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Hart tops Brewers in salary arbitration

Hart tops Brewers in salary arbitration

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MILWAUKEE -- The first victory of Major League Baseball's salary arbitration season went to the players on Friday when Corey Hart won his case against the Brewers. A three-member panel of judges awarded Hart the $4.8 million salary he was seeking for 2010.

Milwaukee had filed for $4.15 million, and when last-minute negotiations Thursday didn't yield a compromise, the sides went to a hearing room in St. Petersburg, Fla. The arbitrators rendered their ruling Friday morning.

"I'm ecstatic. To be honest I was surprised," said Hart. "I walked out of there yesterday and told my wife that I didn't think it was going to go our way. If you look at the numbers, they go the teams' way more often than not. I felt like we had a good case, but when you sit there for two and a half hours listening to them say you're not very good, it's hard to feel very confident about it.

"It wasn't fun, but I went in there expecting it to be worse. I actually got to talk to Gord [Ash, Milwaukee's assistant GM] right before it and he was very genuine when he said that regardless of what happened, I'm still the right fielder and they want me to have a good season. This was just business."

Now it's back to baseball.

"We are obviously pleased with the panel's ruling and now look forward to a great 2010 season for both Corey and the Milwaukee Brewers," said Hart's agent, Jeff Berry of CAA Sports.

Berry and a series of other CAA Sports representatives argued on Hart's behalf in a hearing that began at 8:30 a.m. CT on Thursday. For the club's first hearing in 12 years, the Brewers were represented in the hearing room by Ash and club negotiator Teddy Werner, though outside counsel made the club's presentation.

While waiting for his flight back to Milwaukee on Thursday afternoon, Werner said there were no surprises in the hearing.

"I don't look at these things as 'win' or 'lose,'" Werner said ahead of the ruling. "I look at it as there is this process in place to solve disagreements about how a player should be compensated, and you just go through the process."

Hart himself was present in the hearing room, as required by the rules.

It can be an uncomfortable process, which is why only 12 hearings were scheduled for this week and next out of 128 Major League players who originally filed for arbitration. The Brewers settled with their six other eligible players well ahead of hearing dates.

In Hart's case, the sides did discuss a settlement ahead of a club-imposed deadline of Jan. 29. When a deal wasn't struck on that date, the club's latest offer was pulled off the table and remained there when Berry met with Ash and Werner in St. Petersburg on Wednesday and again on Thursday. By then, it was clear that the parties were headed for the hearing room.

Inside, each party had 60 minutes to argue for its proposed salary and then 30 minutes of rebuttal. The cases are centered around "comps," or comparable players to Hart in terms of service time and ability.

Neither side was willing to discuss its specific case, but in winning the argument for Hart, the CAA Sports team almost certainly convinced the judges that Hart should be compared to the Mets' Jeff Francoeur or the Nationals' Josh Willingham, both of whom, like Hart, are corner outfielders who were arbitration-eligible for the second time.

Francoeur earned $3.4 million last season, just $150,000 more than Hart, and avoided arbitration when he settled with the Mets on a $5 million contract for 2010. For his career, Francoeur is a .271 hitter with 88 home runs, 400 RBIs and 15 stolen bases (Hart is a .273 hitter with 67 home runs and 260 RBIs). In 2009, the players' so-called "platform year" in this case, Francoeur hit .280 with 15 homers and 76 RBIs in 593 at-bats. Hart, limited to 419 at-bats because of an emergency appendectomy in August, batted .260 with 12 homers and 48 RBIs.

Willingham, meanwhile, earned $2.95 million last season and avoided arbitration with the Nationals with a $4.6 million pact for 2010, which was less than Hart's filing number but fell on the player's side of the midpoint between Hart's proposal and the Brewers'. Willingham also had a better platform year, batting .260 in 2009 with 24 home runs -- remember his two grand slams on July 27 at Miller Park? -- and 61 RBIs in 427 at-bats. For his career, Willingham has a .263 average, 87 home runs and 260 RBIs.

The Brewers, meanwhile, might have argued that someone like the Red Sox's Jeremy Hermida offered a more accurate comparable. Hermida earned $2.25 million from the Marlins in 2009 and had a very similar platform year, batting .259 with 13 home runs and 47 RBIs. For his career, Hermida has played in 516 games (vs. Hart's 521) compiled 1,708 at-bats (to 1,831) and batted .265 (to .273) with 57 home runs (67) and 210 RBIs (260).

Hermida filed for $3.85 million in arbitration and the Red Sox countered at $2.95 million. The sides last month at $3.345 million, or $55,000 less than the midpoint.

In the end, Hart's argument won out and Milwaukee dropped to 2-for-4 in arbitration hearings since the process was instituted in 1974. According to the Biz of Baseball's Maury Brown, Major League clubs have won 280 cases to the players' 208 wins, with 10 cases still on the docket this year. Reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum and the Giants avoided a hearing Friday by agreeing to a two-year deal.

Before Thursday, the Brewers had not gone to a hearing with a player since 1998, when pitcher Jose Mercedes won his case. The Brewers won hearings with pitcher Mike Fetters in '94 and infielder Jim Gantner in '92.

The 12-year drought made Hart's case particularly interesting to Tom Gausden, the former club vice president who argued the team's cases against Mercedes and Fetters. Gausden, who still lives in Milwaukee but works as a labor and employment lawyer for an East Coast telecommunications firm, had not specifically studied Hart's case, but he believes that the Brewers' decision to go to a hearing for the first time in more than a decade might have been bigger than one player.

Milwaukee faces potential arbitration showdowns next year with first baseman Prince Fielder, who would be eligible one more time before his free-agent years begin, and budding ace Yovani Gallardo, who will be eligible for the first time. Fielder's case in particular would be a blockbuster, and going all the way with Hart could help demonstrate that the team is not willing to cave ahead of a hearing.

"What you do one year always affects the next," Gausden said. "Maybe you want the agents to realize that you aren't bluffing, that they had better file a realistic number."

Hart will turn 28 next month and is penciled in to be Milwaukee's starting right fielder in 2010.

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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