The showdown between the Orioles and Alejandro De Aza over a salary difference of $650,000 is set for this afternoon. The two sides have been headed for this since numbers were exchanged last month, which is not the way things usually go for the O's. They offered a salary of $5 million while De Aza's side requested $5.65 million in this, his final year of arbitration before becoming a free agent. Last season, he made $4.25 million.
An arbitration hearing boils down to the two sides making a case to a panel of three people based on what comparable players in performance and service time have made. De Aza's side will argue that he is like so-and-so player who made the higher amount of money, while the Orioles will say that he is more like another player who made the lower amount of money. It's an all-or-nothing process in that the arbitrators can only decide on one number or the other. The time for compromise is over as soon as they walk into the room.
Present Orioles general counsel H. Russell Smouse is 7-0 in arbitration hearings since taking over that role with the team. That spans nearly two decades. It is unusual for the O's to head to a hearing with one of their players. The last time they did so was in 2012, when they were unable to settle a contract with Brad Bergesen, who wanted $1.2 million while the team offered $800,000.
Bergesen lost, which was not surprising to anyone who had looked at his post-rookie year statistics. Apparently that group did not include Bergesen.
This year, the Orioles managed to settle ten arbitration-eligible players without needing to go to a hearing. De Aza is the lone exception. Most of the time, there is mutual interest in coming to a settlement. You never really know what's going to happen after an arbitration hearing. Just yesterday, Mark Trumbo beat the Diamondbacks and collected a raise of $2.1 million up to a $6.9 million salary despite the fact that he was a negative-value player last season, and played in only 88 games to boot. The team's offer of $5.3 million was deemed insufficient.
Another reason to avoid a hearing is that it amounts to the player sitting there hearing the team talk about why he sucks, or at least why he's not as good as he thinks he is. Nobody wants to sit there and hear that.
There are some teams don't care about that at all. They'll play hardball and are known as "file and trial" teams, meaning if things get to the point where salary numbers are exchanged, they cut off negotiations and go to a hearing, even though it's a month away. A player's agent has to decide between whatever is the team's last offer or the chance that he will go to a hearing and lose and his client will get a lower salary.
This seems to have been a more prevalent strategy this winter as there have been more hearings than the past three years combined, or perhaps the player side has been more willing to take their chances against file and trial teams. For some, money was probably left on the table. The Pirates took two players to hearings over differences of $200,000 and $500,000 and lost in both, although they also won one case with a difference of $1 million, so I guess the team came out ahead.
So what about De Aza? Well, there's no one exactly like him, just like there's no one exactly like any player. If he's going to win, his side is going to have to overcome the fact that he's perfectly average at the plate over the past three years, a .266/.329/.401 batting line that's good for an OPS+ of 100. Defensive measures are split on him: Baseball Reference gives him negative defensive value, whereas Fangraphs places him as generally OK.
His defense probably won't matter much either way as the tendency is for back of the baseball card statistics to hold the most sway, because that's what held sway when the process began and it's all about precedent and comparisons. That explains the Trumbo outcome mentioned above: He has 109 career home runs. Arbitrators love dingers.
On the back of his baseball card, what De Aza have is a combined 80 doubles, 18 triples, and 34 home runs with 153 RBI over the past three years as a full-time player, with 63 stolen bases on top of that. That's OK, and OK does get you a raise in arbitration, but maybe not as big of a raise as you'd like.
The Orioles case will probably be that none of these feats are especially noteworthy, and except for the triples, they'd be right. De Aza has been caught stealing 30 times while trying for those 63 steals. That is not a good percentage. Then again, maybe the arbitrators will feel that De Aza's brand of OK is worth the bigger raise. It's always possible. A relatively small gap makes for a thin margin between one side's case and the other.
Smart money is not on whoever takes on the O's in an arbitration hearing. If they do lose, though, it's not going to be all that significant in the grand scheme of things. It's not like if they were facing a $2+ million gap like they did before they settled with Zach Britton or Steve Pearce.
Win or lose, they probably won't be putting that $650,000 into any particular use, though they could probably stand to spend some of it to get people into the ticket office who can handle dramatically increased interest in the team.
Typically, the decision is rendered quickly after the hearing is over, so we'll know who has triumphed by day's end. De Aza is going to end the day with at least $5 million more coming to him no matter what, so he really can't lose, even if he doesn't win the hearing. That is a good place to be. We should all be so lucky.