After peaking at 35 hearings in 1986, the number of salary arbitration cases argued hasn't reached double digits since 2001. The total dropped to a record low of three in 2005, 2009 and 2011, and then there were none at all this year.
All 133 players who filed last month settled, gaining an average increase of 119 per cent, according to a study by The Associated Press. San Francisco catcher Buster Posey, the NL batting champion and MVP, led the way with a 13-fold hike to $8 million.
"While I do believe that this year was an aberration, the salary structure for arbitration-eligible players has become more well-defined over the last decade or so as clubs and player agents have become more sophisticated in valuing players," MLB senior vice-president Dan Halem said. "That factor, combined with the relatively recent trend of locking up pre-arbitration and arbitration-eligible players to multiyear contracts, probably has contributed to the decline in the number of hearings."
Relatively few big-name stars even filed. Giants pitcher Tim Lincecum's final two seasons of arbitration eligibility were covered by a $40.5 million, two-year contract agreed to in January 2012. Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw agreed the following month to a two-year deal guaranteeing $19 million that leaves him with just one more arbitration-eligible season.
"Clubs have been more aggressive in recent years to sign players under control to multiyear contracts," agent Seth Levinson said, "to not just obtain cost certainty but to also acquire the financial benefits that are derived when the player's value increases beyond the salaries actually paid over the term of contract."
Evidence of the change is that the highest salary awarded in arbitration remains $10 million, to Alfonso Soriano in 2006 and to Ryan Howard and Francisco Rodriguez two years later — Howard was the only winner among the three.
Conflict had been replaced by concord.
"I don't think I'd draw any trend from zero," players' association head Michael Weiner said. "It's always been the union's view that if the arbitration system works properly, there should be no hearings. We should get all settlements. But it's unusual for that to happen. I don't expect that to happen on an ongoing basis going forward."
The increase for this year's arbitration group was up from 89 per cent last year but down from 123 per cent in 2011. In addition to Posey, big raises were obtained by Baltimore catcher Matt Wieters (11-fold to $5.5 million), Cincinnati pitcher Mat Latos (10-fold to $5.75 million).
Latos was the only player who even got outside the Ellis room — the pitcher and the Reds settled on an $11.5 million, two-year deal before the hearing before a three-person panel to was start on Feb. 12.
The only player who didn't get a raise was Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who remained at $2.64 million but can earn up to $125,000 in bonuses based on innings. A former All-American wide receiver at Notre Dame, he was a fifth-round draft pick by the Cubs in 2006 and signed a deal that called for a $2.8 million salary in 2011, his final guaranteed year. That led to a 5 per cent cut the following season, when he was not yet eligible for arbitration, and set the basis for this year's agreement.
Overall, the average increased from $1.53 million to $3.36 million. Fifteen players agreed to multiyear contracts, up from 11 last year and the most since 19 in 2010.
Six players benefited from a change under the labour contract agreed to in November 2011, which increased the number of players eligible for arbitration among those with at least two seasons in the major leagues but less than three. Twenty-two per cent of that group is now eligible for arbitration, up from 17.
Washington reliever Drew Storen ($2.5 million), Arizona third baseman Chris Johnson ($2,287,500), Colorado outfielder Tyler Colvin ($2,275,000), San Diego shortstop Everth Cabrera ($1,275,000), Tampa Bay outfielder Sam Fuld ($725,000) and Toronto catcher Josh Thole ($2.75 million for two years) probably would have made just over $500,000 apiece under the old rules.