For all of MLB’s constructive efforts to improve its game and image, the recent drama between the Milwaukee Brewers and star Corbin Burnes showed that some of the practices the league and its teams continue to embrace defy common sense.
One of the biggest of these is the renewed emphasis in recent years on adhering to hard lines regarding arbitration-eligible players across the board, including stars in some cases, and risking bad blood through the often ugly hearing process.
Take the case of Corbin Burnes, a Cy Young winner in 2021 and perhaps the Milwaukee Brewers’ best hope at returning to the playoffs this year after missing the postseason (by one game) for the first time in Burnes’ big-league career last year.
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“There’s no denying that the relationship is definitely hurt from what transpired over the last couple weeks,” Burnes told reporters in Arizona after losing his arbitration hearing with the team following back-to-back All-Star seasons (via video from mlb.com‘s Adam McCalvy).
Burnes, whose 2.94 ERA was 10th in the NL and who led the league in starts and strikeouts, suggested the Milwaukee Brewers blamed him for not making the playoffs.
“Obviously, we’re professionals, and we’re going to go out there and do our job and keep giving what I can every fifth day that I go out there,” he said. “But some of the things that were said — for instance, basically putting me in the forefront of the reason we didn’t make the postseason last year. That’s something that probably doesn’t need to be said.”
The problem with Milwaukee Brewers and Corbin Burnes’ offseason fiasco
The Brewers saved all of $740,000 — barely the cost of a minimum-salary rookie — by winning the case in order to pay Burnes $10.01 million this year instead of the $10.75 million he sought.
But at what larger cost by damaging the relationship? That’s a ridiculous tradeoff. Especially considering that pitchers who do what he does are getting in some cases more than three (see: Jacob deGrom, Carlos Rodon) or even four times that annual salary in free agency (see: Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer).
But this penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to arbitration isn’t just about the Brewers — though this might be one of the best examples of the foolishness level. Splitting hairs over some valuations with a reliever, a fifth starter, a No. 8 hitter, or taking them to a hearing, sure. But one of the best starters in the game? A guy you might have an interest in keeping around long-term? A guy you might need more than anyone else on your roster to return to the playoffs?
Negotiate the middle ground — even give him what he’s asking for. God knows there’s enough money in the game to handle it, even for the Milwaukee Brewers.
But try to avoid this post-hearing result at all costs with a player like that: “When it came to winning or losing the hearing, it was more than that for me,” Burnes said.
The Ugly history of MLB hardline arbitration
This has become a festering issue league-wide in recent years, as well as showing a classic disrespect for one’s own history (or maybe just one’s players).
Teams have been under increasing pressure from the league and peers in recent years to draw hard lines on arbitration settlements, with the guidelines MLB’s Labor Relations Department (LRD) analysts spit out annually for arbitration-player values getting treated increasingly like MLB directives.
What people in baseball called “file and trial” is part of that process: the unwillingness to negotiate once the deadline for exchanging numbers passes. It’s a tactic used more often by more teams than even a decade ago and one more hardball tactic by teams to hold down salaries — sometimes over an unwillingness to compromise on $100,000 or less.
Last year, when arbitration hearings were held during the season because of delays caused by the labor lockout, the big-revenue Cubs shut down talks with their star catcher, Willson Contreras, and avoided a hearing only when they reopened talks 11th hour the day before a scheduled June hearing and settled.
“The only thing that surprised me is that they’re willing to go in my last year,” said Contreras who would go on to become the NL’s starting catcher for the third time in the last four All-Star games — and then sign an $87.5 million free agent deal with the rival Cardinals.
The silly and even embarrassing levels that teams have gone to in their compliance efforts were illustrated in 2019 when a report by The Athletic revealed the annual awarding by peers of a cheap, replica “championship belt” to the team that did the best job keeping salaries down in arbitration.
Nobody with a stake in keeping the game healthy, not to mention the relationships between players and management, should see that as cute or funny if they appreciate the long, ugly history of arbitration hardball.
Much like Burnes’ case this year, the Cubs in 1985 beat first baseman Leon Durham in arbitration but only after insinuating he cost them the pennant by including his infamous Game 5 error in the playoffs as part of their presentation. An argument that provoked an angry response from Durham’s agent during the hearing.
“I thought it was the worst thing they could have done,” Durham said afterward.
A few years later, Milwaukee third baseman Jim Gantner listened to the Brewers rip him as he sat silently fuming during the hearing, then afterward confronted Brewers general manager Harry Dalton: “If you feel that way about me, why don’t you trade me?”
Consider that the team’s baseball ops head and the player are both required to attend the hearing.
“There’s a part of the process where you feel like you’re the best player in the world, and there’s a part of the process where you feel like you’re the worst player in the world,” Cubs outfielder Ian Happ said.
He won his case in 2021.
“I think it’s a lot easier when you win,” said Happ, who currently is in negotiations with the Cubs on a possible extension, team president Jed Hoyer confirmed to reporters in Arizona this week.
The thing is teams have the ability and certainly the resources to make it easier on everyone involved and better pick their fights with players instead of engaging in this corporate-style, dehumanizing hardline practices.
Are these hard lines really going to have a significant impact on salary structures and provide meaningful results in a $12 billion-a-year industry? Are the Mets and Padres going to spend any less on extensions and free agents?
Does anybody actually consider the risk-reward factors without leaning on algorithms or the LRD? “I think there were obviously other ways that they could have gone about it, and probably been a little more respectful,” Burnes said. “Some of the stuff that was said definitely didn’t need to be said.”
Gordon Wittenmyer covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. You can follow him on Twitter at @GDubCub.