Arbitration Showdowns Few and Far Between

Is this week's rash of player signings across Major League Baseball to "avoid arbitration" a good thing or bad? Over time, how do the Cardinals stack up in the arbitration game against the players and the other 29 clubs?

Any story this time of year about arbitration should be written in pencil because of the volatility of the situation. Just check the daily Major League Baseball transaction logs this week, and you will see literally dozens of three-to-six year players coming to terms with their clubs to "avoid arbitration".

In fact, I counted over 40 such transactions in the last couple of days alone. But, this avoidance should not be considered a problem. To me, it signals that the arbitration process is working precisely as designed.

On Tuesday, players and clubs were required to submit each side's binding offer representing their view of what the 2007 salary for each unsigned arbitration-eligible player should be. The two sides each had to declare a single one-year amount with no frills - just the most basic of contract terms.

In some cases, this impending event in itself seemed to be enough to spur the two sides into coming to terms. A good example is So Taguchi case with the Cardinals. Both sides had said for weeks that they intended to get a 2007 deal done, which they finally did on Monday night.

In other cases, the wave of signings occurred just after the two sides had their initial opportunity to see each other's numbers. Likely, in many cases, when all the words were put aside and the simple amounts became visible, they were close enough that the two could come to a deal quickly and painlessly.

Yet, each year a handful of cases make it to the actual arbitration hearing. Bill Gilbert explained all about the process in his article, "Salary Arbitration, A Burden or a Benefit?".

Even with all the quick deals this week, with 56 players having exchanged figures with clubs this year versus 44 last year, it's possible there could be more hearings than in recent years. But, likely not. With so much money obviously floating around this off-season, just how hard will the cash-flush clubs decide to push?

As an aside, just two of the 56 were free agents, Milwaukee's Tony Graffanino and Todd Walker of San Diego. Odds are high that neither of them makes it to a hearing, since the last free agent case heard was in 1991.

Of the 56, the Chicago Cubs' Carlos Zambrano may be the most interesting. It has everything needed for prime entertainment value - big bucks, a huge spread between the player and club submissions ($11.025 million versus $15.5 million), and a volatile player facing off against a club that has already committed well over $200 million to other contracts this off-season.

Yet, like they and many other clubs before them have done, the Cubs will not only seek to make a deal with Zambrano for 2007, but they have also stated intent to work out a multi-year contract to avert Zambrano's impending free agency next off-season.

Not only does that commit the player to the club, but it also avoids the time, expense and potential loss of goodwill between employer and employee. After all, discord is difficult to avoid when the club's objective in a hearing is to talk down the value of one of their most important assets in his presence.

Like I said before, it is not likely to happen. Of the four clubs mentioned in this article, St. Louis, Milwaukee, San Diego and the Cubs, none of them have gone to a hearing this decade. Interestingly, the Cardinals, who openly admit they very carefully assess risk in the area of all contracts, including arbitration, have had the most recent case of the four. Hard to call it "recent" though, as it was way back in 1999.

Here is the status of the 30 major league clubs in terms of arbitration cases heard and their won-loss record against their players.

Salary Arbitration Cases - 1974-2006
Results by Club (Ranked by Total Cases)

Club Total Cases Club    W - L % Last Case
Oakland 34 16-18 0.471 2005
Cincinnati 31 18-13 0.581 2004
Minnesota 28 15-13 0.538 2006
Montreal-Washington 27 19-8 0.704 2006
Atlanta 24 15-9 0.625 2001
California 23 14-9 0.609 2004
Chicago White Sox 22 14-8 0.636 2001
Detroit 20 6-14 0.300 2001
New York Yankees 20 11-9 0.550 2000
Kansas City 19 9-10 0.474 2006
Los Angeles Dodgers 19 13-6 0.684 2004
New York Mets 19 11-8 0.579 1992
Pittsburgh 19 10-9 0.526 2004
Seattle 19 10-9 0.526 2003
Texas 19 10-9 0.526 2000
Boston 17 12-5 0.706 2002
San Diego 16 8-8 0.500 1998
St. Louis 15 9-6 0.600 1999
Baltimore 14 11-3 0.786 2006
Cleveland 13 7-6 0.538 1991
Houston 11 5-6 0.455 1997
Toronto 8 5-3 0.625 1997
Philadelphia 7 7-0 1.000 2001
San Francisco 7 3-4 0.429 2004
Chicago Cubs 5 3-2 0.600 1993
Florida 4 2-2 0.500 2003
Milwaukee 3 2-1 0.667 1998
Arizona 2 1-1 0.500 2001
Colorado 2 1-1 0.500 2006
Tampa Bay 2 2-0 1.000 2006
23-Year Totals 469 269-200 0.574 --
(data courtesy Bill Gilbert and Tal Smith Enterprises)

In closing, here is the Cardinals detail from the Jocketty era.

St. Louis Cardinals Arbitration Summary – 1995 through 2007

Year

# Filed

Players Filed

# Hearings 

Player Wins

Club Wins

1995

5

Cooper, Hill, Lankford, Rodriguez, Zeile

0

0

0

1996

5

Clayton, Fossas, Lankford, Osborne, Stottlemyre

0

0

0

1997

3

Clayton, Osborne, Painter

0

0

0

1998

2

Clayton, Mabry

0

0

0

1999

3

Botallico, Oliver, Renteria

1 / Oliver

0

1

2000

5

Al. Benes, Bottenfield, Mohler, Morris, Renteria

0

0

0

2001

5

Al. Benes, Christianson, James, Morris, Paquette 

0

0

0

2002

1

Polanco

0

0

0

2003

2

Drew, Tomko

0

0

0

2004

1

Pujols

0

0

0

2005

1

Marquis

0

0

0

2006

1

Marquis

0

0

0

2007

1

Taguchi

0

0

0

12-Yr. Total

35

 

1 = 3%

0 = 0%

1 = 100%

Darren Oliver was the last case heard. In a rare loss on any field of play, agent Scott Boras was unable to get Oliver $4.15 million for 1999. The lefty, coming off a 10-11 1998 campaign, had to "settle" for $3.55 million. One season later, he returned to Texas as a free agent.

In each of the last two years, Jason Marquis was prepared to go to hearing before settling. The previous year, 2004, Albert Pujols would have set a first-year eligible player arbitration record had he not agreed to a seven-year, $100 million contract. When figures had been exchanged for arbitration purposes, the Cardinals had offered $7 million, while Pujols asked for $10.5 million for 2004.

Again, while there has been a flurry of activity around MLB this past week, it is goodness. Soon, we'll be able to stop talking about contracts and resume watching the day's games on the field of play.



Brian Walton can be reached via email at brwalton@earthlink.net.

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