Marco Gonzales Got an Unusual Raise by Sheryl Ring November 5, 2018 Quick: who led the Mariners in pitching WAR in 2018? If you guessed James Paxton, you’d be right, because Paxton is awesome. What you might not expect, however, is that Paxton finished just 0.2 WAR ahead of the team’s second-best starting pitcher by that metric, Marco Gonzales. To put it another way, Gonzales was worth more in 2018 than free agents J.A. Happ and Charlie Morton — and the same as Dallas Keuchel. Quietly, the former Cardinal racked up 3.6 WAR on the back of a 98 ERA-, 83 FIP-, and microscopic 4.7% walk rate. If you want to put Gonzales’s elite control in a different context, consider this: there were 57 major-league starting pitchers who qualified for the ERA title this year. Of those, Gonzales had the fifth-best walk rate by BB/9, better than Jacob deGrom, Zack Greinke, and Kyle Hendricks. By BB%, Gonzales still had the fifth-best walk figure, sandwiched between Ivan Nova and Justin Verlander. Unlike Hendricks and Nova, though, Gonzales missed bats, striking out better than 21% of hitters (about 7.8 per nine). Gonzales ditched his four-seam fastball after April in favor of a cutter, which he mixed with his sinker, changeup, and curveball to generally good results. (All four pitches had positive run values in 2018.) So, on the surface, when Gonzales received a two-year contract worth $1.9 million from the Mariners this offseason, it seemed reasonable — if not light — for a young left-hander coming off a quality season. But Gonzales isn’t even eligible for salary arbitration until 2021, which raised more than a few eyebrows. Mariners agree to deal with Marco Gonzales. 2 years, $1.9M. Interesting deal for player who isn’t yet arb eligible, seems quite good for Marco. — Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 1, 2018 Unfortunately for Gonzales, this isn’t a case where the Mariners decided to reward his fine season with a raise. Instead, there were other factors in play. A lot of folks were shocked by how high the Marco Gonzales deal is since he is not arbitration eligible until after 2020. Via club sources, the 1.9K figure is partly explainable by Gonzales having a previous grievance pending over the timing of a demotion while with the cardinals — Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 1, 2018 So Marco Gonzales, to clarify, agreed to drop his grievance and the potential for more service time in exchange for a bigger deal now, one that guarantees a 2nd year and is about 700-800K more than a 0-2 player would normally get over 2 years #mariners — Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 2, 2018 Back in 2016, Gonzales, a former first-round draft pick, was competing for a spot in the then-loaded St. Louis rotation. Ostensibly owing to that logjam, the Cardinals optioned Gonzales to Triple-A on March 21, 2016 so he could pitch in a regular rotation. But on April 10, 2016, those plans were postponed when the Cardinals announced that Gonzales needed elbow surgery. Mike Matheny said pitcher Marco Gonzales has already consulted all the doctors. He's contemplating whether to have elbow surgery. — Mark Saxon (@markasaxon) April 10, 2016 That elbow surgery turned out, of course, to be a Tommy John procedure to repair his ulnar collateral ligament. Notably, the Cardinals said at the time that Gonzales first told the team’s minor-league staff about his elbow pain after he was optioned. But according to Gonzales, that’s not what happened. The southpaw filed a grievance against the Cardinals, arguing that the team optioned him after already being made ware that he had a damaged ligament and was considering UCL surgery. Now, had Gonzales won his grievance, he could have theoretically gained back a full year (or more) of major-league service time accrued while he was out with his Tommy John surgery and recovery. And this would have real consequences for the Mariners, who would lose a year of control over their young lefty or even have him hit free agency a year earlier. So they offered Gonzales a raise over his $550,300 salary in exchange for dropping his grievance. At this point, we don’t know who was right with respect to the grievance, and we probably never will. But at the same time, Gonzales’s case is a good example of some of the problems plaguing the relationship between the league and players right now. Gonzales’ grievance was kicking around for better than two years without a resolution, and ended up having to be settled. One of the goals of alternative dispute resolution systems, like grievances, is to avoid the expense and time involved in litigation. In the legal community, MLB’s grievance and arbitration system tends to be viewed as a smashing success. Even as early as 1975, lawyers praised the efficiency of MLB’s grievance and salary-arbitration system. Even now, legal studies have tended to view the lengthy delays inherent to the system as a feature, not a bug, in a system to be emulated. Therefore, the system forces the parties to commit to a position that must be reasonable to have any chance of winning, and then gives them time to bargain between those reasonable positions. The system allots time for bargaining, and its design encourages settlement prior to a hearing. . . . High settlement rates and low numbers of hearings each year demonstrate that the system effectively encourages the parties to reach negotiated agreements. And certainly settlements and dispute resolution is something to be incentivized. At the same time, however, grievances seem to be getting handled at a pace most analogous to molasses, and that’s not a positive development. As the arbitration system in MLB developed, the MLBPA granted more and more jurisdiction to the arbitrators to resolve various disputes, correctly believing they would serve as both a check on the league’s excesses and ensure the rules governing players were loosened. However, perhaps as a result of the increased workload, and perhaps as a result of the league’s own dilatory tactics, the grievance arbitration system has now ground to a halt. Kris Bryant, for instance, filed a grievance against the Cubs for service-time manipulation in 2015. It was still pending in March 2018, when the Chicago Sun-Times reported that it had gone “nowhere.” The lack of urgency in adjudicating grievances led Tony Clark to say back in 2016 that “[e]ven if there was a latest, I would not offer the latest on the Bryant grievance.” The simple fact is that not all cases settle. Most do — and that’s great! But Kris Bryant might hit free agency before his grievance is resolved, which would effectively moot the entire matter. It is possible for an alternative dispute resolution system to swing so far in favor of party-driven settlements that it has no answer for cases which can’t settle. Those parties deserve the finality and certainty of an arbitrated adjudication. And not providing one creates a high risk of abuse, with one party simply refusing to settle because it knows the grievance will eventually become moot or never be ruled upon. There is no incentive to settle where no adjudication will ever be rendered; the reason the salary arbitration system works better than the grievance arbitration system is that the salary process has actual hearings and rendered decisions. As for Gonzales, he ended up bringing home a nice raise and a nice potential platform for when he does go through the salary arbitration. But the team which allegedly committed the wrongful act wasn’t the Mariners, the team that paid him. It was the Cardinals, who are the one team who made it out of this saga without paying a penalty. Gonzales lost a year of service time. The Mariners lost a million dollars. The Cardinals dealt Gonzales for Tyler O’Neill and gained a slugging corner outfielder. Somehow, that doesn’t seem quite fair.