MILWAUKEE -- Corey Hart and the Brewers passed a deadline of sorts Friday without a contract compromise, and the club's chief negotiator said it appears likely that the team will end its long streak without an arbitration hearing. Hart, the Brewers' lone arbitration-eligible player still unsigned, filed for a $4.8 million salary in 2010. The team countered at $4.15 million. The Brewers wanted a deal by the end of business Friday, and club negotiator Teddy Werner and Hart's agent, Jeff Berry, had a series of discussions this week but were unable to reach an agreement. Arbitration hearings are scheduled for Feb. 1-21 in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, and while both sides are barred from revealing the precise date, it's believed that Hart's is still several weeks away. Last year, negotiations with Hart went down to the wire before the sides struck a $3.25 million deal on the eve of a hearing.
"We just don't have the appetite to go through that again," Werner said. "We made a good-faith effort to get something done a few weeks ahead of time, but at some point you've got to say, 'It's time to prepare for a case.' Nobody wants to go to a hearing, but I don't want to be in a position in a couple of weeks where we're back to where we are today, talking about the same number. To me, that's a waste of time for both sides. "Barring a drastic change in the landscape," Werner added, "we're probably going down to Tampa in a few weeks." Berry wrote in an e-mail on Thursday that Hart's salary submission and the midpoint between the player's filing and the team's, "are consistent with the established framework for other arbitration-eligible players with similar seasons." "We're not rooting for a hearing and we're not looking to break new ground," Berry wrote. "We simply want Corey to be compensated at the level which the salary-arbitration system has deemed appropriate."
The salary-arbitration system is big business for players who qualify, but the secrecy and complicated nature of the system are reasons why many fans have difficulty understanding how a player such as Hart could seek a 48 percent raise after a poor season.
Here's a quick look at how arbitration works:
Eligible players are those with at least three years of Major League service time who are short of the six years of service needed to qualify for free agency. The top 17 percent of players with at least two years of service also qualify as so-called Super-Twos. Arbitration-eligible players are still under team control, but their salaries are set relative to similar players in terms of performance and service time.
The Brewers entered 2010 with seven eligible players: pitchers Dave Bush, Todd Coffey and Carlos Villanueva, outfielders Jody Gerut, Carlos Gomez (a Super-Two) and Hart and second baseman Rickie Weeks.
Gerut, Gomez and Weeks all reached terms on one-year contracts with the team before Jan. 19, the day when still-unsigned players and their teams traded contract proposals. That swap sparked another round of negotiations, and players and teams around the game can continue to talk until a player's hearing date.
The vast majority of cases never get to a hearing. Take Bush, who was coming off an injury-plagued season in which he earned $4 million and went 5-9 with a 6.38 ERA in 114 1/3 innings. Compare that to Kyle Lohse in 2006, when he earned $3.95 million and went 5-10 with a 5.83 ERA in 126 2/3 innings for the Twins and Reds.
Lohse entered his final offseason of arbitration-eligibility that winter and settled with the Reds for $4.2 million. Bush, who was arbitration-eligible for the last time this offseason, got $4.215 from the Brewers, just shy of the midpoint in his case. Both sides were able to chalk it up as a win, and Bush shifted his focus to Spring Training.
Like Bush, Coffey and Villanueva have since struck deals near the midpoint of the two figures, but Hart remains unsigned. If the sides don't strike a deal before the hearing, a representative of the team and a representative of the player each argues a case before a three-member panel of professional arbitrators. Both sides point to "comps," or statistics and salaries of players with comparable service time who play the same or a similar position, and can argue factors like injuries and even intangibles. Traditional "baseball card" statistics carry the most weight, and players are compensated for past performance, not future projections.
After oral arguments, the judges then select one figure or the other, with no opportunity for compromise.
It's an unpleasant moment for both sides, especially because the player has just listened to his own team argue his shortcomings. Clubs often hire third-party lawyers to present the case to avoid hard feelings, to the extent that it's possible.
"The thing people need to understand is that it's not really the player making the requests; it's the representatives," Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said. "I don't think there's any reason to get mad at Corey Hart. That's the system in place, and everyone works within it.
"Ken [Macha, Milwaukee's manager,] just talked to Corey the other day, and I think [Hart] realized he didn't have the kind of year he wanted to. I have a lot of confidence in Corey."
Melvin heard that Hart has dropped 15-18 pounds since the end of the season as the result of a rigorous winter conditioning program. But if Hart's case indeed goes to a hearing, the 28-year-old might not like what he hears.
After consecutive seasons from 2007-08 of hitting at least 20 home runs with 80 RBIs and 20 stolen bases, Hart hit .260 in 2009 with 12 home runs, 48 RBIs and 11 stolen bases, spending more than a month on the disabled list following an Aug. 2 appendectomy. He did return in September, but he appeared in only 115 games overall.
Neither side would discuss its strategy or point to "comps" that might bolster its case. A glance at the list of this year's eligibles, however, reveals that Hart is very similar in service time to Boston's Jeremy Hermida, who had a similar 2009 season with the Marlins (.259 average, 13 home runs and 47 RBIs).
Hermida, though, earned $2.25 million in 2009, a full $1 million less than Hart. He filed for $3.85 million in arbitration and the Red Sox countered at $2.95 million. They settled on Wednesday at $3.345 million, or $55,000 less than the midpoint.
The Marlins' Cody Ross also has similar service time and, like Hermida, made $2.25 million last year. He had a good one, batting .270 with 24 home runs and 90 RBIs, and filed for $4.45 million while the team filed for $4.2 million. A deal couldn't be struck, and Ross reportedly has a hearing set for Feb. 15. Ross, though, mostly plays center field, while Hart mans the corners.
The Brewers have not gone all the way to a hearing during Melvin's tenure as GM, which began in September 2002. Before the close call with Hart last year, the team came close with Brady Clark in '06 before striking a two-year deal.
That fact could actually make the Brewers more likely to go to a hearing with Hart. The Brewers intend to explore a contract extension with Prince Fielder, but if those talks don't progress, they face one more year of arbitration-eligibility with their star first baseman. It would be a monster case, and the club could try to re-assert its credibility ahead of that showdown with Fielder and agent Scott Boras by going to a hearing with Hart.
Brewers starters Yovani Gallardo and Manny Parra and reliever Mitch Stetter are also lined up to reach arbitration eligibility for the first time next winter.
However Hart's case ends, the silver lining is that the worst he can do is get a $900,000 raise from last season.
"We filed a number that we feel is very strong in his process and we were hopeful that we could reach some common ground," Werner said. "They felt like the number that we put out there this week was not appropriate for how they view Corey's performance.
"If you look at this process historically, almost everybody gets a raise. It's just a matter of finding what amount is appropriate."
And at the moment, that's where the sides differ.
|"If you look at this process historically, almost everybody gets a raise. It's just a matter of finding what amount is appropriate."|
-- Brewers negotiator|
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.