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White Sox’ last arbitration battle wasn’t worth fighting

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Club’s relationship with Keith Foulke changed for worse after losing hearing in 2001

Keith Foulke #29

St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak rattled a sword during the team’s fan festival this past weekend, saying the club intended to go to arbitration hearings with Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez.

Why should a White Sox blog reader care? The Cardinals are just one of two teams with longer arbitration droughts. The White Sox last went to a hearing in 2001, when Keith Foulke beat them for an extra $900,000. The streak the Cardinals are jeopardizing runs a couple years longer (Darren Oliver, 1999), with the Rangers sitting neatly in between (2000, Lee Stevens).

Also, the most newsworthy of the recent Jose Quintana rumors is mostly a restatement of the winter to date.

So, back to arbitration hearings, Foulke’s victory — and the tumult over the rest of his White Sox career — might explain why the White Sox stopped doing them.

After the 2000 season, one in which Foulke established himself as an upper-echelon reliever while closing games for a division-winning White Sox team, he filed for a $3.1 million salary for the 2001 season. The White Sox countered with $2.2 million. Foulke’s figure won out when it went to a hearing later that winter, but he had to absorb a lot of bullets along the way, according to a Chicago Tribune story from Feb. 19, 2001:

When closer Keith Foulke went into arbitration, he was prepared to hear the Sox argue against his request for $3.1 million. But he wasn't prepared to hear criticism that he had the highest earned-run average of any postseason reliever, or the highest ERA among relievers in the month of June.

In the end, Foulke won the hearing and will earn $3.1 million this year.

"It was an interesting process," Foulke said. "Everyone always tells you there's no hard feelings afterward, that it's all business. I'm glad it's over. When we found out that we won, it made it a lot easier to deal with.

"Not that they said any real bad stuff, but this is your team and you think they respect you. It is business, and I guess you have to learn the hard way how arbitration goes. I don't want to do it every year."

Indeed, he avoided another such hearing over the rest of his career. He signed a two-year extension with the White Sox in December of 2001 to cover the rest of his arbitration years, although the Sox ended up dealing him to Oakland for Billy Koch halfway through. (Neal Cotts’ success in a setup role was delayed, but it mitigated the ultimate damage of the deal.)

Reading about the aftermath of the hearing and subsequent contract negotiations, though, Foulke’s triumph gave the discussions about his future a darker tenor. In August of 2001, with Foulke approaching the stretch run of what turned out to be a 42-save season, he and the White Sox reached an impasse on an extension, and Kenny Williams sounded resigned to further ugliness.

Foulke said Tuesday the chances for an extension were "dead in the water." According to Williams, Foulke opted to pursue his maximum value in 2002 over security.

"We were very aggressive," Williams said. "Keith is very content to go year by year at this point. Therefore we may be at the arbitration table year by year. That's unfortunate because I don't like the process, what takes place there. It's not conducive to an ideal relationship, but it is what it is."

Foulke and the White Sox eventually settled on a two-year, $10 million contract, which might have been a bargain considering he could draw credible comparisons to Mariano Rivera in Elias Sports Bureau’s free-agent formula.

Yet the “bitter” arbitration battle resurfaced in stories even after he signed on, although partially because he got off to such a rough start in 2002. He had a wobbly spring training and a few spectacular blown saves over the first two months, and he lost the closer role for good after giving up a first-pitch homer to Vladimir Guerrero on June 8. Jerry Manuel only gave Foulke a few save opportunities over the final three-plus months, even though he posted a 1.73 ERA over the 41 appearances following the Guerrero homer.

Foulke eventually rediscovered his old success as a closer after the change of scenery. He easily won the head-to-head comparison with Koch in his one season with Oakland, then earned his big free-agent contract with the Red Sox up front, closing out his first year by closing out Boston’s first World Series title since 1918.

Fortunately for the White Sox, their curse-busting championship the following year stopped the reverberations the Foulke-Koch failure. Not only did the White Sox receive big help from Cotts, but they also benefited handsomely from another arbitration hearing that backfired.

In researching which teams avoided arbitration hearings for longer, I came across this recent post from Grant Brisbee at McCovey Chronicles, whose Giants last tried a hearing in 2004. The player won, the relationship soon soured, and the White Sox were happy to pick up the pieces.

Back in 2004, the Giants and their representatives sat down with A.J. Pierzynski and his representatives. A panel of impartial arbitrators were in the room, and they listened to both sides explain why Pierzynski was more or less valuable than the other side thought. He wanted $3.5 million. The Giants were offering $2.25 million — a huge gap.

Pierzynski won. [...]

In that hearing, the Giants almost certainly used statistics to present a thorough case of why Pierzynski just wasn’t very good. He had to listen to it. This was his first introduction to the team, more or less. It was the start of an ugly, combative year that ended with the Giants declining to offer him arbitration the next year. They either couldn’t trade him, or they didn’t bother to try.

He played 13 more seasons, of course. The White Sox didn’t have the same problems with his cheekiness, and they kept bringing him back. Whatever bothered the Giants about Pierzynski wasn’t something that bothered his other teams, considering they generally liked him, he begrudgingly admits with great shame.