For years, Theo Epstein's Red Sox avoided arbitration like a plague. The thinking was simple: it was not in the best interest of the team to go to war with its own players over a few million dollars.
Now, however, Theo is gone, and Ben Cherington is facing a budget situation unlike anything Theo ever had to deal with. The result: we are now just weeks away from arbitration meetings with David Ortiz and Alfredo Aceves, with deals neither imminent nor even likely.
There is some value to not burning too many bridges with players, and in certain cases it certainly doesn't help to have a player hear all of his worst aspects thrown at them by their bosses. Who knows how a player like Clay Buchholz, often considered something of a head case, would respond to situation? And Jacoby Ellsbury? He apparently wasn't terribly happy with the team to begin with after 2010, and we don't need him sending Scott Boras to Boston with a trade demand.
But the fact is that the Red Sox by avoiding arbitration have probably been costing themselves money for years now, even ignoring the ridiculous amounts of money paid to Jason Varitek more for loyalty than performance. On the whole, it might not be that bad of a policy to break. Consider the case of Jonathan Papelbon, who before the 2011 season agreed to a $12 million contract to avoid his second year of arbitration. This represented a $2.7 million raise after a season which saw Papelbon's ERA balloon to 3.90, the worst figure of his career and a rather mediocre mark for a closer. And yet, even with Papelbon's departure after 2011 being assumed by most, the Sox decided they would rather pay him the same amount that he would get in free agency following a dominant 2011.
Just because arbitration is a potentially useful tool, however, doesn't mean this is the place to use it. With David Ortiz, the Sox are in a precarious position, trying to convince an arbitrator that he should calculate Ortiz' 2012 salary not by adjusting what was, frankly, an overpay after 2010, but on the actual market for designated hitters. The small raise they've offered Ortiz seems about right when you consider what positionless players are receiving in free agency these days, but after a season which saw his OPS jump 53 points, it's going to be a hard sell.
And then there's Alfredo Aceves, whose request of $1.6 million stands $700,000 from Boston's $900,000 offer. While Alfredo's peripherals would seem to give some weight to Boston's argument, it's putting a lot of faith in the arbitrator to think he'll look past the 2.61 ERA in 114 innings. When something like $350,000 could well settle things without a fight that, frankly, the Sox are likely to lose, it's hard to see the value in staying stubborn here.
It's a good thing that Boston is finally willing to go to arbitration with players--if, indeed, that ends up being what happens here. If nothing else, it's a bargaining chip that the Sox have willfully surrendered in years past by making their philosophy known. It's just a bit unfortunate that they don't have a really good case to use it on as they have in years past.