Maybe It’s A Bad Idea To Alienate Your Best Player In Order To Save Some Pocket Change
9:09 AM EST on February 17, 2023
The Milwaukee Brewers and homegrown ace Corbin Burnes were not very far apart, in absolute terms, on their proposals for a fair salary for the 2023 baseball season. Burnes, a 28-year-old two-time all-star who won the National League Cy Young award in 2021 and led the NL in strikeouts in 2022, figured he was worth $10.75 million for the upcoming season, and while that might look like a lot of moolah to a blog-reading jerk such as yourself, for an excellent starting pitcher it's approximately bupkis: That salary would've made Burnes the 52nd-highest paid starting pitcher for the upcoming season.
The Brewers want to keep Burnes, and more importantly have already done what is formally required in order to keep a player with fewer than six seasons of major-league service time under team control, by tendering a contract offer before the Jan. 13 deadline for arbitration-eligible players. Because Burnes's salary request and Milwaukee's salary offer did not match and the two sides could not negotiate a compromise, the issue was put before a three-person arbitration panel Tuesday, per MLB's collectively bargained process. The job of the panel is to look at the competing figures, listen to arguments, and then issues a ruling. So how far apart were the proposals? The Brewers held fast at $10.01 million. Once again, to a miserable office drone such as yourself, $749,000 might seem like a lot of cash for an employer to hand over without a fight, but here I must note that the Brewers are on the hook for $106 million in big-league salaries this year, which is about $40 million below the average team payroll for the 2023 season, and is less than halfway to the $233 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold. They can afford it.
The Brewers emerged from the hearing victorious, and Burnes's salary goes onto the books for the 2023 season set at $10.01 million, good for 55th among starting pitchers. Was it worth it? The savings will not buy the team anything of value to Brewers fans. But, hey, at least the process—the Brewers making a formal presentation to an arbiter explaining why their best player is not good enough to be paid like the 52nd-best player at his position—led to the combustion of what was otherwise a reasonably healthy relationship:
"You kind of find out your true value. You think you work hard for seven years in the organization and five years with the big-league team, and you get in there and basically they value you much different than what you thought you contributed to the organization," said a very embittered Burnes Thursday, from Brewers spring training. "There's no denying that the relationship is definitely, definitely hurt." Burnes says the Brewers made their case before the panel in part by heaping blame onto him for the team's failure to make the playoffs after the 2022 season. "That's probably something that probably doesn't need to be said," he continued, with enough restraint that you half expect the back of his skull to erupt in a mushroom cloud of gore. "We can go about a hearing without having to do that."
The specific events of a given arbitration hearing aren't usually exposed to the public in any meaningful detail, but it's probably true that teams sometimes do take a player through arbitration without formally describing him as a huge loser who has wrecked their organizational plans by sucking shit at his job. Kevin Goldstein wrote about arbitration hearings for FanGraphs in 2021, after eight years spent working in the front office of the Houston Astros, and described the process as opaque, arbitrary, and uniformly hated by teams, players, and agents. Goldstein says the hearings are so roundly unsatisfying to all participants, and the outcomes so seemingly divorced from the strengths of the competing arguments, that he once proposed that the Astros adopt the organizational practice of forgoing the arguments altogether. "I was convinced that such a move would have zero impact on the club’s winning percentage," says Goldstein. "I called the whole process, as seen from my mixed status as both an outsider and an insider, a clown show."
Here is a part that seems especially relevant to Burnes's bad feelings after his arbitration hearing:
Many teams utilize outside counsel to handle the hearing process, while others keep it in-house, assigning a group of people within baseball operations to spend weeks of manpower on the process. They travel to Arizona or Florida, staying up until all hours of the night preparing their PowerPoint deck and going on several late-night runs to Kinko’s. They do it because they have to, but does all that work have any effect on one’s chances of winning or losing the hearing? I never saw any direct evidence that it did.
It was very cool and wise of MLB to design a system where teams have to send lackeys to talk shit about their own valuable young players, in front of those players, in a courtroom-type setting, at the very beginning of each baseball season. It can only be radicalizing to learn that your employer is willing to tell a panel of strangers that you are a pile of crud who everyone hates in order to nickel-and-dime your salary for the year. A team drafts a kid, the kid works hard, moves up through the organization, and develops into a reliable major-league player, and the team decides he is a player worth keeping around, and so the next item of business is assigning operations personnel to compile a dossier detailing how that player is a no-good back-shooting son of a bitch and a horse-thief, in order to save less than one percent in team payroll.
Now that they've defeated and humiliated their best player and thus shifted some of the money that might've gone toward his salary back into the pockets of ownership, the Brewers would like it to be known that actually they love Burnes and think he is wonderful. "I'd like to reiterate that we view Corbin as one of the leaders of our franchise and value him as an elite talent in the game," explained Matt Arnold, Brewers president of baseball operations, in a statement. "Corbin is a major contributor to the organization both on and off the field, and we look forward to another outstanding season from him in 2023.'' Cool system!