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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:

MLBPA proposes 114-game season, playoff expansion to MLB

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ESPN’s Jeff Passan reports that the Major League Baseball Players Association has submitted a proposal to the league concerning the 2020 season. The proposal includes a 114-game season with an end date on October 31, playoff expansion for two years, the right for players to opt out of the season, and a potential deferral of 2020 salaries if the postseason were to be canceled.

Passan clarifies that among the players who choose to opt out, only those that are considered “high risk” would still receive their salaries. The others would simply receive service time. The union also proposed that the players receive a non-refundable $100 million sum advance during what would essentially be Spring Training 2.

If the regular season were to begin in early July, as has often been mentioned as the target, that would give the league four months to cram in 114 games. There would have to be occasional double-headers, or the players would have to be okay with few off-days. Nothing has been mentioned about division realignment or a geographically-oriented schedule, but those could potentially ease some of the burden.

Last week, the owners made their proposal to the union, suggesting a “sliding scale” salary structure. The union did not like that suggestion. Players were very vocal about it, including on social media as Max Scherzer — one of eight players on the union’s executive subcommittee — made a public statement. The owners will soon respond to the union’s proposal. They almost certainly won’t be happy with many of the details, but the two sides can perhaps find a starting point and bridge the gap. As the calendar turns to June, time is running out for the two sides to hammer out an agreement on what a 2020 season will look like.