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Orioles to use 'file-and-trial' arbitration approach; will it hurt relations with core players?

The Orioles haven't gone to arbitration with their players often in recent years, with just two hearings over the past five offseasons, but that figures to change this year.

The team is now employing a "file-and-trial" approach with all of its arbitration-eligible players, meaning they will only negotiate with those players up until Friday's 1 p.m. deadline for exchanging salary figures. If a deal isn't reached by then, players will go to an arbitration hearing.

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The Orioles have used the approach on an individual basis before. Two years ago, outfielder Alejandro De Aza was a "file-and-trial" player, but this is the first time the Orioles have gone that route with all of their arbitration-eligible players, according to multiple industry sources.

The Orioles enter Friday with seven of their nine arbitration-eligible players unsigned. Utility man Ryan Flaherty agreed to a $1.8 million deal and left-hander T.J. McFarland agreed to a $685,000 contract Thursday.

But the Orioles' top arbitration-eligible players remain in negotiations – including third baseman Manny Machado, right-hander Chris Tillman and closer Zach Britton. And at this point, they appear headed to trial.

In the past, the Orioles would continue negotiations up until their arbitration trial days. Last year, Britton and left-hander Brian Matusz were unsigned when figures were exchanged, and they both eventually signed without incident. The Orioles' last arbitration case was De Aza's in 2015, which was won by the team, and before that they didn't have a case since Brad Bergesen's in 2012.

But going to the "file-and-trial" approach right now – essentially drawing a line in the sand with several key players who the Orioles would like to keep long term – is a dangerous tactic.

Arbitration hearings can be ugly because it's the only time players hear their employer speak negatively about them. Players have to hear every flaw in their game dissected in order to win the case. The process can be antagonistic, which makes it one you likely don't want to go through with cornerstone players like Machado, Tillman and Britton, all of whom are set to head to free agency within the next two offseasons. Right-hander Brach Brach, second baseman Jonathan Schoop and right-hander Kevin Gausman are also arbitration-eligible players who represent a big part of the Orioles' future.

The argument can be made that going to the "file-and-trial" approach is purely business, that it focuses both the team and the player on a quicker resolution rather than dragging out the process. But ultimately, neither side wants to go to a hearing.

Regardless of how they approach the process, the Orioles will invest a record amount of money on arbitration-eligible players, which in some ways is the price of success. The Orioles are projected to pay their nine arbitration players about $47 million, and that includes salaries that should exceed $10 million for Britton ($11.4 million), Machado ($11.2 million) and Tillman ($10.6 million).

But this is a critical time for the Orioles. Tillman, who has been the team's most consistent starter over the past four seasons, reaches free agency after the 2017 season. Machado and Britton become free agents after the 2018 season, as does center fielder Adam Jones. There is no sign extensions for any of those players are on the horizon.

If the Orioles truly want to retain Machado – a superstar who would reach free agency at the age of 26 – beyond 2018, this approach can't help that effort because it takes the good faith out of any future extension negotiations.

The "file-and-trial" approach seems to be becoming more prevalent in the game. Other than the Orioles, the New York Mets have also reportedly gone in that direction with arbitration-eligible players. Other teams that employ the approach with the arbitration process include the Houston Astros, Toronto Blue Jays, Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays and Chicago White Sox. The Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Washington Nationals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds have also used the approach with individual players.

The Orioles have a sparkling record in arbitration hearings. The team's general counsel, H. Russell Smouse, is 8-0 in arbitration hearings, and the team has lost just one arbitration hearing since Peter G. Angelos took over the team. They are 11-1 under Angelos, their only loss in that span coming to Ben McDonald in 1995.

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