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Baseball will settle its salary disputes in St. Pete next month. Here’s how.

MLB comes to town early with arbitration cases in St. Petersburg this year.
Outfielder Tommy Pham (29) is the only player going to an arbitration hearing with the Rays next month, when baseball holds arbitration hearings in St. Petersburg. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Jan. 30

ST. PETERSBURG — The sandwich line at the Locale Market in the Sundial shopping complex is going to be a little longer the next couple of weeks.

Before major-league teams get busy with opening spring training camps, some have important business to attend to, presenting and arguing the remaining dozen or so salary arbitration cases.

And with the hearings back in St. Petersburg this year under the biennial rotation with Phoenix, some big-name players, agents and club officials will be gathering at the Vinoy Renaissance hotel to pitch the reasons for their targeted number.

Colorado’s Nolan Arenado has the largest case, seeking a record $30 million salary while offered $24 million, though he and the team could settle near the midpoint. Of local interest, outfielder Tommy Pham asked for $4.1 million and the Rays, who don’t negotiate post-filing, offered $3.5 million.

The encampment started last Friday, when the first handful of Major League Baseball workers, and Locale food fans, came down to begin the preparations (setup, logistics, administrative) for the two-plus-week stay.

When the hearings commence, there will be 25 or so people seated around the long T-shaped table in a hotel conference room, with dozens more checking in or huddling elsewhere in the Tampa Bay area to do prep work for the next cases on the agenda.

The guest registry on any day includes the player, and maybe his wife. His agent, of course, plus staff from their office, and — especially if it’s a smaller firm — an outside consultant, with an assistant or two. The team sends at least one front office exec, though typically lets hired staff from an outside law or consulting firm, hired at a hefty rate, handle the actual presentation and rebuttal, creating a slight degree of separation.

There also are staff analysts and lawyers from both the players union and MLB’s labor relations department, who sit at the table and provide support to their sides.

And, of course, the three professional arbitrators, taking a break on a rotating basis from the usually more mundane labor cases they hear around the country, to pick between the two numbers in deciding how much the player makes.

“It’s just weird,’’ said pitcher Jake Odorizzi, who twice beat the Rays in arbitration hearings before being traded last spring to Minnesota. “It’s the closest thing to a court hearing than anything else. That’s really what it is. One side making their case against the other side. You hear the pros, you hear the cons. And there’s the panel of three people up there deciding your fate.’’

There are definite similarities, though not much courtroom drama. Each side gets an hour to make their case then, after a short break, 30 minutes for rebuttal arguments. The player’s side goes first both times, and gets the last word in brief closing statement.

Both sides bring binders to present their “evidence,” such as key stats (more basic than advanced analytics) and players (and their salaries) they considerable valid comparisons, a key to the process. They’re not required to share that info until the hearing commences, and as soon as they do, staffers from each side scurry out to prepare the rebuttals.

But what’s different in these proceedings is that the key people on the opposite sides of the argument are on the same team.

That puts the player in the uncomfortable position of listening to lawyers and analysts repping his team (though usually not his actual bosses) point out negative stats and other disparagements, then, win or lose, having to go back to happily work, and play, hard for them.

“It’s pretty much all negatives,’’ Odorizzi shared. “They start off with an introduction, they say they still like you as a player obviously because you’re still part of the team, and this and that. “And that’s when the law firm they hired starts going into why they don’t believe you’re worth what money you requested, and x, y, and z is why they believe that.

"Sitting on the other side of the table, you’re so pumped from hearing all the good things about you from your side that when the negative starts coming in it kind of (ticks) you off a little bit.’'

Teams have the information advantage, with bigger research staffs, resources to spend maybe $100,000 for outside counsel, and the benefit of strategic data MLB coordinates to help all teams properly position their cases.

Agents, operating more independently for their own client, have less to work with, though get some help from union staff and outside assistance, for which they may pay $10,000 to $60,000.

MLB and the union are heavily vested in the outcomes because so much about arbitration is based on precedent, and one ill-conceived case or settlement can become a comp used to impact numerous players in future years.

Since the 1974 implementation of arbitration, for players with three-five years’ service time in the majors (and a small group with two-plus), owners are ahead 320-243. The Rays are 6-4 overall; general counsel John Higgins initially was their lead rep, with baseball operations VP James Click taking over and thus far winless in three cases.

Hearings are usually considered the last resort (and sometimes even settled at the last minute at the hotel.) Teams and agents work for months researching their position and salary request, then typically negotiate only at the January filing deadline. For the Rays and an increasing number of teams also adopting a “file-and-trial” approach, that is the cut-off point for negotiating and they head next to a hearing, which are becoming more common of late.

The arbitrators listen to both sides, then have 24 hours to make a decision. MLB actually gives them a contract signed by player and a team official with the salary blank, and once they decided between the two numbers (they can’t suggest a compromise) they fill in the amount and send it back to the MLB officials, who notify both sides, who announce the result.

As the principals shuffle in for the next hearing, the staff regroups. And usually finds time to grab a sandwich.

Contact Marc Topkin at mtopkin@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Rays.

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