With the start of Spring Training a mere four weeks away, fans and players alike are getting the itch to see some Florida palm trees and Arizona cactuses. For a potential 142 players and their respective organizations, their Spring Training will start differently and probably more painfully. That is because between February 1st and February 21st, hearings will be held for salary arbitration, the process by which player and team can not agree on contract terms. The player and management will each submit their own numbers and a third-party arbiter will determine which figure will be the player’s salary for the upcoming season. By its very nature, arbitration is anything but fun in the sun and while there is a winner and a loser, nobody really wins.
Baseball’s version of arbitration began in 1974 and it centers around players who have had anywhere between two and six years of service time in the Majors and are not yet eligible for free agency. The idea is for both club and player to submit figures based on the current market value of a player of similar production. While intentions are good for both sides (control for up to six years for ownership, fair value for player) the proceedings expose two troublesome areas for the overall game.
One effect is the enormous spike in payroll a single arbitration case can have for a team. Take Clayton Kershaw, for example. He was paid $500,000 for his Cy Young season in 2011. He deserves to get a significant raise. Kershaw’s side has submitted a $10 million dollar figure for arbitration while the Dodgers have countered with $6.5 million. At the very least, the Dodger payroll will rise by $6 million dollars for just one player, a significant amount of money considering the financial woes of the organization. That could impact other moves the team would like to make like shore up the bullpen or get another bat behind Matt Kemp. Perhaps if the Dodgers were smart, they would try to work out a long term deal starting with an $8 or $9 million figure for 2012 but less dollars than would be spent if they go through arbitration two more times with Kershaw.
The other effect is the inevitable hard feelings that will emerge once the hearing is complete. The Dodgers will no doubt try every means possible to win their case, even if they upset the Kershaw camp. They’ll point out he gave up two more homers in 2011 than 2010 or that his number of wild pitches stayed the same between the two seasons. It is hard to knit-pick a 21-5, 2.28 ERA, 248 strikeout season so maybe they will use more personal language. There is a chance both sides come out of the process with feelings that may never go away. Don Mattingly won his 1987 arbitration case and owner George Steinbrenner was not too pleased with the outcome. That led to some hard feelings between Mattingly and Steinbrenner that probably lasted well into Mattingly’s retirement.
Salary arbitration seems to be part of the business of baseball for good. Owners and players alike would be wise to avoid this process at all costs. Perhaps many of them can keep it strictly professional but they are all human and it doesn’t take much to make it personal.