For the first time since the process was introduced in 1974, no players made it all the way to an arbitration hearing. 133 players filed, 133 signed shiny new contracts without the need for a third party. So what, if anything, does it all mean?
With Darren O`Day's passing of his physical on Monday -- making official his two-year, $5.8 million contract with the Baltimore Orioles -- Major League Baseball experienced a first in the era of free agency: not a single player made it all to way to the arbitration table.
San Diego Padres right-hander Clayton Richard got the closest to actually having a hearing -- it was scheduled for today (Tuesday) -- but he and Friars agreed to a one-year, $5.24 million deal Saturday evening.
Prior to this offseason, the typical three-person panel of arbiters could be guaranteed at least a small paycheck in the first few weeks of February. While recent winters have seen nowhere near the record 35 cases of 1986, there had never been fewer than three cases (2005, 2009, & 2011). No matter what the market looked like as Spring Training approached, at least a few players could be counted on to make it to the table. Until now.
If TLC or A&E or one of the myriad other cable channels that at one time had a clear niche market but is now overwhelmed by often-weird and sometimes-staged reality shows decided to turn the process into an hour-long program -- say, Arbitration Hounds -- it wouldn't have made it an episode. Not quite as big a disaster as last season's iteration of The Franchise, but close.
So what, if anything, does an arbitration shutout mean?
First and foremost, it should be noted that this is the first offseason under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which was agreed upon in November 2011 but was not put into effect until the start of the 2012 season.
It could very well be a coincidence that the first arb-free winter comes on the heels of the CBA, but there's some reason to think that the new agreement played some part in the shutout.
Among the several things that the new CBA did was to eliminate one form of arbitration: the pending free agent. Instead of having draft-pick compensation tied to qualifying offers -- sorry, Kyle Lohse -- teams could be compensated based on whether or not they offered arbitration to their departing players. That form of compensation no longer exists, so teams now have zero incentive to off arbitration to players on their way out even if they could.
As a sort of countermeasure to the loss of this form of arbitration, the new CBA loosened the reins on who is eligible for Super Two status: players eligible for arbitration with fewer than three years of service time. In previous years, a Super Two player was deemed to be any MLBer in the top 17 percent of players under the typical three-year cutoff. Now, however, that figure has grown to include the top 22 percent.
Despite these changes, only six players qualified for Super Two status this winter, down from 19(!) the year before. So what gives? Well, as teams have become more intent on finding ways to save payroll here and there (LOL Dodgers), they have become much more aware of the Super-Two cutoff date and adjusted their rosters accordingly. (For instance, the Angels would have kept Mike Trout in Triple-A until mid-season last year if the club hadn't imploded in April.)
The adjusted parameters of new CBA and gaming the Super-Two line aren't the whole story, however. Just nine fewer players filed for arbitration this year than in 2011, when seven players went all the way to the bargaining table.
So what else could be the cause?
A quick glance at the win-loss record in arbitration cases might give some idea of why players were willing to compromise a bit more this winter. There have been 505 cases heard in the 37 years of arbitration in baseball (arb was suspended in '76 & '77), and owners/teams are in the lead by quite a large margin: 291-214.
That gap has grown considerably over the last decade-plus. According to ESPN, teams have come out ahead in arbitration decisions in 14 of the last 16 years. And one of the winning years for the players was 2010, when only three players went to a hearing (Jeff Mathis, FTW!).
So while some part of the arbitration shutout is a result of the new CBA, most of the credit(?) should probably go to the increased savviness of clubs combined with the hesitation of players to try their hand at what has been a losing gambit for more than a decade.