Tal Smith moonlights

Here’s an interesting article about Astros’ President Tal Smith’s second gig — or maybe first gig; it’s hard to tell — representing teams in arbitration cases:

When it comes to salary arbitration in baseball, Smith has seen it all. He argued his first cases in 1974, the year baseball adopted the process, when he was an executive vice president with the New York Yankees.

Over the years, Smith and his staff have prepared more than 900 arbitration cases, with more than 160 going to a hearing . . .

. . . When Drayton McLane bought the Astros in 1994, he recruited Smith back to the organization. Smith was leery to give up his consulting business, which over the years had a staff of as many as 10, including part-timers who worked during arbitration season. McLane said it would be OK for Smith to keep his consulting business, as long as his work was limited to arbitration cases. Smith was named president of baseball operations. He is 75 – although he looks years younger – and this will be his 52d year in pro ball.

Smith’s role with the Astros has led to small amounts of criticism, particularly from the media, that his handling of other clubs’ arbitration cases is a conflict of interest.

“People who raise that issue don’t understand,” Smith said. “When you represent a club in arbitration, you’re acting in the best interests of ownership as a whole. If you prevail, it helps the salary structure for the entire industry.

I suppose that’s right inasmuch as one only views conflicts of interest through the prism of player-owner relationships. But don’t teams compete too, or is that merely a quaint fiction designed to placate the fans? Because I don’t think it’s that hard to imagine a situation in which a person who works for one team doesn’t give his best when representing another team — say, in his own division — with the result being that the competition gets stuck with a much higher payroll obligation than it might otherwise have.

Is this a real risk? Eh, probably not, and it may not even be worth the trouble if it was. But there are a lot of folks out there who believe that appearances of a conflict of interest are nearly as bad as conflicts which actually come to fruition, so I don’t know if we can dismiss it that casually.

Whatever the case, I find it interesting that the President of a major league team so readily identifies players as the opposition/competition as opposed to other teams.

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  1. dlf said...

    “If you prevail, it helps the salary structure for the entire industry”

    Yes … but that is the short term.  If you win, but annoy the player to such a degree that he won’t consider the “home town discount” before free agency, then it doesn’t help the salary structure for the industry.  Arbitration needs to be seen not just as a method of determining a single year’s contract, but as one contract in a series of agreements covering an entire career.

  2. Aarcraft said...

    I’m assuming that the teams get to select their own representation during the arbitration process. If thats the case, then if Smith is in fact not giving full effort, leading to increased salaries for teams he is representing, then the teams would simply cease to hire him.

    I’m sure a conflict of interest is a concern here. But, as you know, a client can waive almost any conflict of interest. Its not as if the teams hiring Smith are unaware of his role with the Astros. By hiring him, they effectively waive the conflict.

    As to the last point, Smith’s view of player/owner competition v. team/team competition might go along way towards explaining why the Astros, as a franchise, have fallen so hard, so fast.

  3. JK said...

    Remember too, though, that Smith has been with baseball for so long, he was here before the players got their act together, has gone through the entire Marvin Miller era, and has seen the massive changes of the game from an up-front perspective. I can see why he’d identify the other owners and teams as friends and/or colleagues and the players as enemies.

  4. ElBonte said...

    Smith is hired by the Brewers and loses the 2011 Prince Fielder arbitration case.  As a condition of the ruling, the feature in Minute Maid Park is renamed “Boras’ Hill”

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