The Orioles began Friday with three players still left to settle for 2020 contracts, facing an afternoon deadline to either agree to terms with those players or swap salary arbitration numbers.
As first reported by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale, the team agreed on a 2020 contract with Mychal Givens for $3.225 million. A bit later in the day, MLB.com’s Joe Trezza reported that the O’s and Hanser Alberto settled for a $1.65 million 2020 salary. That left only Mancini. News of his agreement was first reported by MASN’s Roch Kubatko. The Athletic’s Dan Connolly said Mancini and the Orioles agreed at $4.75 million.
Teams and players are still allowed to negotiate if they want up until a hearing begins. However, a recent trend among teams is to employ a “file and trial” strategy, meaning that the team will not do any further negotiating once today’s deadline has passed. The Orioles seem to have adopted this trend in the Mike Elias era. It’s a negotiating tactic meant to drive down player salaries by giving more leverage to a team’s “take it or leave it” offer.
Before this trend became common and eventually near-universal, there was more of a general belief that it was better to avoid often-contentious hearings that amount to a team arguing why a player isn’t actually that good and why he doesn’t deserve the money his agent is arguing for. This typically led to teams and players settling on salaries near the midpoint of the two salary numbers that were filed for the hearing.
Those days seem to be over, at least for now. Teams have collectively cracked the code on how to win arbitration hearings and are now acting accordingly. Once things go to a hearing, it’s more of an all-or-nothing outcome. The two sides file numbers and the arbitrator picks one or the other. For more modest performers earlier in their careers, the difference could be a few hundred thousand dollars. For stars in their last year of arbitration, the difference could be millions of dollars.
The Orioles had already had a strong record of success in hearings even before “file and trial,” though they did lose a hearing involving Brad Brach in 2017. Recent years have even seen MLB privately awarding a championship belt to the team that best keeps its arbitration salaries low, though the practice was apparently halted after it was publicized last spring.
The Orioles entered the offseason with seven arbitration-eligible players. They traded Jonathan Villar and Dylan Bundy before 2020 contracts were tendered. Richard Bleier settled for a $915,000 salary early in the offseason, while the O’s and Castro settled at $1.05 million just last night. Staring down the day of the deadline, they got things sorted out with Alberto and Mancini, both in their first years of arbitration eligibility, and Givens, in his second year of eligibility.
The fortunes of the 2020 Orioles will not be impacted very much by these salaries being settled where they were. In some of the Dan Duquette years, there were so many arbitration-eligible players getting significant raises that the team’s payroll escalated without even adding players from outside the organization. They chose not to aim for top-tier free agents as a result.
The 2020 Orioles already weren’t going to try to improve with big name free agents. The only real question was how much they’d slash the budget, ostensibly to improve the team’s scouting and analytics infrastructure and/or to stash money for more competitive years.
The trades of Villar and Bundy, projected by MLB Trade Rumors for $10.4 million and $5.7 million, respectively, provided that answer. After the 2020 season, if Mancini hasn’t been traded before then, the same dance will be done about him. The better he does in 2020, the more of a raise he’ll be in line for headed to 2021.
Though Villar’s projected $10.4 million 2020 salary drove a lot of the conversation about how he “had” to be traded rather than have a going-nowhere team pay him that much money, he ended up settling with the Marlins for $8.2 million, according to Jon Heyman. O’s fans can only hope lefty pitching prospect Easton Lucas, for whom Villar was traded, turns into a useful piece for the team’s future. And hey, maybe newly-signed Jose Iglesias will be fun to watch, too.