Marco Gonzales Got an Unusual Raise

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.

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.

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.

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.

Sheryl Ring is a litigation attorney and General Counsel at Open Communities, a non-profit legal aid agency in the Chicago suburbs. You can reach her on twitter at @Ring_Sheryl. The opinions expressed here are solely the author's. This post is intended for informational purposes only and is not intended as legal advice.

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5 years ago

Mariners lost a million: rounding error for a MLB team, so no concern there. However, it does sort of bother me that the Cardinals got of scot-free. For an organization that claims to be so perfect and held up as the example of teams that “do things the right way,” their recent history is less than pristine.

There is of course their hacking of the Astros, which they claimed was limited to the guy that got caught, as well as all the clubhouse and player issues with Mike Matheny as manager.

Maybe it’s time to reevaluate them from a public-perception point of view.

Dave T
5 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

Sheryl’s concluding paragraph doesn’t make sense at all about the Cardinals vs. Mariners element of the Gonzales trade. To be blunt: Gonzales’ grievance was a known issue when he was traded, so the Cardinals’ trade return of Tyler O’Neill from the Mariners already logically took into account the Mariners’ assessment of the grievance and any likely liability for the team associated with it.

The timeline is easy to put together. As Sheryl notes, Gonzales filed his grievance over two years ago. (That makes complete sense, because under Article XI B of the CBA, Gonzales would have had a period of up to 60 days from these events in March 2016 to file a grievance.) Gonzales was later – well after filing this grievance – traded from the Cardinals to the Mariners in July 2017.

The notion that the Cardinals somehow hoodwinked the Mariners doesn’t make any sense, and Sheryl should really revise that part of her post unless she can advance some plausible theory of why she believes the existence of this grievance wouldn’t be a known, disclosed event to the Mariners, particularly since it appears that the Mariners assumed the liability for resolution of the grievance rather than negotiating to leave that liability with the Cardinals. It’s certainly possible that the Cardinals didn’t act properly with respect to Gonzales, but the claims about Cardinals vs. Mariners aren’t logical.

5 years ago
Reply to  Dave T

Toes the line with libel, since Sheryl printed it with a defamatory claim. Now there would have to be proof there is intent to harm, but the implication was made that initial hoodwinking was involved. Removing the two dubious sentences and her article reads like fine objective journalism; with them it looks like Sheryl just wanted to take a swipe at the Cards.

Dave T
5 years ago
Reply to  LofSkrif

I won’t throw around terms like libel, because I think it was simply poor analysis of an element of the deal that wasn’t specifically publicly disclosed/discussed by the teams (AFAIK) but that can be reasonably inferred from the other known facts of the situation.

5 years ago
Reply to  scooter262

Just because an agreement has been reached doesn’t mean STL is guilty of anything. It is more likely that Seattle just wanted to get this out of the way and not have it hanging over them and have the possibility of his status changing some year down the road. In business it is better to know your expenses than not to.

The way you are looking at it, I’m not sure how any baseball team can have a good public perception. I mean all 30 teams grossly underpay their minor league players, gouge their fans where ever they can when pricing anything, practice dubious recruitment tactics of players from poor countries throughout the Western Hemisphere, many have shown they are willing to sign/trade for players with Domestic Violence issues/suspensions, known PED users, service time manipulation, and avoid paying bonus by benching or moving players to a lower bonus potential role (Kenta Maeda – lost 3 – 5 mil because he was moved out of the rotation in what may have been a move for LAD to stay below the Luxury tax).

Most of the time teams are all in it to make money first and if they win that is great, and usually good for the bottom line. Treating this entertainment business as anything other than that is what you should be reevaluating.