Orioles All-Stars Manny Machado, Zach Britton and Chris Tillman receive big raises for 2017. (Baltimore Sun video)
Call it a case of peace through strength. The Orioles decided to go with a get-tough approach to their long list of potential salary arbitration disputes this winter and settled four of the most expensive possible disagreements Friday without even exchanging salary figures with the players.
The "file-and-trial" strategy is something of a soft ultimatum intended to speed up the process and avoid the distraction and other negative effects of an actual arbitration showdown. Manny Machado, Zach Britton, Chris Tillman and Jonathan Schoop all decided to accept the team's final pre-deadline offer, though it wasn't like the Orioles were squeezing them particularly hard.
They all got about what they were expected to get, which is a sign that the club wanted to avoid any contentiousness with a group of popular players the Orioles would like to keep around beyond their arbitration eligibility. It remains to be seen whether team officials will stick by their vow to go all the way to hearings with Kevin Gausman, Brad Brach and Caleb Joseph.
Either way, it's clear that baseball operations chief Dan Duquette is hoping to get enough contract problems out of the way before the Orioles head to spring training that he won't have to spend every day there answering questions about the long-term uncertainty surrounding the team's nucleus.
It won't work, of course. The public fascination with Machado's status in particular is only going to grow, and the fact that the club has been able to get this far without seriously damaging its relationship with him probably won't make much difference when it's time to actually tender him a long-term offer.
No one is naive enough to think that Machado's representatives will be willing to sell him short if the early projections of his worth on the free-agent market are anywhere close to accurate. Britton and Tillman, however, figure to be in a lesser free-agent orbit and there might be some value in keeping them content while the team figures out whether it can afford to keep them.
Duquette might tell you there is always value in getting contract stuff done quickly and without unnecessary confrontation simply to preserve good clubhouse chemistry, something the Orioles have thrived on during the Duquette/Buck Showalter era and might need more than ever this year. On that score, nothing good can come from a hearing in which the team must give all the reasons the player isn't worth the money he's demanding.
During the early years of salary arbitration, the relationship between the players and owners was so raw that teams seemed far more concerned about the money at stake than keeping players happy. That dynamic has changed to a great extent as both sides generally seek to avoid taking the dispute all the way to the end.
The owners still have the upper hand when it comes to the players with three years of service time or fewer. A team can tender a young player at any figure above the minimum ($535,000 this year) as long as it does not cut that player's salary more than 20 percent.
The Orioles took advantage of that ability when they renewed Machado at a salary of just $519,000 — just $19,000 over the minimum — after his first full season in 2013, even though he led the American League with 51 doubles. Machado said at the time that he was disappointed with the renewal, but also said he would still entertain a long-term contract offer from the Orioles.
Machado received just $548,000 in 2015 after missing half the 2014 season with a second knee injury. He finally got paid last year when the Orioles avoided arbitration in his first year of eligibility by giving him more than an 800 percent raise to $5 million. He more than doubled that Friday with his $11.5 million deal.
Britton got $11.4 million and, like Machado, will have one more bite at the arbitration apple next year. Tillman settled for $10.05 million and will be eligible for free agency at the end of this coming season if the Orioles don't sign him to an extension. Schoop, who signed for $3.475 million, has three more years under club control.
Much uncertainty remains about the makeup of the roster beyond this season, but the Orioles will likely open spring training four weeks from now with little controversy.
They'll also open camp unbridled by high expectations, but what else is new?