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What do MLB owners truly care about? It's a dangerous game guessing at the priorities of billionaires. Better to let them demonstrate on their own.

Each year, one of the 30 MLB teams is awarded a replica championship belt. For what, you ask? According to a report by The Athletic's Marc Carig, the belt is the award for the team that did the most to suppress player salaries in arbitration. The league puts it a little more politely, saying it's to "achieve the goals set by the industry."

Owners and representatives from every team attend this annual meeting, and are encouraged to contribute best practices, which will then be used against the players in arbitration.

Arbitration is the process by which players who have not been in the majors long enough to freely enter free agency, but are also not signed by their team, are forced to make the case that they deserve their salaries. The two sides, management and players, come up with a number (no prize for guessing whose is lower), and if they cannot reach an agreement, a group of arbitrators hears cases from the two sides and picks one of the numbers. If the player loses, his salary can actually decrease by as much as 20 percent.

It can get ugly, as things did with Cleveland's Trevor Bauer, who claimed the club was using "character assassination" in its hearings. Or with the Yankees' Dellin Betances, who lost his arbitration with the Yankees in 2017 -- he was paid $3 million instead of $5 million -- and was ripped by team President Randy Levine.

"It's like me saying, 'I'm not the president of the Yankees; I'm an astronaut,' " Levine said. "No, I'm not an astronaut, and Dellin Betances is not a closer."

All that is to say that the teams' obsession with the process is understandable, because they can share best practices with one another, unlike in the open market where that would be collusion.

The MLBPA took notice. Executive Director Tony Clark issued a statement saying, "That clubs make sport of trying to suppress salaries in a process designed to produce fair settlements shows a blatant lack of respect for our Players, the game, and the arbitration process itself."

Players responded as well. Royals utility man Whit Merrifield tweeted, "This is embarrassing and a huge reason we continue to fight for our rights and fair compensation as players."

This is all prelude to the coming labor war in baseball. Two consecutive offseasons of stagnant free-agent markets are not offset by the recent flurry of extensions and a handful of big ticket signings -- an AP study finds that MLB salaries are expected to drop for the second consecutive season, even taking the big contracts into account.

Players have adjusted to the teams' heavy-handed tactics in arbitration. This spring, Luis Severino agreed to a team-friendly four-year, $40 million extension rather than enter arbitration. Aaron Hicks agreed to a one-year deal to avoid arbitration, before signing another steal for the Yanks, a seven-year, $70 million extension.

The truly amazing thing about arbitration, though, is how low the dollar amounts are compared to how fierce the battles can become. Severino's near-arbitration was over just $850,000 -- pocket change for the Yankees. Betances' arbitration was over just $2 million. And Jacob deGrom's arbitration was valued only at $17 million, a historic figure for the reigning NL Cy Young award winner, but far below the $27.5 average annual value of deGrom's eventual five-year, $137.5 contract.

Maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that management is willing to squeeze every rock in arbitration, though. After all, it even pinches pennies on its salary suppressing championship hardware: The belt cost just $20.

Sports on 03/31/2019

Print Headline: Owners celebrate salary suppression

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