillies want one of these guys, and if they miss out on the first one to sign, they may feel forced to increase their offer to the other to make sure they don’t get shut out. But who signs first? If Harper ends up choosing the Nationals and that happens first, maybe it will push Machado to the Phillies.

Miller: The Phillies. Again, though, given the tone of what’s been publicly reported, this feels like trying to forecast the weather nine days out. Feels like the significant steps in the process are still undeveloped.

Who do you think will get more total money, Machado or Harper?

Matz: Harper’s contract will have the higher average annual value, but Machado gets more total dollars. Neither one of them tops Giancarlo Stanton‘s $325 million deal.

Schoenfield: Harper.

Miller: Harper, though with some of the more complicated contracts superstars get these days — with opt-outs especially — the total money might not perfectly reflect each player’s total earning potential.

How surprised would you be if the Phillies ended up signing NEITHER Machado nor Harper?

Matz: About as surprised as I’d be if Machado or Harper ended up hosting this year’s Academy Awards.

Schoenfield: Not that surprised. Harper to the Nationals seems like a real possibility. Something deep inside could still see the Yankees swooping in at the last second for Harper or Machado, or maybe Machado goes to the White Sox or the “mystery” team that is supposedly out there (the Padres need a third baseman …).

Miller: A little bit, but if they were really committed to signing one of them, it would have happened by now.

How surprised would you be if the Yankees ended up signing EITHER Machado or Harper?

Matz: About as surprised as I’d be if the Phillies ended up signing neither Machado nor Harper.

Schoenfield: The rumors from the Bronx are pretty quiet, but the Yankees are standing on mountains of revenue and while they traded for Stanton last season, they haven’t signed a $100 million free agent since Masahiro Tanaka and Jacoby Ellsbury before the 2014 season. That’s five offseasons ago. Old man Steinbrenner is yelling from his grave, telling the kids to spend some money and win a World Series. Maybe the Yankees are shying away from Machado for another reason: They want Nolan Arenado next offseason. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence they’ve signed former Rockies teammates DJ LeMahieu and Troy Tulowitzki.

Miller: A little bit, but the Yankees obviously can spend a lot of money on either player, and would be better with either player, so it’s a logical outcome.

Which team are you most surprised hasn’t been linked to either Machado or Harper this winter?

Matz: The Golden State Warriors.

Schoenfield: The Stanton acquisition and his huge contract definitely muddied the picture, but certainly a year ago we would have expected the Yankees to land Harper or Machado (heck, maybe both). The Rangers are bad right now, but that’s a big-market franchise and they’re moving into a new park in 2020. They need a franchise player and Harper in particular would give them a marquee name to get the attention of even football-crazed fans in the Metroplex.

Miller: The Angels. If we take some of these rumored offers seriously — $175 million for Machado, for instance — it’s surprising that there aren’t 27 teams bidding for him. Every team in baseball — or, if you want to be really conservative, at least two-thirds of them — can afford $200 million for Manny Machado and have intentions of being competitive for many of the next eight seasons.

If Machado surprises by signing with a team not considered one of the primary suitors, who do you think it could be?

Matz: The Mets. There isn’t a whole lot of data on New York’s new regime under GM Brodie Van Wagenen, but what data there is suggests this: The Amazins are in the running for anyone, anywhere, anytime.

Schoenfield: The Padres. Or maybe the Angels surprise, like they did with Albert Pujols.

Miller: The Padres.

If Harper surprises by signing with a team not considered one of the primary suitors, who do you think it could be?

Matz: The Braves are ready to contend, need outfield help (Adam Duvall? Really?), and have oodles of payroll flexibility. The only thing that differentiates them from the Phillies is an owner who talks about spending “stupid money.” But that doesn’t mean Atlanta won’t do it.

Schoenfield: The Cardinals. They actually have a lot of payroll flexibility in upcoming years and will need a big bat in 2020 and beyond if Paul Goldschmidt and Marcell Ozuna depart as free agents.

Miller: The Angels.

In what order will these events take place? Bryce Harper signs, Manny Machado signs, Super Bowl Sunday.

Matz: Machado, Harper, Super Bowl.

Schoenfield: Harper, Super Bowl, Machado.

Miller: Machado, then Super Bowl Sunday, then Harper. Or else they all happen at exactly the same time.

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