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MLB awards championship belt to the team which keeps salaries lowest in arbitration

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During the offseason we chronicled how hard a line teams have taken in free agency when, theoretically, players have the most leverage they’ll ever get. During spring training, as contracts were being renewed, we talked about how hard a line teams are taking toward players in their first three years of service time, when teams have full control of salaries and players have no leverage.

Today at The Athletic, Marc Carig talks about that middle period, arbitration, in which there is, again, theoretically, equal leverage between clubs and players when it comes to the setting of salaries. A scripted-out process in which offers are exchanged, settlement is strongly encouraged and, if no settlement can be reached, a hearing is held to set the salary.

Except, as Carig notes, the sharp, zero-sum tactics clubs have taken in free agency and with pre-arb players is now filtering into arbitration as well. Rather than negotiate — which the system was intentionally set up to encourage — clubs are increasingly making arbitration a fully-adversarial process, adopting the file-and-trial strategy as a means of avoiding negotiations. Teams have increasingly coordinated — which is allowed in arbitration — and have established recommended limits to settlement numbers and have signaled to one another that it’s better to fight over pennies in arbitration than settle for a penny over the recommended figure. While agents can coordinate too, they are outgunned in money and manpower and, because they compete against one another for clients, the cannot match MLB’s lockstep approach.

If you think this is anything other than a challenge to pay the players as little as they can legally get away with, get a load of this:

The​ Belt changes hands shortly​ after season’s​ end,​ in a crowded​ conference​ room​ at​ a luxury resort,​ where​ delegates​ from every​​ MLB team have been summoned for a symposium on arbitration. For three hours, they will work together at the direction of the league to set recommendations, which teams will use in negotiations with their players. It’s a thankless job. So before the meeting adjourns, they’ll celebrate an unsung hero in this battle over dollars. The ceremony ends with the presentation of a replica championship belt, awarded by the league to the team that did most to “achieve the goals set by the industry.” In other words: The team that did the most to keep salaries down in arbitration.

Yes, an actual belt. There have been rumors about this for some time — when I went to that arbitration competition last year I spoke to people who mentioned it — but thanks to Carig’s excellent reportage, Major League Baseball has now admitted that that’s a thing.

Whenever money matters come up, people who take ownership’s side said say “hey, it’s a business.” What they fail to understand is that while, yes, it’s all about the money, in some respects beating the players and holding down salaries as much as possible is a game to them too.

UPDATE: Tony Clark and the MLBPA have weighed in:

George Springer’s lack of hustle was costly for Houston

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George Springer hit a big home run for the Astros last night. It was his fifth straight World Series game with a homer. That’s good! But he also did something less-than-good.

In the bottom of the eighth, with the Astros down 5-3, Springer was batting with Kyle Tucker on second and one out. He sent a breaking ball from Daniel Hudson deep, deep, deep to right-center field but . . . it was not deep enough. It rattled off the wall. Springer ended up with a double.

Except, he probably has a triple if, rather than crow-hop out of the box and watch what he thought would be a home run, he had busted it out of the box. Watch:

After that José Altuve flied out. Maybe it would’ve been deep enough to score Springer form third, tying the game, maybe it wouldn’t have, but Springer being on second mooted the matter.

After the game, Springer defended himself by saying that he had to hold up because the runner on second had to hold up to make sure the ball wasn’t caught before advancing. That’s sort of laughable, though, because Springer was clearly watching what he thought was a big blast, not prudently gauging the pace of his gait so as not to pass a runner on the base paths. He, like Ronald Acuña Jr. in Game 1 of the NLDS, was admiring what he thought was a longball but wasn’t. Acuña, by the way, like Springer, also hit a big home run in his team’s losing Game 1 cause, so the situations were basically identical.

Also identical, I suspect, is that both Acuña and Springer’s admiring of their blasts was partially inspired by the notion that, in the regular season, those balls were gone and were not in October because of the very obviously different, and deader, baseball MLB has put into use. It does not defend them not running hard, but it probably explains why they thought they had homers.

Either way: a lot of the baseball world called out Acuña for his lack of hustle in that game against the Cardinals. I can’t really see how Springer shouldn’t be subjected to the same treatment here.