HOUSTON -- The first step of the Pirates' dispute with Pedro Alvarez will not involve either party.
Neither the team nor anyone in the Alvarez camp will be in New York today for the opening arbitration hearing of the Major League Baseball Players Association's grievance against commissioner Bud Selig's office alleging that contract agreements with more than one draft pick -- including the Pirates and Alvarez -- were reached after the midnight Aug. 15 deadline.
Instead, arbitrator Shyam Das is expected to hear the union make its case by interviewing MLB officials involved in the deadline, including chief legal counsel Rob Manfred.
The next hearing will come on a still-unspecified date near the end of the month, and the Pirates' top baseball officials -- team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington -- are expected to be summoned to that one. But there has been no indication it will be the last.
The union has submitted a lengthy list of witnesses to call today alone, and there could be more. Beyond that, MLB still must make its case, other briefs can be filed, and Das probably will need 2-3 weeks after the final hearing to render his decision.
Put together, it all could take months.
"We hope it's not more than two hearing days," Coonelly said yesterday. "But we'll see."
MLB will seek to have the case rejected on the grounds that arbitration hearings cannot involve players such as Alvarez who are not part of the union. If the case proceeds, it will content that Selig's office was within its jurisdiction to approve extensions beyond the midnight deadline.
The union will argue, beginning today, that MLB has no such right to approve extensions unilaterally. The only exceptions, it will be argued, have come when the union has granted permission. That did not happen in the Pirates' case.
The union also will contend at some point that Coonelly, a 10-year man in MLB's legal department before joining the Pirates a year ago, received a special favor from Manfred to get an exception for Alvarez. Coonelly has publicly rejected that notion.
Coonelly reitrated his stance that Selig's office was correct in approving Alvarez's contract.
"I'd really hate to speculate how a case will go or how an arbitrator will decide," Coonelly said. "But, again, we feel confident that the commissioner's office acted appropriately and that our contract with Pedro will be held to be valid."
If Das rules for the union, according to multiple sources with knowledge of precedent, the most likely outcome will be that MLB must clarify and follow the rules in future cases. If Das decides to nullify Alvarez's agreement for a $6 million bonus, Alvarez likely will go back into the draft next year and the Pirates would get their compensatory pick at No. 3 overall.
If Das rules in favor of MLB, Alvarez will remain the Pirates' property with the agreement intact.
Either way, Das' ruling is binding.
Huntington expressed concern about the potential length of the matter.
"Obviously, the longer this goes, the less we can do with him as a player between now and next spring," Huntington said. "We're hoping it can get resolved quickly, that we can get him into a Pirates uniform and have him for the Instructional League."
The Pirates' agreements with their two Class A affiliates, Lynchburg and Hickory, have expired, and the team is exploring other options with the most likely scenario appearing to be switches for both.
One set of discussions involves switching from Hickory to Charleston, W.Va., also in the South Atlantic League but much closer to Pittsburgh.
• Outfielder Nyjer Morgan was out of the lineup the night after his baserunning gaffe cost the Pirates a run in their 3-2 loss to Houston. "We continue the learning process," manager John Russell said of the play. "That situation, with no outs ... it's hard to argue."
• The schedule for the 2009 season will be released next Wednesday.
• Brad Fischer, manager at short-season State College, joined the still-growing fold of uniformed coaches.
• Rene Gayo, Latin American scouting director and Texas resident, also is attending the series and meeting with Huntington