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Arbitration is rare in Brewers' history

Arbitration is rare in Brewers' history

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MILWAUKEE -- If Corey Hart and the Brewers go all the way to a salary arbitration hearing on Thursday, it would be Milwaukee's first in 12 years. One former front office official is particularly interested to see the result.

Tom Gausden, who had risen to the title of vice president before leaving the Brewers in 2003, argued each of the team's last two arbitration hearings in his role as chief negotiator. Gausden and the Brewers won their case against reliever Mike Fetters in 1994, but lost to reliever-turned-starter Jose Mercedes in '98.

Before that, the only arbitration hearing in Brewers history was with infielder Jim Gantner, in 1992. The team won that case.

"It's a short list," Gausden said. "Most guys want to avoid the process, and there are usually ways to get it done."

Hart is poised to snap the Brewers' streak. He is arbitration-eligible for the second time and filed for a $4.8 million salary in 2010, while the Brewers proposed $4.15 million. The sides have not talked since a club-imposed deadline passed without a compromise on Jan. 29, and current club negotiator Teddy Werner and assistant general manager Gord Ash traveled Tuesday to St. Petersburg, Fla., ahead of their scheduled hearing on Thursday. Hart is represented by agent Jeff Berry of Creative Artists Agency.

Berry was not available to comment this week. But he did talk about Hart's case late last month.

"We're not rooting for a hearing, and we're not looking to break new ground," Berry wrote in an e-mail. "We simply want Corey to be compensated at the level which the salary arbitration system has deemed appropriate."

Brewers officials cannot be sure because the full schedule of arbitration hearings is secret, but they believe that Hart's is the first case on the docket. In a hearing, a representative of each side gets 60 minutes to present an exhibit -- essentially a binder filled with statistics and graphs that seek to link the player in question to other comparable players at the same position -- to a panel of three professional arbitrators. Hart's side would seek to compare him with players at the higher end of the pay scale, while the Brewers would argue that he's more similar to players who earned less.

After the two hours of oral arguments are up, the parties take a very brief recess before each side gets 30 minutes of rebuttal. After that, it's in the hands of the arbitrators, who have 24 hours to pick one salary or the other. There's no more room for compromise, and the decision is binding.

The process has evolved since it was instituted in 1974, Gausden said. He figures, for example, that then-general manager Harry Dalton probably argued the Gantner case himself. Today, the Brewers have an outside lawyer from New York set to argue their half of the Hart case.

Gausden recalled a story told by Sal Bando, who was Milwaukee's general manager from 1991-99 but before that was an All-Star third baseman. He faced a hearing with the A's early in the days of salary arbitration and had to listen, along with his wife, to A's owner Charlie Finley present the club's case.

"Charlie Finley made some argument about Sal's weight and said something like, 'If you throw a doughnut this way, he'll go for it. You throw a doughnut the other way, he'll go for that,'" Gausden said. "Sal said he was about ready to crawl over the table and kill the guy. The process has obviously become a lot more formal these days."

Gausden cautioned that until the moment a hearing begins, a settlement is always possible. He came close to one with pitcher Jamey Wright in 2003 before Wright's agent, Casey Close (now CAA's lead baseball agent), accepted a deal at 3 a.m. on the hearing date. Subsequent to Gausden's tenure, the Brewers agreed to terms with Brady Clark mere hours before a hearing in 2006, then quickly expanded it to a two-year deal. Last year, Hart seemed headed for a hearing before he agreed to terms the day before.

"Sometimes those things go right down to the courthouse steps, so to speak," Gausden said.

The last time a case got past those steps and into a hearing room was in 1998, in Phoenix, when Gausden faced Mercedes' agent, Dick Moss, a legend of baseball's labor movement.

Gausden went in confident.

"Frankly I thought we were all set up," Gausden said. "All of the comparables fell on our side of the midpoint. The curse of that case, and the reason we lost it, I think, is that we were at the tail end of the hearing period."

Thus, Mercedes' case came after the Twins went to a hearing with right-hander Frank Rodriguez, who had been a starting pitcher until midway through the previous season -- 1997 -- and then moved primarily to relief. The Twins won their case, Gausden said, by arguing that Rodriguez should be viewed as a reliever and thus paid less.

Mercedes, meanwhile, made his first 40 Major League appearances as a Brewers reliever before moving to the rotation in May 2007. His final 22 appearances were starts and Mercedes was quite effective, posting a 3.62 ERA.

"They had already gone to three-arbitrator panels at that stage of the game, and two of the three judges in the Mercedes case had also heard the Rodriguez case," Gausden said. "In effect, the agent was making the exact opposite case for Mercedes, that [the judges] should ignore his past as a reliever because he had had a very effective year as a starter and therefore his value was up.

"My conclusion was that since those two guys had bought the Twins' argument that Rodriguez's value was down, and they wanted to be consistent so they bought Mercedes' agent's argument that his value was up."

The fact that Hart's hearing date falls very early in the process makes the task easier for both sides, Gausden said, because nobody has to adjust their arguments based on other results.

He also remembered back to something Fetters said after losing his case in 1995, back when a single arbitrator heard cases. Fetters was seeking a $450,000 raise from the previous season; he settled for a $200,000 pay bump.

"I remember this very clearly, Mike Fetters saying, 'Hey, I didn't really lose. I still got a couple hundred thousand dollars' raise,'" Gausden said. "That's why this process can be crazy sometimes. On the other hand, the system is designed to provide some way to resolve these disputes with certainty before Spring Training games start, and it's the best process we've got."

Hart earned $3.25 million last season, so the worst he can do is a $900,000 raise.

Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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