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Here’s why Michael Fulmer’s arbitration case should be settled without a hearing

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Both sides win if Fulmer’s arbitration case is settled quickly

Detroit Tigers v Chicago White Sox Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

All the numbers are in, and the Detroit Tigers have managed to settle five of their remaining six contract negotiations with players who are eligible for arbitration. Nicholas Castellanos, Shane Greene, Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris, and Blaine Hardy have all come to terms with the ballclub. The Tigers earlier released pitchers Alex Wilson and catcher James McCann, who were also eligible.

The signings leave only Michael Fulmer potentially headed for an arbitration hearing, and that matter should be settled as well. He is one of just 15 players out of 187 who filed to not reach an agreement with his team by Friday’s deadline to exchange salary figures. The group includes the Rockies’ Nolan Arenado, the Indians’ Trevor Bauer, the Astros’ Gerrit Cole and Carlos Correa, the Phillies’ Aaron Nola, the Yankees’ Luis Severino, and the A’s Blake Treinen. All of those players had excellent seasons in 2018.

Fulmer requested a salary of $ 3.4 million for the 2019 season. The Tigers offered $ 2.8 million. He was projected by Major league trade rumors to receive a salary of $ 3.0 million. These are all reasonable numbers, and a good case could be made for either side. With a difference of $ 600,000 between them, it is not in the interest of either side to let this matter proceed to a hearing, which would take place in February. Here is why:

From the Tigers’ perspective, Fulmer is potentially their best starting pitcher, having already challenged for the American League’s ERA title in his rookie season. With four seasons of arbitration ahead of him, starting this summer, he could be a key part of their starting rotation even as their younger pitching prospects graduate to the major leagues.

Arbitration hearings can be a stressful and uncomfortable process for players to go through. The club needs to convince a panel of arbitrators that their player is not worth the money that he is asking for, even as salaries skyrocket all around the major leagues. Fulmer, who would be in the room during a hearing, shouldn’t get too upset if he has to listen to the club pointing out his prior injuries, his recent surgery, or his sub par season in 2018. However, there are certainly cases that have left bad blood as poison in the player-team relationship.

For both sides, going to arbitration means that they could lose, rather than settling on a reasonable amount somewhere in the middle. Plus, the Tigers have that tidy streak of no arbitration hearings that has now endured 18 seasons, which helps to present the club as a reasonable negotiating partner.

For Fulmer, Detroit could be his pitching home for at least four more seasons, barring a trade. He also would like to be on peaceful terms with his employer, and get on with preparing for the 2019 season. His best path to long-term prosperity is to pitch well, stay healthy and build his profile for next season and beyond. Having the cloud of an arbitration hearing hanging over his head doesn’t help in that endeavor.

Both sides understand that future arbitration salaries are greatly dependent on prior salaries, so the first season of arbitration is important for future seasons as well, particularly in a case like Fulmer’s where his super two status means that he will have four seasons of arbitration eligibility, rather than the customary three seasons.

For Fulmer’s agent, BBI sports, going to trial would cost them about $ 50,000 to litigate as indicated by ESPN’s Jeff Passan. If they are receiving a five percent commission, that adds up to $150,000 on a one year, $3.0 million salary. So they would be spending a third of their commission on a hearing. If the matter was resolved at the Tigers offer of $2.8 million, the agency’s cut is $140,000. They would be spending $50,000 to earn a possible $30,000 extra. (The five percent commission here is assumed, but very standard).

Of course, an agent should always be acting in the best interest of their client, but let’s not pretend that they don’t glance at their own bottom line before sitting down at the bargaining table. BBI boasts “$275 million in deals” and 15 first round draft picks since starting the firm in 2010. They list eleven major league players as their clients, including former Tiger Ian Kinsler.

If the Tigers knew that Fulmer would be healthy all season, they should gladly be willing to meet Fulmer’s demands. And yet, he started 24 games in 2018, which is nine or ten starts shy of a full season’s quota over a 162 game schedule.

The two sides would be well advised to either find a number somewhere in the middle, around $3.0 to $3.1 million. They could also guarantee a lower base and add performance incentives based on games started or innings pitched. This would minimize the risk for the club of paying for a pitcher who is on the disabled list, while allowing him to earn the salary that he is asking for, or very close to it. There are plenty of options to allow both sides to leave the process happy. Expect them to work it out well before an arbitration hearing looms.