Nolan Arenado
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Arbitration deadline could mean more than it usually does

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There’s an offseason deadline today that, in the past, you may not have thought much about but which, this year, is a bit more important. It’s the deadline by which teams and arbitration-eligible players who were tendered a contract back on November 30 must exchange salary figures.

Here’s what that means technically (and, yes, you may very well know this as we’ve discussed it often over the years):

  • By close of business today, the arbitration-eligible player will say what he thinks he’s worth based on comparable players of his quality and service time and the team will propose a lower counter-figure;
  • Generally, and usually, in the past, the parties would then use these proposals as negotiable figures and eventually reach a compromise deal, usually near the midpoint between the two figures, avoiding arbitration. This process often takes a few weeks;
  • If a deal cannot be reached, the player and the team go to an arbitration hearing and arbitrators pick one of the numbers. They CANNOT give a compromise award. It’s either the higher player’s number or the lower team number, and that will be the player’s salary for the upcoming season.

Got it so far? Good. Now, here’s why things may be a bit different this year.

In the past, a handful of teams employed a “file- and-trial” approach to arbitration. That meant that they treated the figure exchange date — today — as a hard deadline after which they refused to negotiate with the player and stood content to go to a hearing and let the arbitrators decide. Not many teams did this, mind you. Most famous for this in recent years have been the Blue Jays, Braves, Marlins, Rays, and White Sox. Everyone else negotiates.

Last fall, however, Ken Rosenthal reported something that got very little notice at the time: the players’ union believes that all 30 teams will take a “file-and-trial” approach to arbitration this winter. We don’t know that to be true, but the union thinks it so and Rosenthal, who is the best-connected reporter in the game and who tends not to put wild theories out there, gave it enough credence to run with it.

What would that mean practically? Obviously it would mean more arbitration hearings. Last year, when only a few teams did file-and-trial, there were more hearings than in any offseason for the past 25 years. If everyone does it there will be a lot of busy lawyers in February.

Conceptually speaking, it’s also indicative of a far more hardball approach by front offices. For two reasons:

  • It makes life more difficult for players and agents. By taking a file-and-trial approach, it makes the player and the agent work harder and earlier in order to be prepared to negotiate with the club before the file deadline (today). It also makes them work a lot harder to come up with a defensible filing number given that, rather than merely being an opening salvo in an extended negotiation, it’s something that they will certainly have to defend in open court; and
  • Since teams have greater resources than the players and the agents, and since it’s less painful for them to pay for lawyers and hearing prep and to conduct the actual hearing, it really puts pressure on the players to offer lower, more team-acceptable numbers. There’s risk to the team, of course — they might lose and pay more than a settlement would’ve cost — but teams are obviously concluding that the risk is worth it.

Not that teams are doing anything wrong by doing this, of course. Sure, one might wonder, if all 30 teams do go file-and-trial, how that decision came about — coincidence or . . . something else? — but the technique itself is all laid out in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. If they do this, the teams are merely exercising the rights they have, as negotiated.

But it’s also a fact that players hate arbitration hearings. And they can be uncomfortable for the baseball operations people too. To win, the team has to come and, basically, argue that the player isn’t as good as the player thinks he is.  That can create bad blood at times. And of course the mere fact of the arbitration hearing can be a distraction to players, who often have to leave spring training workouts to spend a few hours with their lawyers and agents and then sit in a conference room for the hearing. All a major drag.

A drag that, if the union is correct, could impact a heck of a lot more players this year than it has in the past.

Astros owner Jim Crane says MLB ‘explicitly exonerated’ him

Jim Crane
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Even during a pandemic, the Astros can’t seem to avoid putting their foot in their mouth. Per The Athletic’s Daniel Kaplan, Astros owner Jim Crane claimed in a legal filing on Monday that Major League Baseball “explicitly exonerated” him in the club’s 2017 sign-stealing scandal that resulted in a now-tainted championship.

Crane is named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed by former pitcher Mike Bolsinger, whose last appearance in the majors was on August 4, 2017 against the Astros. He faced eight batters, allowing four runs on four hits and three walks in one-third of an inning. Bolsinger accused the Astros of unfair business practices, negligence, and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations arising out of the sign-stealing scandal. Bolsinger is seeking damages for himself as well as for the Astros to forfeit the nearly $31 million in bonuses earned from winning the championship in 2017, asking for the money to be reallocated to children’s charities and retired players in need of financial assistance.

Commissioner Rob Manfred did not use the word “exonerated” in his report on the league’s investigation into the Astros’ cheating scheme. Manfred did, however, write, “At the outset, I also can say our investigation revealed absolutely no evidence that Jim Crane, the owner of the Astros, was aware of any of the conduct described in this report. Crane is extraordinarily troubled and upset by the conduct of members of his organization, fully supported my investigation, and provided unfettered access to any and all information requested.”

Saying that the league found “no evidence” that Crane was involved and patting Crane on the back for not obstructing the investigation is not the same was “explicitly exonerating” him. The Athletic asked MLB if it agreed with Crane’s characterization of the report. Rather than agreeing with Crane, the league simply said, “All of our comments about the investigation are included in the report.”

This isn’t the first legal filing in which the Astros made a questionable claim. Recently, Astros lawyers claimed the organization expressed “sincere apologies and remorse for the events described in the report by the Commissioner of Major League Baseball.”

In Monday’s filing, Astros lawyers swung at Bolsinger, citing his poor pitching performance overall in 2017. They wrote, “Plaintiff wants to have a California judge and jury literally call ball and strikes, and award him money damages based on rank conjecture about what might have happened to him in Houston on August 4, 2017 due to alleged rules violations he speculates may have occurred that day.”

Astros lawyers also questioned the frequency of the club’s cheating and its impact, writing, “Major League Baseball (‘MLB’) investigated alleged rule violations by the Astros related to sign-stealing, resulting in a January 13, 2020 report in which the Commissioner of Baseball expressly found that ‘it is impossible to determine whether the (Astros’) conduct actually impacted the results on the field. The MLB did not conclude that sign-stealing violations occurred in every game or even most at-bats in the 2017 season.”

Astros fan Tony Adams, who analyzed every home game during the 2017 regular season and posted the results on SignStealingScandal.com, found that there were 54 “bangs” on August 4 when Bolsinger pitched against the Astros. That was the highest total among all Astros home games that season. Bolsinger entered in the middle of the fourth inning, first facing Yuli Gurriel. Adams found three bangs — all on curve balls — in a plate appearance that ended in a walk. Adams found four more bangs — all on breaking balls — in a Brian McCann at-bat later that inning that also ended in a walk. Bolsinger then gave up a single to Tyler White, with trash can banging on a cut fastball and a curve. The next batter, Jake Marisnick, singled as well, hearing bangs on a cutter and a curve. Bolsinger finally got out of the inning when Bregman swung at a first-pitch curve (yes, there was a trash can bang for that) and flied out.

Importantly, Bolsinger’s lawyer notes that Crane’s motion makes MLB eligible for discovery. It is already eligible for discovery in New York federal court where the league is a defendant in a lawsuit brought by daily fantasy sports contestants. Bolsinger’s lawsuit is brought out of California state court. The Astros want Bolsinger’s lawsuit dismissed or at least moved to Texas.

Because the Astros can’t seem to stop making headlines for all the wrong reasons, this whole situation figures to get even more wild as time goes on. Due to discovery, we may end up learning even more about the Astros’ cheating ways than the league may have let on in their report on their investigation.