Tigers' streak of 18 arb-free years in jeopardy

Detroit has not had hearing since 2001; Fulmer unsigned

January 9th, 2019
DETROIT, MI - AUGUST 4: Al Avila makes a point during a news conference at Comerica Park after he was promoted to executive vice president of baseball operations and general manager on August 4, 2015 in Detroit, Michigan. Avila replaces Dave Dombrowski who was the Tigers' general manager since 2002. (Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images)Duane Burleson/Getty Images

DETROIT -- The last time the Tigers went to an arbitration hearing, Randy Smith was the general manager. Al Avila was still in the Marlins' front office back then, as was Dave Dombrowski. The player in question was Chris Holt, a starting pitcher Detroit had just acquired from the Astros in the second Brad Ausmus trade.

That was 2001. After an arbitrator sided with the team's salary offer, Holt pitched one season in Detroit, went to Japan the next year and never pitched in the big leagues again. The Tigers, meanwhile, have stayed out of an arbitration hearing since then, an 18-year streak that encompassed Dombrowski's 14-year tenure as general manager plus the first few seasons of Avila's time as GM.

With a half-dozen players eligible for arbitration -- and  remaining unsigned -- an uptick in arbitration hearings around the game, the Tigers on the rebuild and their longtime negotiator taking a step back from full-time duty, this could be the year that streak is in real jeopardy.

"Obviously we've had -- you can call it a record -- where we've never had to go to arbitration and all that," Avila said during last month's Winter Meetings. "We don't look at it as win and loss."

Friday afternoon marked the deadline for arbitration-eligible players and teams to exchange salary proposals. For an increasing number of teams, this also marks an unofficial deadline for negotiating a one-year deal to avoid arbitration. Known as a "file-and-trial" approach, it essentially puts club and player on a path to a hearing once numbers are exchanged, well before hearings take place in early February.

Detroit has not used this approach, which is one reason why its streak has gone on. In some past cases, team legal counsel John Westhoff used the numbers exchanged as a range with which to find a middle ground in negotiations. The Tigers were on the brink of a hearing with in 2010 before reaching an agreement on a five-year, $80 million contract.

Even if the Tigers didn't see it as a win-loss scenario, they saw a benefit to signing their arbitration-eligible players without a hearing. In many cases, it brought more cost certainty to their payroll before Spring Training. It also avoided the awkwardness of disparaging a player before an arbitrator, arguing why a player isn't worth the salary he seeks.

Even during the final offseason for Max Scherzer as a Tiger, when negotiations on a long-term deal had a public ending, the two sides negotiated a one-year deal well before that. Scherzer's $15,250,000 deal that season marked the largest raise for a pitcher with five-plus seasons of service time.

"We've avoided it over the years for different reasons," Avila said. "A lot of it had to do with some players that we had that took the offers that we wanted to give them."

Avila isn't disclosing what approach they're taking to arbitration this offseason and whether it has changed, but he acknowledged it has been discussed.

"I think we'll take the avenue that we feel is best for the organization when the time comes," Avila said last month. "Whether it be to keep our streak going or go [to a hearing], I couldn't tell you."

Those discussions have included Westhoff, but he stepped into an advisory role this offseason after 16 seasons as the team's baseball counsel. He'll continue to give advice, Avila said, but the bulk of the arbitration work is now being handled by baseball operations director Sam Menzin, who worked closely with Westhoff in recent years, as well as associate counsel Alan Avila and the analytics team led by Jay Sartori. Like Westhoff, Sartori has experience with negotiations from his previous job at Major League Baseball, which included collective bargaining.

The Tigers already made two arbitration moves this offseason when they non-tendered catcher and reliever Alex Wilson, cutting them loose rather than going through the process. McCann signed a one-year contract with the White Sox last month and Wilson remains a free agent.

Of the Tigers' remaining arbitration cases, the largest by far was right fielder as he entered his third arbitration year and final season before free agency next offseason. He made $6,050,000 last year while batting .298 (185-for-620) with 23 home runs, 89 RBIs and a .854 OPS. The Tigers and Castellanos avoided arbitration on the evening of deadline day for a second consecutive year, this time with a $9.95 million salary.

was eligible for a second time before avoiding arbitration with a one-year deal Thursday night. Greene made $1,950,000 last year, his first full season as the Tigers' closer, compiling 32 saves in 38 chances.

Reliever  was also eligible for arbitration a second time before agreeing to a one-year deal Friday, along with Matthew Boyd and . Hardy avoided arbitration early last offseason by signing a one-year, $795,000 deal, then posted a 4-5 record, 3.56 ERA and 3.97 FIP in 13 starts and 17 relief appearances.