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Fallout of Corbin Burnes’ arbitration hearing following troublesome pattern for Brewers

The team’s latest communicative failure shows that they haven’t learned from recent public relations fiascos

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New York Mets v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

Brewers pitchers and catchers reported to spring training on Thursday, but instead of the optimism of a new season, a series of damning comments made by Corbin Burnes captured headlines.

The Brewers defeated their ace in an arbitration hearing the previous day and will pay him $10.01 million this season instead of the $10.75 for which he filed—a difference of $740,000.

Burnes made his disappointment clear and said that his relationship with the team had been damaged as a result of the ordeal. He elaborated that it was not the outcome but the process itself that rubbed him the wrong way.

“I think there were other ways that they could have gone about it and probably been a little more respectful with the way they went about it,” he told reporters.

As an example, Burnes alleged that the club’s representatives put him “at the forefront” of the team’s failure to make the postseason in 2022.

Fans have understandably had two questions as the saga has unfolded: why did it get to this point, and how will this impact the rest of Burnes’ time in Milwaukee?

The answer to the first question is that arbitration is a complicated, messy, and silly process (more on that later).

To answer the second question, the hearing doesn’t change anything. The Brewers were never going to sign Burnes to a market-value extension, and he was never going to accept a below-market offer. A trade before the 2024 season was always possible, and it now feels inevitable.

In the meantime, Burnes will continue to put in his best effort to help his team win and position himself for a future payday. He made it clear that despite his frustration, he would approach the situation professionally and give it his all every fifth day on the mound.

The real story of Burnes’ hearing and the subsequent fallout is that it follows what has become a familiar pattern for the Brewers in recent months: a controversial decision erupting into a public relations fiasco when a player publicly criticizes the organization for said decision.

The first high-profile example occurred after the trade of closer Josh Hader to the San Diego Padres in July. Unsurprisingly, the move sent immediate shockwaves through the clubhouse. What was concerning is that those shockwaves never seemed to subside.

Nearly a month after the trade, Eric Lauer candidly criticized the front office for the trade and accused them of dismissing its impact on the clubhouse. Those comments served as a sign that the Brewers badly butchered the move from a communication standpoint, a fact that David Stearns acknowledged in his first offseason press conference.

Less than two weeks later, Lorenzo Cain publicly commented on the trade, citing it as the kind of move that can mess with the chemistry of a team and lead to struggles. Cain, whom the Brewers released in June, then claimed that certain coaches and members of the team’s upper management never gave him the respect he felt he deserved as a veteran player.

Meanwhile in San Diego, Hader made a comment to the media praising the Padres for their willingness to go all-in for a World Series championship. Many perceived it as a shot against the Brewers’ front office.

After the Brewers capped a disappointing season by failing to make the postseason, Lauer stood by his previous criticisms of the front office, telling team executives through the media that it was time to “put up or shut up.”

The decisions to trade Hader and take Burnes to a hearing had discernible baseball and business logic behind them. The Brewers were not going to extend or re-sign Hader, and recent struggles brought on in part by a higher arm slot made it time to pull the trigger before it was too late.

In Burnes’ case, they played by the system as all teams do.

The salary for which Burnes filed would have set a record for a starting pitcher in his second year of arbitration. The Brewers filed for a figure that matched the current record set by Shane Bieber, who agreed to a deal with the Cleveland Guardians in January and is a relevant player comparison for Burnes.

The sides did not go to a hearing because the Brewers wanted to save $740,000 on their ace for one season. It happened because both the team and the league want to maintain the status quo of the arbitration process as best they can.

At the micro level, Burnes’ 2024 salary is part of the equation. Arbitration salaries increase somewhat proportionally each year if a player maintains his usual level of performance, meaning the higher Burnes’ salary is in 2023, the more he makes in 2024.

At the macro level, willingly meeting Burnes’ figure (or the $10.56 million he reportedly would have accepted) would have disrupted the aforementioned status quo, and the impact of setting a new bar for player compensation would impact numerous future arbitration cases. The Brewers were never going to take that step. Most teams would not.

Burnes’ depiction of the hearing, particularly his claim that the Brewers blamed him for their failed season, was jarring initially. It shouldn’t be.

Perhaps that line was his takeaway from the sum of the club’s arguments rather than an outright claim uttered in the courtroom. In any case, it’s well-known that teams will find any angle they can to support their case in these hearings. Burnes had a seven-start stretch from Aug. 23 through Sept. 24 during which he struggled to a 5.31 ERA. It’s hardly a shock that Milwaukee’s team used that as ammunition.

It should also be noted that there is not enough evidence to say that the Brewers are not an organization that consistently mistreats its players. They rostered Cain until he reached 10 years of service time and became eligible for a full MLB pension even though his performance would have justified cutting bait much earlier. When Hader asked to be used as a traditional one-inning closer after his 2020 arbitration hearing soured his relationship with the team, they honored that request.

That’s not to say the Brewers handled this situation well. They could have limited their case to the Bieber comparison, yet Burnes’ comments indicate that their representatives chose to wade into unnecessary and ugly territory. Their slimy behavior warrants backlash, but it’s worth noting that most teams would have behaved similarly. Observers directing rage exclusively at the Brewers and calling for Mark Attanasio to sell the team to a fabled non-cheapskate owner are missing the heart of the problem. It’s a league-wide issue, not a Brewers issue.

What is a Brewers issue is how poorly they’ve come off to the public in these situations. Moreover, the fact that current players seem to have no qualms about speaking out against management is alarming. Occasional tension or disagreement between players and team leadership is not abnormal, but how news of these disputes is reaching the public is.

The signs point toward an organization that gives minimal consideration to getting on top of controversial news. At the very least, they don’t have a good plan in place for doing so.

Players are seemingly broadcasting frustrations to the press as if no one from the club has spoken with them before allowing them to stand in front of the cameras. This puts the team in a position that makes any subsequent PR-friendly statement sound vague, cold, and inauthentic. Responding directly to allegations made by players would only amplify the public dispute.

If this is indeed the case, the organization needs to become more proactive in initiating necessary conversations with their players and establishing public relations strategies to minimize the negative fallout from controversial decisions. Burnes said that he expects to meet with Matt Arnold in the comings days to put the arbitration matter to rest, hinting that the Brewers have a critical opportunity to smooth over some hard feelings.

While some of the bad rap the Brewers have gotten over the past eight months is due to fans lingering over the bitter taste of 2022, much of it is self-inflicted. In many cases related to baseball operations, the team shouldn’t care what fans think. If Brewers Twitter ran the club, it would be a mess. At the same time, the Brewers should have the self-awareness to know that consistently negative press is harmful to their brand and business, and they should have a strategy to prevent those problems from arising.

The fallout of the Hader trade should have served as a lesson for the Brewers. The early results of Burnes’ arbitration case indicate that they’ve learned nothing. That needs to change.