I know most of us will never ever have to step into a mediation or arbitration hearing in our lives. Could Tampa Bay Rays SP Jeff Niemann have just the right tidbits of information, the right stuff to finally end the Rays arbitration dominance? Weirder things have happened during the Rays existence. Could the Tall Texan have manufactured and possibly pulled off the first major player versus management coup of 2012. A win by Niemann during this hearing would not only be historic, it would put a road sign firmly in Tampa Bay sand that the Rays dominance at the arbitration table can be defeated. But the decision lingers until Friday. So possibly for 12-18 hours we can believe he has defeated the Rays stoic forces, at least set the tone for some awesome dreams.
Even at 6’9”, Rays starter Jeff Niemann will not have the mound for intimidation as he sit in the room for his hearing. It will be one of those times when it must feel more like a taping of the old show “This Is Your Life” as both side take their turns providing key elements, interesting scenarios possibly going back and forth like a recent tennis match with volleys of well placed rhetoric and statistics to pushing the other side towards the eventual finish line as a victor. Considering the Rays management harbor an impeccable 5-0 arbitration record going into the hearing, you might consider this more a tale of David (Niemann) against Goliath (Rays) with the outcome weighed a bit towards the organization than the unusually Tall Texan.
When I think of this kind of hearing where good and bad can be weighed, measured and you can be left wanting. I wonder if as a player entering that confined space you have that same fear and level of doubt on the surface knowing you are entering the Lion’s den and could come out alive or be a late afternoon morsel. I wonder if they set up the hotel room/suite with the mediator/arbitrator sitting at a large table in the center of the room and either party takes a couch or one of a set of tables set up for both the team at a predetermined distance to not give either the point of an advantage.
I wonder what effect it has on you as you gaze over at the Rays table and see Rays Executive V P of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, who looks more like a star-struck young adult than the right-hand trade trigger man and in-season muscle for Big Stu. We all know that underneath that boyish exterior of Friedman lies the confidence and savvy of a prizefighter. Friedman tends to hope you underestimate his power points during these hearing so he can become a debate “Dan Johnson” and turn quickly on one of your stats or comments and send your hopes and dreams crashing into the Rays Tank. I can even imagine this lip-sync moment unfolding as Friedman quips: “It’s not personal Jeff, it is business”.
What is so disheartening is that the two sides were not that far apart in their original arbitration figures. Basically Niemann was asking for a difference of an MLB Rookie’s salary. But we all know that Friedman and his band of legal eagles have their own agenda and they most certainly have their proverbial “ ducks in their row” that could easily devour and chew up even the healthiest of stats set forth by Niemann and his agent. And you know that Friedman has respect for Niemann and even if a comment or two might seem harsh or painful to hear, the underlying element here is Friedman is doing what he feels is good for the franchise and not going on the attack or blindsiding Niemann.
There are tons of good, edible stats that could set the winning plate for Niemann to get his extra arbitration cabbage, but the Rays organization is sure to point out his “down time” and yearly bout with the D L or injuries in 2011 that could provide the eventual turning point that might cost Niemann a solid chance to become victorious. Even if Niemann did post a “W” on TGIF-day, he might suddenly hear the same chorus of trade rumors that instantly engulfed fellow Washington Nationals starter John Lannan after his own arbitration defeat earlier this week.
Worst thing is even as a long shot to post a win in his arbitration case, Niemann’s days as a Ray are surely numbered. I know each side came out of that hotel room today feeling “lucky”, knowing they presented a solid foundation of numbers, situations and parameters that should slide the weight their direction, but you never know. Niemann and his legal entourage could have deposited the perfect treat, one single solitary morsel of edible goodness that the arbitrator ate up and puts on the “+” side of his balance sheet that could force the decision into Niemann’s favor.
You can bet whatever the outcome, Niemann will be intent to show the Rays he is/was worth the money, or post numbers that will make their decision this Spring incredibly hard not to keep him on the roster. But have no false illusions, this is a make or break Spring for Niemann. He has fought off fellow Rays pitchers before to take a rotation spot, but this Spring he will face his toughest competition from more than 1 hungry rookie hurler.
Niemann has been a loyal and solid contributor for this team. I hope Niemann and his agent felt great leaving the room on Thursday because that hearing will be just a warm-up for the eventual dogfight for a Rays rotation slot that Niemann will encounter once he takes the field this Spring. All eyes will be watching the Tall Texan this Spring…especially Friedman’s’. I truly hope Jeff breaks the Rays streak.