By Sweeny Murti
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TAMPA, Fla. (WFAN) — When news broke Saturday morning that the Yankees had won their arbitration case, I thought the only thing that meant was that Dellin Betances would be paid $3 million instead of $5 million this season and that was that.
But what unfolded over the next few hours was a war of words that has the Yankees organization drawing battle lines with its best player over the last three years.
Team president Randy Levine set up a conference call with reporters, the purpose of which is still unclear because most teams prefer to let the arbitration ruling stand and move on from what is generally an uncomfortable process. Here is part of Levine’s opening statement Saturday:
“Dellin Betances is a great, great person. Dellin Betances is a great, great, elite setup man for the New York Yankees. And the New York Yankees rewarded him as such with our offer of $3 million. (We made him) the highest paid first-time eligible elite setup man in the history of baseball arbitration,” Levine said.
“And Dellin deserved that. What his agents did was make him the victim of an attempt to change a marketplace in baseball that has been well established for 30 to 40 years. And I feel bad for Dellin that he was used in that way by his agent, because anyone who knows about this process, anyone would know that the history is very well established. That $5 million goes to elite closers,” Levine continued.
“What do we mean by closers? People who pitch the ninth inning and have a lot, a lot, a lot of saves. Dellin didn’t have that record, he never did. He’s a great, elite setup man. Maybe one day he’ll be a great closer. We hope so. But that’s like saying the agent took him to a case, in effect, like me saying, I’m not the president of the Yankees, I’m an astronaut. Well I’m not an astronaut and Dellin Betances is not a closer, at least based on statistics — not whether he could be or couldn’t, but he isn’t.”
Betances’s agent, Jim Murray of Excel Sports Management, fired back, telling WFAN via phone call: “Randy must be an astronaut because he’s clearly living on the moon. No one in baseball would agree with the comments he had today, including his own general manager.
“I don’t know where it was coming from, why he chose to do it. Clearly he’s trying to drive a wedge, make himself look better to Dellin, because Dellin was clearly not happy with him yesterday,” Murray added. “But it’s a pretty ineffective way to get what you want to get out of one of your best players.
“You can’t find a more professional, good-hearted competitor in baseball. Dellin is one of the best at what he does and also has the mentality to do pretty much anything as he’s demonstrated. He’s not going to let one person bully him in any which way. He’s not going to let one person’s opinion affect how he goes about his business,” Murray continued.
“What the Yankees portrayed in the room is drastically different than what Dellin has actually provided to that club in terms of value. So he’s not going to let it affect his preparation, how he plays for his teammates or the fans. He’s definitely going to keep this in the back of his mind in dealing with the Yankees and I’ll just leave it at that.”
Betances had been working out privately until after Friday’s hearing. He reported to camp Saturday, and after his morning workout took to the podium and made his own opening remarks in a measured tone, clearly laced with anger.
“Even though I disagreed with the arbitrator’s decision, I was planning on putting everything behind me until I was (made) aware of Randy Levine’s comments, and saying I was a victim in this whole process and saying how much they love me,” Betances said.
“But then they take me in a room (for the hearing) and they trash me for about an hour and a half. And I thought that was unfair for me. Especially, I feel like I’ve done a lot for this organization, especially these last three years. I’ve taken the ball time after time. Whenever they needed me I was there for them. I never said no. Whenever (Joe) Girardi said, ‘You want the ball?’ I got it. And for me, I just felt this whole process was unfair. We tried to come to middle ground and nothing really happened,” Betances added.
“I love playing, I love competing for my teammates, I love competing in front of the fans, my hometown fans. I just wanted to get it off my chest because usually I don’t say as much, but I felt like it was right. Now I learned how this whole process works and I know what this is all about.”
Keep in mind the Yankees tried their case and won the decision with the three-person panel.
Levine, nonetheless, seemed to feel the Yankees’ side needed to be heard publicly for anyone who was thinking the organization were mistreating Betances, a three-time All-Star and fan favorite.
“This was an attempt to use a player to change a market in effect where there were decades of experience and history where people at the top of the relief market were closers, premium closers — that’s who make that kind of money,” Levine said. “This was a half-baked attempt to try and undo all of that history, which everybody in the game — clubs, unions, agents — knew and try and change the market in a radical way using Dellin Betances, to try and say there’s no difference between closers and elite setup men and regular relief pitchers. And that’s really troubling to me, that they would take a player of mine who’s such a great young kid to do something like that.
“The fact of the matter is there is a defined market for relief pitchers. Elite closers get X amount, and then there’s a curve that goes down. It’s based principally on ninth inning and saves. Dellin has been great, but he doesn’t have the statistics in the ninth inning or the saves. He just doesn’t have it. So at the end of the day it was obvious he wasn’t getting $5 million unless it was a fluke.”
Murray built his case around Betances’ unique qualities and defended them Saturday.
“It’s not your standard paint by number, ‘okay here’s the player, here’s where he slots in.’ What this guy has done is different than anyone that’s come through the arbitration system,” Murray said. “Randy is labeling him as a setup man. You watch all the games. Is he your typical setup man? No, he’s not. He’s come in to pitch multiple innings more than any other pitcher. He’s got the highest WAR of any relief pitcher in baseball the last three years, including the two guys who just hit records for the highest contracts ever given to a reliever, Kenley Jansen and Aroldis Chapman.
“He’s not your cookie cutter guy. He’s also the only All-Star the last three years who’s a relief pitcher. He’s only one of three in history to do that first three years of his career. The other two are Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel,” Murray said.
“The sabermetrics are one thing. Having your peers vote you into the All-Star game for three seasons and being one of three relievers ever regardless of your role … that tells you that he’s different.”
Betances seemed most betrayed by the fact his willingness to take the ball wasn’t being rewarded as highly as he had hoped:
“I honestly feel like I was asking for a fair deal. I’ve taken the ball. I guess your typical setup man pitches one inning. I went out there for three innings, or multiple (innings), or (with) guys on base all the time. I know that’s my job and for me to try to do the best I can with it. But I continued to do it over and over just trying to help the team. And for me to even go through this process, that’s what upsets me the most. That’s what I thought was unfair,” Betances said.
Levine tried to make a point of saying he was on Betances’ side.
“What was done with Dellin Betances that led to an arbitration was completely unreal fantasy and I feel bad for him,” Levine said. “I love Dellin Betances. I’ve taken a very strong interest in him his whole career. I was involved in drafting him. I’ve seen a lot of stuff out there about animosity and bad stuff and so forth. There is no bad stuff on our end. We love the kid. He’s a great Yankee. And I wanted to set the record straight, that the reason we went to arbitration, the reason that he lost, the reason that we’re even having these conversations have nothing to do with anything the Yankees did. The Yankees did the right thing. They filed the number at $3 million, which shows respect, appreciation for what he did, what his career was, as one of the elite setup men of the game. We’ve done everything that should be done.
“And for some people to believe ‘Oh, he filed $5 million, let’s throw reality out the door and what does it matter? Let’s just pay him $5 million even though there’s no basis in fact for it.’ What I’m trying to say is the Yankees, as always, did the right thing based on our history, based on where we are,” he added. “We love Dellin. We hope he’s very successful. We treat him with great respect, and this shouldn’t be confused with representatives trying to change the market, throwing out ridiculous numbers that have very little chance of winning, and then pretending that when they lose the Yankees are bad guys for not paying a number that has no basis in reality.”
Murray is well aware that the arbitration process values precedent and history as Levine stated. But the belief from both player and agent was that they had a unique case. Murray then shed some light on how the Yankees tried to tailor their argument.
“I get what Randy’s saying, but there’s no logical number you could tie this player to,” Murray said. “Our number is not overreaching. If you look at the comparables, and their comparables, ask them who their comps were and ask them if they would trade Dellin Betances for any one of those guys straight up. There’s no way they would trade Dellin Betances for Tyler Thornburgh or Will Harris or any of them. There’s an argument to be made they wouldn’t trade Dellin Betances for pretty much anyone, any reliever one to one. That’s the uniqueness he brings to the table. Salary arbitration hasn’t necessarily adapted to that yet, but it will. It has the chance to, and that’s what we attempted to do.”
Murray also pointed out that the arbitrators typically make awards based on history and precedent, but those aren’t necessarily the directions presented in the Collective Bargaining Agreement.
“There’s nothing in the basic agreement that says salary arbitration is based on precedent,” Murray said. “The only thing in the basic agreement is the panel shall weigh the criteria as it sees fit. The criteria says contributions to the club over the past season and his career, special qualities of public appeal and leadership, the player’s past compensation, which went over, I thought, pretty well in the room, that even after two record-setting seasons the Yankees paid him as little as possible. And there’s nothing in the criteria that says ‘role’ or ‘precedent.’ There’s nothing in there for that.”
For Betances, the hope is that it’s business as usual on the field, but his anger got the best of him for a while on Saturday when even he began to question the value in his workload over the last three years and his unquestioned loyalty to the manager when he brings him into the game:
“Some of the stuff they said in that room, they value me as a setup man or an eighth-inning guy, is it selfish of me to just to say now, ‘Hey guys, I just wanna come in for the eight inning with no runners on all the time?’ That’s not the player I am. I try to go out there and battle for my teammates the best I can all the time,” Betances said. “But now that you go in that room and see some of the stuff, do you put yourself at risk at all times? I just … I’m trying to go to battle for my teammates and put (on) the best performance I can each and every day.
“I’ve gotta take care of myself, obviously. I’ve gotta be a little smarter, gotta be able to speak up. That’s something that I’ll do,” he continued. “At the end of the day I’m a competitor. You guys ask some of these players that have been on this team for three years and ask some of those guys what I’ve done and they’ll tell you.
“All I ask is to be treated fairly. That’s all I asked during this whole process. I thought things would be different. I thought we wouldn’t be going in that room. I tried to fight for my rights and things didn’t go the way I thought they would. At the end of the day I’m still a winner no matter how much I’m making. It’s really not about the amount. It’s just that I wanted to be treated fair.”
You always heard that the arbitration process, when it gets to a hearing, is an ugly one. You found out how ugly on Saturday.