Over the past couple months, the Tigers have come to terms with every one of their arbitration-eligible players, including signing multi-year deals for both Dontrelle Willis and Nate Robertson. In addition, the Tigers are still optimistic that they'll be able to sign Miguel Cabrera to a long term contract, avoiding potential future arbitrations with him.
Avoiding arbitration has obviously been a preference of Dombrowski's, if not a flat directive to avoid, as it's not a coincidence that there hasn't been a single hearing in seven years. Prior to the Dombrowski era, the Tigers had a handful of battles in arbitration, winning some, and losing some.
Dombrowski's approach has been different – avoid the situation altogether, get the player signed, happy and in camp.
Has it helped?
Well, for starters, there has never been a contract squabble between two parties so long as Dombrowski has been in charge. Any disputes have been handled quietly, and the Tigers, when players perform, have shown they're more than willing to compensate those players at fair market value (or even more, for certain players).
Now, examine the Tigers' clubhouse. On the whole, players are happy – they feel the organization treats them well and they are compensated fairly. When players feel as if they're treated well, morale on the whole is up, and typically, performance also improves.
Could all of that be just from Dombrowski electing to avoid an arbitration hearing over a couple hundred thousand dollars (in most cases)?
It seems silly, but think about it. Use yourself as a personal example. Ever been in a difficult contract/salary negotiation with your boss? Feel that your contributions make you worth X dollars, but he feels you are only worth Y dollars? How do you feel at the end of the day? Most likely, undervalued, disappointed, frustrated, upset, or any number of things.
Well, take arbitration, and come out with the same feeling. But now, instead of being able to update your resume and start looking for a new job, you have to report to work, and you are locked in for the next year. You have to battle for a team that undervalues you, takes you for granted, doesn't feel you are worth what you think you should be paid.
In the same scenario, you'll probably still go on doing your job. But will you be working as hard? Probably not. Will you complain to co-workers about how cheap the company is, how unfair the boss is? Most likely. And will co-workers in turn express similar feelings of frustration and resentment, even if they aren't the ones that got slighted? Sounds about right to me.
While baseball players are athletes, they are people to. And just like anyone with a 'normal' job, they can feel slighted and upset with their employer as well. And instead of that turning into an unhappy workplace, it turns into an unhappy clubhouse. Suddenly people are complaining that their lockers aren't as nice as the new ones put in by (insert rival team here), or the organization isn't handing out tickets like they used to for use by the players.
Keeping the players happy is clearly a priority for Dombrowski, and arguing over a couple hundred thousand dollars (realistically, a rounding error for a big league ball club with the type of revenue they generate) isn't worth the potential damage it could cause.
So, avoiding arbitration may seem like a small measure given the vast amount of tasks Dombrowski is responsible for, but it may be much more important than most others realize.