MLB’s contract arbitration could be bad news for Bo Bichette and the Blue Jays

Major League Baseball (MLB) is a rule laden game both on and off the field for players and executives alike. With the offseason in full swing, MLB’s youngest stars may be in a contractual bind leading to an arbitration hearing. If an MLB player has three or more, but less than six, years of MLB service, they are eligible for salary arbitration if they do not have a contract for the upcoming season. This is the exact situation the Toronto Blue Jays’ shortstop Bo Bichette finds himself in. Coming off his second straight season as the hit leader in the American League, Bo Bichette and the Blue Jays have failed to agree on a salary figure before the MLB’s arbitration deadline for the second consecutive season.

As law students, we are familiar with arbitration as an alternative form of dispute resolution. For the MLB, if a player and their respective team cannot agree upon a salary for the player by the typical mid-January deadline, both parties must exchange the salary figures they believe the player’s contract should entail. The dispute between the two parties will be heard by an arbitral tribunal who will decide which of the two proposed salary figures is appropriate for the player  in question.

In back to back seasons, Bo Bichette has put up All-Star caliber numbers, and now he is looking for an All-Star caliber contract. Bichette is seeking $7.5 million yearly while the Blue Jays are only offering to pay $5 million for his services. While this disparity will be addressed following the arbitration hearing, the nature of arbitration hearings is reason to worry for the long-term relationship between Bichette and the Blue Jays.

Arbitration, especially for baseball, can result in a process than can be destructive for the relationship between a baseball team and one of its players. The Blue Jays were in a similar situation with former Toronto pitcher Marcus Stroman who had an arbitration hearing with the Blue Jays over a $400,000 difference in Stroman’s preferred contract and what the Blue Jays were willing to pay. The very nature of baseball arbitration is adversarial. Marcus Stroman recalls the negative things the Blue Jays said about him and his playing during the arbitration hearings when trying to plead their case for not paying the extra $400,000 Stroman wanted. Stroman spoke negatively about his arbitration experience with the Blue Jays. He noted the manner in which the Blue Jays spoke of him at his hearing in order to demonstrate to the arbitral tribunal that he should make the lower proposed salary the Blue Jays suggested. Stroman would be traded to the New York Mets just a year and a half later.

This is not to say that arbitration hearings never go smoothly or amicably. However, for Bichette’s longevity in Toronto, he may be on borrowed time. The Blue Jays will have to argue to the arbitration panel, in front of Bichette, why Bo Bichette is not a $7.5 million player. Hearing such claims made about a player’s performance can have a negative effect on the relationship a player has with his ball club. But the adversarial nature of arbitration hearings for baseball makes such a situation unavoidable. Whether Bichette wins his arbitration case may be irrelevant if he is critiqued by his own employer to such a degree as Marcus Stroman allegedly was, as this may drive Bichette to seek his desired contract elsewhere when he becomes a free agent in three years.

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