The Braves, Jason Heyward, File-to-Trial & Arbitration

The Braves are going to arbitration with Jason Heyward over $300 thousand dollars. It’s a wonderful sentence, full of so many words that could set you off in a million different directions. And so I followed those strings, talking to as many people involved in arbitration as I could. Many of those directions did lead me to denigrations of arbitration, and of the file-to-trial arbitration policy that the Braves employ. There’s another side to that sort of analysis though. Arbitration is not horrid. File-to-trial policies have their use. This is not all the Braves’ fault.

Salary arbitration has a goal, and to the most part, it accomplishes that goal. Designed to reward teams for investing in players and developing them, it keeps players with their drafting teams for six (service) years after their big league debut. And because players should be rewarded for their work — and some more than others — it manages to slowly ramp up their compensation at market-like levels.

It’s how well it does the last thing that seems to be the sticking point. Reds Vice President Bob Miller recently went on a rant against arbitration, and those were the things he pointed out:

One common misconception about the process, Miller said, was “it’s not the talent of the player.”

“It is purely based on stats based on what they’ve done in their career compared to others of that same service class, what they’ve been paid previously,” Miller said. “There are so many stats that it’s like law. You can grab this one paragraph of a clause as opposed to this. In certain classes, relief pitchers are done by holds. …

“Here’s the ridiculous part: First-year arbitration-eligible closers make more than the best starting pitchers. … It’s out of whack, it’s a very poor process and we muddle through it.”

It’s not breaking news that the arbitrator sitting at the end of the process is not a subject-matter expert. That’s the way with arbitration in most cases across the legal landscape, and to some extent, it could be by design. “Arbitration is like a hallway,” one baseball person told me, “and you have to come to an agreement by the end of the hallway, or you both play Russian Roulette.” He continued to point out that if someone like Keith Law was sitting on the bench, teams might be happy to go to trial more often. Trial is onerous and expensive and time-consuming. So, in a way, having someone from outside baseball sitting at the end of the process gives both the player and the agent an impetus to come to an agreement with the other side. That’s how you have zero arbitration cases in 2013.

But are the arbitrators such novices? Tom Van Riper at Forbes called back to the beginnings of the practice, and yeah, that sounds bad:

Rich Gedman, a Red Sox catcher who batted .295 in 1985, pointed out at a hearing that his batting average was among the twenty highest in the league. Red Sox officials, presumably with a straight face, argued that Gedman’s average didn’t even crack the top 100. How? By showing the panelists a list of every player in the AL, including those who batted, say, .333 by going 3-for-9. Gedman lost, settling for $650,000 instead of $1 million. His career went down the tubes fairly quickly after that.

But Van Riper’s piece admits to a “maturing of the system,” and it’s hard to argue that there haven’t been improvements. Arbitrators were given the Bill James handbook a couple years back, and ostensibly anything explained within is fair game at the hearing. But people involved in the system weren’t sure if the arbitrators are required to read the book, or if they consult it for cases. Arbitrators that belong to the National Academy of Arbitrators take part in seminars, peer review sessions, and discussion of emerging cases that help them understand their particular field of arbitration better. Being assigned to arbitrate baseball is a plum job, and there are few that get the honor — there isn’t a peer-based education system in place. Perhaps this would be a way to improve outcomes, if management and labor both find a way to help educate the arbiters that come in.

In any case, there are probably some limitations to the system placed upon it by the mere existence of an arbitrator at the end of the filing process. That can be a good thing to keep people from going to court, and since everyone agreed that going to the arbitrator was a worst-case scenario, there’s probably not a lot of incentive to change the system after 2013 yielded zero cases.

And it’s also, to some extent, unavoidable. Who else will be able to come in and rule upon a player’s market value — that’s also not firmly entrenched in either the labor or management camp? Imagine if a former union man sat at the table. Or a former general manager. Parallels to football and basketball don’t work — their drafts are shorter, there’s no real minor leagues, and so creating a rookie pay scale based on draft position works better. It would be nonsensical to pay a lower draft pick less after five years in the minors have molded him into a star.

Once you’ve drilled down past the first layer, there are more questions. Certain teams practice ‘file-to-trial’ — meaning that once the arbitration figures are filed, the team and the player are headed to court. The teams that aren’t file-to-trial often settle over the next few weeks and never make it to trial, even after filing numbers. Some settle outside the courtroom, but once you head into the courtroom, the arbitrator can only pick the player’s number or the team’s number. The Braves are a file-to-trial team.

The assumption is that this sort of thing leads to more trials. But the Braves — going to trial this year with three players — hadn’t gone to trial with anyone since John Rocker since 2001. And there are plenty of file-to-trial teams, and nobody went to trial last year. If you use a strict definition of file-to-trial provided by Tim Dierkes — the Blue Jays, Braves, Marlins, Rays and White Sox — four of the 17 arbitrator-heard cases since 2010 have come from that group (three from the Marlins). But ask around, and most people involved in arbitration think the true list of file-to-trial teams is larger. Open it up to some of the suspected group — the Brewers, Pirates, Nationals and Indians — and suddenly you explain away 11 of the last 17 cases.

If arbitration is on some level more efficient because nobody wants to go to trial, and this file-to-trial policy leads to more trials, is it a bad policy? Not necessarily. After all, both involved parties know about the policy, so it’s just a different deadline. As Alex Anthopolous said to Jordan Bastian, “The thought was really it’s hopefully to encourage more dialogue in negotiations with the goal of continuing to avoid arbitration and continuing to try to get deals done and maybe bring both parties to the table a little bit sooner.”

Another benefit of file-to-trial is very important in Heyward’s case in particular. If an agency knows that they are going to trial after filing numbers, they’re more likely to pick a number they can be sure to defend (rather than a number designed to move the midpoint in their client’s favor). Most felt that the policy results in smaller spreads between the filed numbers — voila the $300k that the Braves and Heyward’s Excel Management team are fighting over.

This year, 39 players filed numbers. One has settled. That’s in the normal range (33 to 46 over the last five years). But of those 38 remaining cases, nine are with possible file-to-trial teams. The average spread on those nine cases is $1.6m, the average spread on all filings was $1.25m. Reach back to 2010, and the average spread on all cases is $1.18m (26% difference) and the file-to-trialers averaged… $1.17m (23% difference). Obviously we have sample issues, as well as the fact that we don’t truly know which teams are file to trial. But it certainly seems possible that smaller spreads and earlier resolutions could be a reason to go with file-to-trial.

Are there other possible (external?) reasons for this silly-seeming case? Pressure from baseball to keep salaries down? Most that I talked to didn’t think that was very plausible. You have to defend the number you pick, in the end, and baseball can’t help you in the trial even if they did express a preference over the outcome.

How about the agency at play here? Over the last five years, 23% of arbitration cases have filed numbers at all (the rest settle before the deadline). Excel Management has filed 46% of the time for their arb-eligible clients. They like to push. Maybe the philosophy works better with teams that aren’t file to trial, or maybe the agency doesn’t mind going to trial so much. Maybe they feel that, at the very least, they look like they are fighting for their players if they go to trial.

In terms of goals, arbitration seems to be working. It’s not a sexy thing to say. But if the goal is to bring market forces into the salaries of young players still under team control while also avoiding expensive trials with arbitrators, then the process is working. Outlier, aggressive numbers are unpopular with the system — it’s designed to find the middle ground, after all — so outlier results shouldn’t be common. The fact that neither side generally wants to go to arbitration court is a feature, not a flaw.

If there is a flaw with the system, it’s that it’s a bit circular. Basing things on comps means that a wobble — an outlier decision — becomes a big deal. Using saves and holds (yes these are still popular stats in arbitration discussions) puts too much emphasis on team role and rewards young closers — perhaps unfairly. A big award to a young closer begets big awards to all closers in his class. And so on.

Perhaps a few classes of players are shunned by arbitration awards. Defense-first players may not get large awards (but still get rewarded for, say, being a starting shortstop that started for his team for the large part of the year). Pitchers in pitcher-friendly parks may get nicer rewards than they are due (but park adjustments are increasingly part of the arbitration conversation). Closers might get too much money (but they might get too much money on the open market, too). Volume still wins out most of all (but at least wins may not be a big deal — the Ross Ohlendorf case is mostly praised as a victory for advanced stats, but it really just seemed to most to have been a victory of ERA over wins).

You’ll see Jason Heyward’s case in the blanks in that paragraph, maybe. Take a look at outfielders with four years of service time that have entered arbitration with a chance at an award between four and six million dollars. Look at their three-year stats going in. Despite being a corner outfielder — no doubt the Braves would rather he was classified as such — the part-time Braves outfielder has produced more defensive value than many of the center fielders in the sample. How much will the arbitrators consider this?

Name PA HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG wRC+ BsR Off Def WAR Final$
Jason Heyward ’14 1547 55 210 162 32 .253 .335 .438 113 10 34 29 12 $5-5.5m
Austin Jackson ’14 1899 38 292 160 42 .273 .343 .422 109 6 26 14 11 $6m
Gerardo Parra ’14 1586 25 192 130 40 .277 .337 .407 98 1 -2 37 9 $4.3-5.2m
Nelson Cruz ’12 1473 84 199 241 46 .278 .338 .534 124 2 44 -4 9 $5.5-7.5m
Alejandro De Aza ’14 1431 30 194 135 58 .278 .343 .421 107 7 19 5 8 $4.25m
Alex Gordon ’12 1160 37 163 129 23 .270 .353 .447 118 4 28 -4 7 $4.15-5.45m
Adam Jones ’12 1758 63 227 222 29 .281 .326 .455 106 7 19 -14 7 $5-7.4m
Colby Rasmus ’13 1685 60 235 194 21 .240 .314 .427 100 7 8 -9 6 $4.675m
Drew Stubbs ’14 1706 39 226 129 87 .231 .303 .353 82 19 -18 2 4 $4.1m

Maybe Heyward’s defense won’t get as much credit as it deserves. Maybe this happens to certain players in the arbitration system.

But if that’s the case, then perhaps it’s just a little tweak that the system needs. The education of the arbitrators could help — either by peers or by representatives from both sides of the table — and would be entirely normal in the broader perspective of arbitration in general. Baseball may not have wanted statistics gurus as arbitrators at first, but a little education could go a long way. Some involved in arbitration suggested that there should be a single arbitrator — group dynamics, politics, and something called the scorecard effect come into play when arbitrators work with each other on panels and see many cases. If the arbitrator knows that baseball and the players’ union pay his salary and invite him back, and he works many cases, he may (consciously or unconsciously) make sure to come down on the players’ and teams’ sides equally over time (at the possible detriment of valuing every case on its merit). The arbiter’s self-interest.

These are small changes. If baseball would like young players to both stay with their teams at a reduced price, and yet be rewarded according to market forces in some way, then arbitration is a natural result of that desire. If they would like this system to be borne by settlement and agreement between the parties, then the lack of court-room cases testifies that arbitration is succeeding. And if teams feel that file-to-trial policies beget quicker, more reasonable conversations, then they’ll just have to deal with the occasional embarrassing public arbitration hearing with two of their star players that just happen to be represented by an agency that’s happy to go to trial.

Jason Heyward is going to arbitration with his team over $300 thousand. And that doesn’t mean the system is broken.

Matt Swartz‘s work and the arbitration tracker at MLBTradeRumors were a huge help. Thanks to everyone that took the time to explain the process to me.



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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.


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TK
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TK
2 years 7 months ago

Thank you for the detail on the arbitration process, I was unaware of how baseball ignorant the arbitrators were. It does seem that despite this that what is valued in arbitration is usually what is valued on the open market.

Oliver
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Oliver
2 years 7 months ago

The Braves going to arbitration over 300,000 says more about the Braves than it does the system. 300,000 is nothing in a baseball economy–give it to Heyward just to engender good will with your player.

Simon
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Simon
2 years 7 months ago

That’s not how small market teams compete. And it impacts every year he’s in arbitration, as his starting salary is higher next year, and the year after and so on.

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 7 months ago

Sadly, there is no “year after” for the Braves and Heyward. 2015 will very probably be his last year with the team, and it will certainly be his last year in arbitration.

Sn0wman
Member
Sn0wman
2 years 7 months ago

There has been a lot of speculation that 2014 will be his last year with the Braves, that they will trade him next winter. The team beat writer also speculates that they will do the same with Kimbrel if he wins his arbitration hearing this year. With their stagnant payroll falling further and further down the list as years go by, their manager being a total bleeding moron, and really very little talent in the minor league pipeline on the way, it’s pretty hard to feel optimistic about the future of the team at this point if that really happens.

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 7 months ago

Honestly, the fan noodling about trading Heyward before he reaches free agency (including in this thread) makes zero sense. They have a window in 2014 and 2015, and Heyward is a big part of that window. If they were a total non-contending situation at some point in 2015—unlikely, in my view—they would probably explore picking up a little something for the last few months of his contract, but arb increases for him and Freeman are within their budget.

Sn0wman
Member
Sn0wman
2 years 7 months ago

Except that

a.) it’s not “fan noodling.” There has been buzz coming out of the front office for three years about dealing him because Fredi Gonzalez dislikes him so much (buzz which started after Gonzalez benched him for a while, reportedly for walking too much), and those rumours have been extensively reported by legit baseball media, and

b.) There is absolutely no guarantee that those arb numbers can fit within an $84-89 or $83-93 million payroll (depends where you look on some years). It has been in that range for four seasons, and just isn’t going to go up as long as Liberty owns the team. There is about $43 million tied up for 2015, with 12 or 13 players going to arb in addition. Among those are Kimbrel, Freeman, Heyward, Medlen, Minor, Johnson, and Beachy, and possible 13th guy is Simmons.

Honestly, the best thing for Heyward would be to be traded, though. I’m sure he’d like to go somewhere where he won’t be benched in favour of the Jordan Schafers and Jose Costanzas of the world.

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 7 months ago

If you mean give it to him before filing, see the point about the difference between negotiating positions and arbitration filings, which aren’t the same thing. If you mean give it to him after filing, you are ignoring the Braves’ broader interests. The specific amount of money means much less than ensuring that future players understand them to be serious about their file-and-trial policy.

Oliver
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Oliver
2 years 7 months ago

I don’t know, but my sense is that the Braves go to arbitration more often than any other team in baseball. Anyone know for sure?

It’s insane to go to arbitration over 300,000 dollars. A couple million, sure. But 300,000 is nothing. It’s .003% of their payroll.

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 7 months ago

Again, you don’t seem to understand that now that they’ve passed the deadline, the $300,000 is not at all the point. If they settle with him now, they’re not file-and-trial, which takes a lot of pressure off players and agents to settle by the filing deadline.

cthabeerman
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cthabeerman
2 years 7 months ago

It’s 0.3% of their payroll, not 0.003%. Seems insignificant, but isn’t.

-C

Me
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Me
2 years 7 months ago

don’t follow atl, do you?

TKDC
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TKDC
2 years 7 months ago

The “good will” argument gets thrown around a lot. I don’t see it as meaningful. Heyward is not going to give the Braves any sort of discount because they were so nice as to agree to pay him 5.5 million instead of trying for 5.2 million.

I do wonder if the file to trial methodology could have an implied out for cases this close where the team is willing to settle at the midpoint when the two sides are off by so little. Would they seriously go to trial over 100K? How about 25K?

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 7 months ago

I do wonder if teams and players ever come out on the “wrong” side when they exchange figures—like, they’re $1 million apart when negotiations ends, the player comes down $500,000 and the team comes up $600,000 in filing, and you end up with the team offering the player more than he asked for. I would imagine that hasn’t ever happened, but it seems like it could.

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 7 months ago

“Another benefit of file-to-trial is very important in Heyward’s case in particular. If an agency knows that they are going to trial after filing numbers, they’re more likely to pick a number they can be sure to defend (rather than a number designed to move the midpoint in their client’s favor).”

This is a key point that a lot of people seem to be missing in rushing to slam the Braves over this. We do not know that the two sides were $300,000 apart when the deadline arrived. They could have been much further apart, with each side converging near the midpoint to increase their odds of winning the case now that they’re going to a hearing. (But if that’s what happened, it’s likely that one side moved a lot more than the other—and we don’t know which one that was.)

coldseat
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coldseat
2 years 7 months ago

Isn’t it reasonable to assume both sodes exchage theor filing numner right before filing in a last ditch attempt to settle. Bluffing at this late stage makes little sense as the parties are repeat players and they will alwaus find out the actual file amount. So yes, I think this is a genuine full knowledge battle over 300k.

Anon21
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Anon21
2 years 7 months ago

No, I don’t think that’s reasonable to assume. First, it goes against reporting about the process. Second, it ignores that what may be reasonable to ask for in a negotiation based on many factors, including the pre-existing relationship and the full range of advanced statistics available may not be reasonable to ask in a much more constrained arbitration setting. For non-file-and-trial teams, exchanging of figures really is just another stage in the negotiation; for file-and-trial, it occurs after negotiation has ended, and a new phase has begun.

coldseat
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coldseat
2 years 7 months ago

think you might be looking at the process to formalistically and ignoring negotiations dynamics in a real life setting – but you could be right, it just wouldn’t be efficient, especially where repeat players are involved.

Brian Snyder
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Brian Snyder
2 years 7 months ago

I know you mentioned it above and it’s been written about once already. But Kimbrel is looking for $9M. About 135K per inning pitched. Seems like the model is broken to me.

stevo
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stevo
2 years 7 months ago

Kimbrel basically broke the abitration system. there really has not been anyone like him to enter the arb process before. Papelbon is really his only comp and its not that great of comp at that

Wendy Thurm
Member
Member
2 years 7 months ago


Outlier, aggressive numbers are unpopular with the system — it’s designed to find the middle ground, after all — so outlier results shouldn’t be common. The fact that neither side generally wants to go to arbitration court is a feature, not a flaw.

This is a bit misleading, because once the player and the team go to arbitration, the arbitrator must choose either the player’s number or the team’s number. The system, at that point, isn’t designed to find middle ground. It’s designed to reward whichever side comes closest to the arbitrator’s view of value.

Wendy Thurm
Member
Member
2 years 7 months ago

Yeah, I screwed up the formatting on that. The top part is a quote from the article. The bottom part is my commentary.

stevo
Guest
stevo
2 years 7 months ago

the lack of agreement btw the Braves and Heyward could also stem from other negotiation disagreements between the two parties. Its no secret that the Braves have been trying to reach a long term extension with Heyward adn that they have not been able to come to an agreement on that front either. The arbitration filing amounts could play a role in the other negotiations which we are not privvy to. Obviuosly there is no way to know that, but just a thought.

Yehuda Hamer
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Yehuda Hamer
2 years 7 months ago

If the Braves keep developing great players, down the road they won’t be able to afford all of them.

Matt
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Matt
2 years 7 months ago

By ‘down the road’ do you actually mean ‘right now’? Because it’s happening now. All these guys in their first year of arbitration this year will be in their second year next year. And it doesn’t look like any of them are looking to sign long term. Or there hasn’t been any significant movement on that front.

Yehuda Hamer
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Yehuda Hamer
2 years 7 months ago

Well said Matt, I fully agree with you after thinking this over.

Yehuda
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Yehuda
2 years 6 months ago

I am now glad we are keeping what we have eveloped.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
Member
Dan Ugglas Forearm
2 years 7 months ago

Just a thought, but around this time last year, Martin Prado and the Braves were only $400k apart. They were then set to go to trial. It didn’t really make much sense to fans at the time. A couple weeks later, but before the arbitration hearing, the Braves traded Prado in the Upton deal. Could they have affected Prado’s value by giving him that $400k before a trade? The DBacks had an extension for Prado in-hand, but ideally I’m sure they’d like to limit the cost of the players they’re acquiring as well. What kind of prospect could you get for $300k or $400k in a trade? If there is any prospect at all, then why would you “just give it to him”?

Although I think it’s unlikely, I wouldn’t be surprised if Heyward was traded. He’s two years from free agency, and there’s virtually no way the Braves are going to be able to extend him. If their budget is going to continue to remain stable, essentially moving them to the back of the pack as everyone else moves up, then they’re going to have to start making Rays-esque decisions on players nearing free agency. The $300k could be of some importance to the team trying to trade for him. Might as well leave the finances to them, if at all possible.

deadpool
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deadpool
2 years 7 months ago

I don’t think the Braves have even had semi serious discussions with Heyward or Freeman. Uggla’s salaey basically blocks them from giving either a raise beyond what arbitration would give then until Heyward hits the open market, at which point the Braves have lost him. They can maybe extend Freeman then… As a Braves fan I’ve come to the conclusion that the window is now, and it closes in 2-3 years. I then expect things to be bad for a while until the team adjusts to being a small market team, if they ever do. The fact is, they knew they were headed in the small market direction when they gave Uggla and BJ their deals, so I don’t expect them to magically figure it out.

Reade King
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

The market is not small.

The Braves are a “small market team” for the duration of a bad tv deal which pays them as if they were a small market team. Once that’s over in 13 years (eternity for a sports fan, in other words), they will almost immediately become a large market team. Whatever that means then, because it’s likely that “tv” deals will actually be streaming deals by then.

Some of the insane deals other teams have made will expire prematurely, because the entity that entered into to the deals will cease to exist. such is the pace of thecnology and different sorts of delivery systems. So, maybe the Braves’ temporary foray into “small-market” status will be shorter than the bad deal…

Anon21
Guest
Anon21
2 years 7 months ago

If MLB.tv is the future, that will be league revenue. The teams’ gates and merch sales will stratify them by market. But that’s not so great for the Braves either—they’ve been middle-of-the-pack in attendance for quite a few years now.

AK7007
Member
AK7007
2 years 7 months ago

I don’t know for sure that it’s fully attributable to their TV deal. They have corporate owners (Liberty Media) which might mean that they are unwilling to shell out tons of cash in order to improve the on-field product. They see the team like any of their other holdings, as an asset to generate cash, not something to spend it on. I’m not 100% sure that increased TV revenue would be spent on players.

Also, I hope that you are some sort of psychic and we get “streaming” instead of TV deals…

Sn0wman
Member
Sn0wman
2 years 7 months ago

Not just corporate owners, but corporate owners who pretty much have to be one of the five worst ownership groups in the majors (maybe even top three). They were pretty much blackmailed into buying a team they never wanted, and they reportedly planned on cutting the payroll down to Marlins territory as soon as the deal was done (leading the owners to force them to sign a binding contract that they could not do so as long as they owned the team as a condition to their approving the sale). Pretty much the only time in my life that I rooted for James Dobson was when he tried to stop that sale (though in his case, it was because they are the nation’s top maker of porn, so our reasons were different). It was the time I thought the good of the game clause should have been invoked, because this situation is good for no one.

Dan Ugglas Forearm
Member
Dan Ugglas Forearm
2 years 7 months ago

The huge TV deal offers may not be flowing in 13 years from now if the Braves can’t stay competitive until that point. I have a feeling the teams that signed those monster deals are going to experience some kind of repercussions from the TV revenue bubble bursting, but we can’t really say for sure. That’d be about the only thing the Braves could hope for.

Fred Eltrollage
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Fred Eltrollage
2 years 7 months ago

I’ve never been in a hallway, in which you play a game of Russian roulette at the end. Bad analogy. Must be why the source chose anonymity.

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