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Understanding Major League Baseball’s Salary Arbitration System

The following article was a guest contribution by an author who wishes to remain anonymous.

Under MLB’s current collective bargaining agreement (CBA), a player with at least three but less than six years of Major League service is eligible for salary arbitration. A player with more than two years but less than three years of Major League service may also qualify for salary arbitration as a “Super 2” if he “has accumulated at least 86 days of service during the immediately preceding season” and “he ranks in the top seventeen percent in total service” of players who fit the service requirements for “Super 2” eligibility. Free agents (generally, a player may become a free agent if the player has six or more years of Major League service and is not under contract) may also avail themselves of the salary arbitration process, but their participation in salary arbitration is beyond the scope of this entry.

At the time salary arbitration was first implemented in 1973, Charlie Finley, a former owner of the Oakland A’s, said: “We’ll be the nation’s biggest assholes if we do this.” Citing Charlie Finley’s disapproval and the massive pay increases of first-year salary arbitration eligible players, many sports writers, such as Maury Brown, the founder and president of the Business of Sports Network, have concluded that “salary arbitration almost exclusively benefits the players.” See Breaking Down How Salary Arbitration Functions in MLB.

In his recent blog entry, Debunking Salary Arbitration Myths – Part 1, Jay Reisinger, a partner at Farrell, Reisinger & Stallings and manager of the firm’s sports law practice, discredited the notion that MLB’s salary arbitration system favors players and hurts owners. Mr. Reisinger revealed that, by focusing on the huge raises of first-year salary arbitration eligible players, that position is misleading. According to Mr. Reisinger, an accurate understanding of the salary arbitration system also acknowledges the equally significant benefits conferred upon clubs.

For instance, clubs exercise a certain amount of control over arbitration eligible players. Clubs can tender or non-tender the player, at their discretion, depending on the player’s expected salary in the arbitration system. If the player’s expected salary in arbitration is higher than his value to the club, the club can non-tender the player and make him a free-agent. If, on the other hand, the player’s expected salary in arbitration is roughly equal or lower than his value to the club, the club can tender the player a contract. If the player is unsatisfied with the offer, his only recourse is to submit his salary to final and binding arbitration. Basically, from a club’s perspective, arbitration is a low risk affair because the club has already determined that the player’s expected salary in arbitration is roughly equal or lower than his value to the club.

Another major benefit discussed by Mr. Reisinger is that clubs are protected. The key criterion in salary arbitration proceedings is the comparative baseball salaries of players “with Major League service not exceeding one annual service group” above that of the player going to arbitration. In essence, the arbitration panel tries to determine where the particular player fits within a very narrow market of players which does not include players who have accrued significant raises through free agency. Clubs, therefore, are shielded from free market forces and their inflationary effect.

Rather than a system that benefits players and hurts owners, Mr. Reisinger sees the arbitration system as a necessary compromise between two parties pursuing divergent interests through collective bargaining. Generally clubs want competitive balance and bargain for a protectionist regime that includes more restrictions on player mobility and player compensation. Players want to increase their earning capacity and bargain for a laissez faire approach. Ultimately, how good or bad the salary arbitration system is depends on your point of view, and on how well you deem the system to be protecting your specific interests as a club owner or a player. As a baseball fan, one can only hope the league and the players union avoid a strike or lockout by reaching an agreement once the current CBA expires.

In order to truly understand the salary arbitration system, it helps to look at its role as part of MLB’s larger monetary structure. Ed Edmonds, the Associate Dean for Library and Information Technology at Notre Dame Law School, explains the impact of salary arbitration on a MLB player’s salary life cycle and, consequently, on a team’s roster in his Marquette Sports Law Review article A Most Interesting Part of Baseball’s Monetary Structure – Salary Arbitration in its Thirty-Fifth Year (Fall 2009 Volume).

As Mr. Edmonds points out, the current CBA divides all players into three groups: 1) players controlled under the reserve clause, 2) players eligible for salary arbitration prior to free agency, and 3) free agents. What sets each group apart is the amount of leverage each group has with respect to their employer or potential employers. Players controlled under the reserve clause have no leverage. They are bound to one team and play for around the league minimum. That player’s salary bears no resemblance to the player’s market value. Mr. Edmonds offers Tim Lincecum as an example. Lincecum received $405,000 in 2008, his first year in the majors (the league minimum was $390,000). After putting up dazzling numbers (18-5 record with a 2.62 ERA and 265 strikeouts in 227 innings pitched), Lincecum only managed to increase his salary to $650,000 in 2009.

Free agents are on the opposite side of the spectrum. Being able to consider multiple offers gives free agents substantial leverage, which they can use to drive up their price tag. To illustrate the effect of free agency status on a player’s salary, Mr. Reisinger compares C.C. Sabathia to Tim Lincecum in his blog entry. Even though Lincecum is statistically similar to Sabathia, Lincecum recently signed a two-year, $23 million contract that will cover his first two arbitration eligible years, meanwhile Sabathia will make $23 million in the 2010 season alone.

Salary arbitration eligible players “occupy the middle group between players with no leverage and those . . . with substantial leverage.” The arbitration process offers them an opportunity to earn a significant raise yet their compensation remains below market value. One example Mr. Edmonds uses is Prince Fielder. In 2007, his second year of Major League service, Fielder was 3rd in the MVP race. Fielder earned salary of $670,000 in 2008. After another outstanding campaign in 2008 and armed with the leverage of salary arbitration, Fielder signed an $18 million, two-year contract prior to the 2009 season.

It’s true, the salary arbitration process usually results in substantial raises for first year eligible players (e.g., Fielder received $6.5 million in 2009 – a 870% raise). However, the substantial raise a player experiences once he is eligible for salary arbitration is a function of the suppressed salaries he received in his first 3 seasons without leverage. In 1973, Charlie Finley and other owners enjoyed considerable restraints on player mobility and player compensation. Then the time to compromise arrived. The current arbitration system is a result of that compromise.

By Darren Heitner

Darren Heitner created Sports Agent Blog as a New Year's Resolution on December 31, 2005. Originally titled, "I Want To Be A Sports Agent," the website was founded with the intention of causing Heitner to learn more about the profession that he wanted to join, meet reputable individuals in the space and force himself to stay on top of the latest news and trends.

Heitner now runs Heitner Legal, P.L.L.C., which is a law firm with many practice areas, including sports law and contract law. Heitner has represented numerous athletes and sports agents as legal counsel. He has also served as an Adjunct Professor at Indiana University Bloomington from 2011-2014, where he created and taught a course titled, Sport Agency Management, which included subjects ranging from NCAA regulations to athlete agent certification and the rules governing the profession. Heitner serves as an Adjunct Professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law, where he teaches a Sports Law class that includes case law surrounding athlete agents and the NCAA rules.

3 replies on “Understanding Major League Baseball’s Salary Arbitration System”

Is it true that a salary awarded in arbitration is not guaranteed and if the team would cut him before opening day, he is only awared 1/6th of his arbitration salary ?

So what happens if the team and the player agree to a contract before the arbitrator rules? I know some players had 2 year deals and then they sign a one year deal before arbitration that makes no sense why would a team want a player for 1 less year?

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