Tigers' streak of avoiding arbitration may end with Castellanos

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
Nick Castellanos

Detroit – The Tigers have not taken a player through the arbitration process since Al Avila has been in the front office – and that goes back to 2002.

But, as the Tigers' general manager hinted during the Winter Meetings in Las Vegas last month, that could change this year.

“You want to call that a record or what, that we haven’t had to go to arbitration, but we don’t look at it as a win and loss type of thing,” Avila said. “We’ll take the avenue we feel is best for the organization when the time comes.

“If we have to go, we’ll go.”

More: RHP Bryan Garcia ready to reclaim spot in Tigers' plans

The Tigers have six players eligible for arbitration: Right fielder Nick Castellanos, and pitchers Shane Greene, Michael Fulmer, Matthew Boyd, Daniel Norris and Blaine Hardy. Pitcher Drew VerHagen was just a couple of service days short of qualifying.

According MLBTradeRumors.com, whose formula has for years successfully projected arbitration salaries, here’s what the six Tigers players might receive in arbitration:

►Castellanos – $11.3 million.

►Greene – $4.8 million

►Fulmer – $3 million

►Boyd – $3 million

►Norris – $1.4 million

►Hardy – $1.2 million.

The Tigers and the players have until 1 p.m. next Friday to exchange their salary figures, and then negotiations can continue until Feb. 1, when Major League Baseball commences the arbitration hearings.

Teams, though, can push it straight to arbitration, submitting a "File-and-Go" claim. The majority of teams in baseball in recent years have gone to a File-and-Go philosophy. And, in recent years, teams have won the majority of arbitration cases. 

The Tigers have never taken that route. In fact, they typically work out one-year deals with arbitration-eligible players, usually before TigerFest (which is Jan. 26 this year).

“We’ve avoided arbitration over the years for a lot of different reasons,” Avila said. “A lot of it had to do with players taking the offers that we’ve wanted to give them.”

Those offers were usually at or slightly above the projected arbitration award.

"We've always been a team that negotiated right to the end," Avila said. "At this point, I can't tell you if we're going to go one way or another."

Defensive metrics could hurt Nick Castellanos in the arbitration process.

The landscape is a little different this year.

For one, assistant general manager and general counsel John Westhoff, who has been negotiating these contracts since 2002, has taken a step back and is in more of an advisory role now. While Westhoff is still involved, director of baseball operations Sam Menzin, senior director of analytics and baseball operations Jay Sartori and team counsel Alan Avila are handling the bulk of the negotiations.

That change, alone, though, doesn't necessarily mean there's been a shift in philosophy. But there is a shift in where the Tigers are, still in the early stages of a rebuilding plan.

While there is no directive to cut payroll, budget constraints are seemingly stricter and paying above the projected arbitration rate doesn't seem part of the plan. Already two arbitration-eligible players (James McCann and Alex Wilson) have been released, saving the club about $6.5 million in projected salary.   

While deals for Fulmer, Boyd, Norris, Hardy and Greene are likely to be more cut-and-dry – and could possibly get done before Feb. 1 – the Castellanos deal may get sticky.

If there is one negotiation that could end up in front of an arbitration panel, this is it.

Castellanos, who will be 27 in March and is coming the most productive offensive season of his career. Still, he is a viewed as a liability defensively and that is likely where the battle lines will be drawn.

It will be his 130 weighted runs creative vs. his minus-19 defensive runs saved, his 4.7 offensive WAR and his minus-2.4 defensive WAR. In the balance could be as much as $4 million – anywhere between $9 million and $13 million. 

That Castellanos will be a free agent after the 2019 season has no bearing on the arbitration process, nor does the Tigers' ongoing willingness to trade him, preferably before spring training.

With so many good hitters still on the market, starting with the top domino Bryce Harper, and the slowness of the trade and free-agent markets to this point, it is highly unlikely Castellanos will be moved before the start of spring training. 

And whatever his one-year salary ends up being for 2019 will be virtually inconsequential. 

Twitter @cmccosky