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File and trial is stupid

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The Red Sox are going to arbitration with Andrew Benintendi and Eduardo Rodriguez

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Friday was the deadline for players and teams to exchange figures ahead of possible arbitration hearings, which has become something of a deadline for teams and players to settle on contracts. We’ll get to that. There are some settlements that come in a few days before, but the vast majority of arbitration-eligible players who do not go to a hearing get their deal done on this day. For the Red Sox, they had seven arbitration-eligible players and got deals done with five of them. Among them was Mookie Betts, who agreed to a record-setting $27 million deal.

The two players who did not agree to a deal? Andrew Benintendi and Eduardo Rodriguez. The Red Sox, like many teams around the league, have become more of a hardline “file and trial” team in recent years. In other words, they have decided that once they exchange figures with a player, negotiations are off and they’ll go to a hearing and have a panel of neutral arbiters decide which figure is more reasonable. To be perfectly clear, this is not a rule or anything. Teams and players are absolutely allowed to continue negotiations after they exchange figures. In the past, it was relatively common for players and teams to simply meet at the midpoint of exchanged figures and call it a day. That is rare at this point. So, the Red Sox will go to trial with both of these guys.

Now, when I was doing my prep work for this post, I was ready to give the Red Sox the benefit of the doubt here as the figures for Rodriguez and Benintendi hadn’t been released. I was ready to argue that it made at least some sense to go to trial in both cases, as it would make sense they’d be far apart. I was going to argue that, while Rodriguez was great for most of last season and his potential has always been there, he doesn’t have a long track record and even his final numbers in 2019 were more good than great. It would make sense for him to value himself more than a team.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Similarly, I was ready to argue that Benintendi has always had potential and was outstanding in 2018. At the same time, he’s been average in two of his three full seasons and is coming off one of those average years. Again a difference of opinion in value here wasn’t unreasonable to expect. Further, Benintendi is a first-year arbitration-eligible player and this will set the baseline of the next few years of salary for him. A big difference in figures will only compound over the next couple of winters.

I was totally ready to make this post more about the general idea of file and trial rather than anything specific with this Red Sox weekend. Then, I the figures were released. In the pitcher’s case, Rodriguez filed at $8.975 million and the Red Sox filed at $8.3 million. In the batter’s case, Benintendi filed at $4.15 million and the Red Sox filed at $3.4million. I mean, come on. These differences are, in the grand scheme of things, nothing.

Now, I will say that I think it’s easy for us (and I include myself in this group) to overblow how damaging an arbitration trial can be for team-player relationships. I think we often think of it as some sort of major blow, which makes sense because a player has to listen to his team explain why he’s not as good as he thinks. That said, players and agents understand it’s part of the business, as dumb as it is. On the other hand, even if it’s not catastrophic, it’s still certainly worse than not going to trial and should be avoided where possible. Just ask Dellin Betances about that.

This is all happening because of the file and trial strategy, which again is only growing in popularity around the league. The arguments for it, as far as I can tell, basically come down to credibility and saving face. Teams negotiate for a settlement with the threat of breaking off negotiations after the filing deadline. Presumably, they feel they need to stick to their word to have any credibility in future negotiations. Which, I mean, I guess? But also these are huge businesses that should be able to possess some credibility without those kind of threats? I will admit to being extremely not business savvy and out of my element with negotiations, but I’m struggling to see any major adverse effects of breaking away from the file and trial threats when you see your figures are as close as they are with Rodriguez and Benintendi. That’s not even to mention that...you didn’t need to make the file and trial threat to begin with. That is not a prerequisite.

To me, it just comes down to, just be a better negotiator. Develop some good faith and credibility in other negotiations so you don’t need to go to gimmicky, limiting tactics when arbitration rolls around. It’s one thing if you are, say, Josh Hader and the Brewers and the player’s figure is double that of the team. These are the kind of situations for which arbitration exists. One of the sides, or both, are going to have to cave pretty hard to settle for a deal here, so it makes sense to put it in front of a neutral panel. You still want to avoid these hearings in all cases, but in the extreme like this I understand breaking off negotiations and waiting for the trial for both sides.

But to commit yourself to shutting everything down before you even know how far apart you are from the other side of the negotiating table is absurd. It just opens yourself up to looking petty, not only to players but to fans. Players and agents are actually probably more understanding than fans since they are more in-tune with the mind-numbing minutia involved with arbitration. But even with the player, there is no point in risking alienating a player — even if the risk is smaller than we believe — in a hearing when you really aren’t all that far off with your starting point. This is particularly true when, as in the case of Rodriguez and Benintendi, you likely want them to be part of your future in both the short- and long-term. It’s even more true for a guy like Rodriguez, who publicly stated he’d be open to signing a long-term extension with this organization.

This isn’t just about the Red Sox, it’s a trend around the league as they try to dominate arbitration. But this website is about the Red Sox, and in this specific case it’s just so disappointing. I have no idea what the negotiations leading up to this point were like and I can’t sit here and tell you it’s ridiculous they didn’t get to a settlement before the deadline. The ridiculous part is digging in your feet on a moronic file and trial strategy, only to have to key young players separate from you over a total combined difference of $1.425 million. The team is already offering 89 percent of what the players are asking for. Because of this need to save face over their threat to file and trial, they now need to face their players in a hearing as they explain, to their face, why they don’t deserve that extra half-million dollars. Good stuff, everyone.

Note: A previous version of this story represented the midpoint between the two sides’ figures as Benintendi’s proposed figure.