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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.

Phillies-Mets could get contentious tonight

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As the Mets were wrapping up a 9-0 shellacking of the Phillies on Tuesday night, reliever Jacob Rhame threw a pitch up and in to first baseman Rhys Hoskins with two outs in the ninth inning. The pitch sailed behind Hoskins’ back. The slugger wasn’t happy about the scare, understandably. Players began to trickle out of their respective dugouts, but a fracas was avoided.

Hoskins was skeptical that Rhame simply missed his spot. Per MLB.com’s Thomas Harrigan, Hoskins said, “He didn’t miss up and in the rest of the inning, so I’ll let you decide. I would assume teams are pitching me in because that’s where they think they can get me out, and that’s fine. That’s part of the game. Again, I think most guys are capable of pitching inside and not missing that bad.”

Teammate Bryce Harper said, “I don’t get it. I understand that two of their guys got hit yesterday. But, I mean, if it’s baseball and you’re going to drill somebody, at least hit him in the [butt]. Not in the head. You throw 98, it’s scary now. You could kill somebody. Lose your eyesight. That’s bigger than the game.”

Indeed, two Mets were hit by pitches on Monday night. José Álvarez hit Jeff McNeil in the seventh inning, which advanced a base runner. In the very next at-bat, Juan Nicasio hit Pete Alonso with a first-pitch fastball. It was obvious neither was intentional as the Phillies were only down two runs and hitting both batters advanced base runners and led to runs scoring. It is less obvious that Rhame’s pitch to Hoskins was unintentional, but he showed empathy in his post-game comments. Rhame said, “When you accidentally sail one, it’s probably pretty scary. I’d get [angry], too.”

Will Wednesday night’s series finale be contentious? Despite being “fairly upset,” Phillies manager Gabe Kapler said, “We do not retaliate, and we do not throw at anybody intentionally,” Jake Seiner of the Associated Press reports.

Mets manager Mickey Calloway didn’t give as straight an answer. Per MLB.com’s Anthony DiComo, Calloway said, “I think at this point, you just go out there and beat people, and win. … For now, I don’t feel like anything has been intentional at us that has warranted anything from our side.” If that changes, however, Calloway said, “They’re going to have each other’s backs.”

Hopefully, neither side decides to take justice into their own hands. But, welcome to the NL East in 2019. The Mets lead the Phillies by one game, and the Braves and Nationals by 1.5 games. It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out division fight all year long.