The Detroit Tigers have not gone to an arbitration hearing with a player since Dave Dombrowski first came to town as the team’s new president (and eventual general manager) in 2002. While we can’t say for certain, it’s probably safe to call this the longest streak in Major League Baseball.
And it may be at jeopardy in 2019. Michael Fulmer and the Tigers are still $600,000 apart in their negotiations for his salary for the upcoming season. According to Bob Nightengale of the USA Today, Fulmer filed for a $3.4 million salary, while the Tigers filed at $2.8 million. Matt Swartz of MLB Trade Rumors projected Fulmer to receive a $3 million salary in 2019.
If this sounds like the team is being cheap, that’s because they are. The Tigers have historically paid their arbitration eligible players at or slightly above Swartz’s projections, and have thus avoided arbitration hearings for the past 17 years. There have been close calls before — and Fulmer and the Tigers can still work out a deal in the meantime — but even going past the filing deadline with a player is uncommon for Detroit.
This year is different, though. Even before the team agreed to terms with five of their six arbitration eligible players, including Matthew Boyd and Nicholas Castellanos, those connected to the team suspected that the Tigers’ streak of avoiding arbitration hearings could come to an end this year.
Those discussions have included [legal counsel John] Westhoff, but he stepped into an advisory role this offseason after 16 seasons as the team’s baseball counsel. He’ll continue to give advice, Avila said, but the bulk of the arbitration work is now being handled by baseball operations director Sam Menzin, who worked closely with Westhoff in recent years, as well as associate counsel Alan Avila and the analytics team led by Jay Sartori. Like Westhoff, Sartori has experience with negotiations from his previous job at Major League Baseball, which included collective bargaining.
We have already seen the differences between Westhoff and the new regime in practice. Each of the five players the Tigers already settled with will earn less than the amount they were projected to receive, a rarity in previous years. Castellanos’s salary, in particular, came in more than $1 million lower than originally forecasted.
So why is this so important? Arbitration hearings can get rather personal, as the club often has to openly disparage their own player in order to argue for a lower salary for the upcoming season. We have seen several instances of players on other teams getting upset over what was said. New York’s Dellin Betances was one of the more recent examples.
“They take me in a room, and they trash me for about an hour and a half,” Betances said. “I thought that was unfair for me. I feel like I’ve done a lot for this organization, especially in these last three years. I’ve taken the ball time after time. Whenever they needed me, I was there for them.”
Personally, I would hate to see similar comments from Fulmer after an arbitration hearing, especially since the two sides are so close in their negotiations.
Again, there is time for the two to come to an agreement. The Tigers have gone right up to the last minute in a few cases in previous years, so it’s not time to hit the panic button. But the optics aren’t great right now, and we would hate to see the Tigers anger one of their stars over a fraction of their 2019 payroll.