Arbitration shouldn’t go anywhere

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The greatest evidence that exists in favor of arbitration is that Major League Baseball wants to do away with it. It’s not a perfect system, no, given the arbitrators themselves are inconsistent, and MLB spends an awful lot of time coaching up its teams on specific talking points so that they can defend their positions, but in aggregate, there is a reason that the Players Association is in favor of keeping an arbitration system in place, while the league would love very much to be done with it.

Even in an offseason like this one, where the players were trounced in arbitration itself, the system still allows for teams to negotiate with players — for players to ask for more than they could without the threat of an arbitration hearing in place — and end up with a higher salary than they would have with no such event looming in the distance. As I wrote back in 2019 for Deadspin:

Arbitration is vital to making baseball’s economic system work. It imposes a one-on-one negotiation between team and player, and also a solution should that negotiation break down: a third-party arbitrator who can rule that one side or the other is being ridiculous in their demands. Other sports have restricted free agency for younger players, but while that might work for the NBA, where nearly every team is hovering near the salary cap (or using every convoluted legal measure possible to exceed it), far too many MLB teams don’t want to be even $50-75 million near the luxury tax. Arbitration, hobbled by overt league-directed collusion though it may be, can force teams to spend money they have even when don’t want to.

That article was about ways to fix MLB’s broken economics, and the arbitration-focused solution was to have more of it, not less: reduce how long it takes to get to arbitration, which would increase pre-free agency salaries and force clubs like the Pirates, A’s, Rays, and Marlins — all of which have a grievance filed against for not spending revenue-sharing dollars — to spend more. Improving arbitration didn’t gain any traction despite the PA’s efforts in the last round of collective bargaining, but they manage to vastly improve conditions and increase pay for pre-arb players, so at least that occurred to force some things in a similar direction.

MLB doesn’t actually want to improve arbitration in any way, because they want it dead and gone. So, the PA can (and should continue to) submit reasonable proposals to improve the efficacy of the system, if for no other reason than to make it clear that MLB has no interest in making it work as intended. They should not — and it certainly does not seem like they will — reduce the effectiveness of arbitration further through concessions, or agree to scrap it entirely and start over with something new, like MLB’s algorithmic bullshit they’ve been trying to push through in various forms for around three decades now.

MLB is going to keep trying to kill arbitration. They’ve been trying to do it since the practice was first instituted: along with the idea of free agency in general, arbitration has been one of the major stumbling blocks in the way of their wish to return as much of their feudalistic control over players as possible.

As Ken Rosenthal reported at The Athletic, the league is willing to get rid of it all and start over, but that’s nothing new, and shouldn’t be treated as such. That’s just their standard operating procedure when it comes to arbitration, so statements like this one…

“During the last round of bargaining, MLB proposed replacing salary arbitration with a formulaic approach that would have paid more money to arbitration-eligible players in aggregate. That proposal was rejected,” a league spokesperson said. “We continue to believe that the salary arbitration system creates unnecessary acrimony between Clubs and players and wastes an enormous amount of time and money. We would welcome the opportunity to discuss changes to the system.”

…should be considered meaningless noise. The union disagreed at the time that MLB’s solution would pay more “in aggregate,” and that belief was reiterated again to Rosenthal in Monday’s article. I feel strongly enough about the importance of arbitration that I wrote back in December of 2021 that if the PA was forced to choose between proposals that would improve arbitration and those that would improve free agency, they should choose the former. Again, the system isn’t perfect, but any new system MLB wants to introduce in its place is going to be even more of an issue than what’s in place, and not in the way that rewards players. Bo Bichette, quoted in Rosenthal’s reporting, might not like it, but all that means is that someone from the union has to explain to him why it’s important that the system remains in place.

Which makes it just like any other issue the union faces: getting everyone on the same page (or, at least, enough of the union to ensure the votes go the right way when such a time comes) is the work that has to go down in between new collective bargaining agreements. If some players are enticed by MLB’s words and proposals to replace the system, well, that’s something the union has to (and surely is) handling internally, so that its members have the information and education they need to understand why it’s important to hear the meaning behind MLB’s words on this topic.

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