Commentary

Arbitration madness about to begin

Originally Published: January 15, 2009
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Here it comes. We're warning you now. It's the arbitration class of 2009, potentially the most expensive, most sport-rattling arbitration class ever. And it's about to leave a mark on this sport the size of Bryce Canyon.

On Thursday afternoon, we'll see the names of everyone who filed. Then on Tuesday, we'll learn the exact dollars at stake. And that's when this saga will get really interesting.

Ryan Howard's name is on this list. Prince Fielder's name is on this list. And once we catch a glimpse of the humongous dollar amounts for which they filed, it won't be just their 2009 salaries we'll be wondering about.

It will be which teams they'll be playing for next.

Howard's Phillies teammate Cole Hamels will appear on that list. So will Jonathan Papelbon and his Red Sox compadre Kevin Youkilis.

They all are centerpiece players on teams that could win the World Series. Yet the Phillies and the Red Sox, for all their resources, haven't found ways to get them signed.

And there are other names, names you know well: Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander and Dan Uggla, among others.

As their service time mounts and their paychecks inflate, their places in the fabric of their franchises could be shifting before our eyes.

So this is not just another arbitration class. This is a group that will change the sport, change franchises, change the future. How? Let's take a look -- at the 2009 Arbitration All-Stars:

RYAN HOWARD

Meet the man responsible for all this. Howard has made only one trip through the arbitration jungle. But he walked away last year with the most landscape-altering arbitration payout of all time.

[+] EnlargeRyan Howard
Joel Auerbach/US PresswireRyan Howard was smiling after last year's arbitration ruling: He picked up a record $10 million.
He had just two-plus seasons of service time behind him back then. But he won his case and got a historic $10 million paycheck out of it. And the next sound you heard was salary structures crumbling all around baseball.

Now Howard is back for another round. And the first big mystery is: What salary will he file for? We've heard estimates ranging from $15 million to $17 million -- for a player with three-plus seasons in the big leagues. Can you spell "cha-ching"?

Next question: What are the odds the Phillies can sign him, even for a year, without a hearing? And the answer, from virtually everyone who knows Howard and his family well, is simple: None. Zero.

Howard's salary demands are being driven, in part, by his father's belief that he is an unprecedented player who should collect unprecedented paychecks. So the Phillies have never come close to signing him to ANY contract, one-year or multi-year, at any point since he reached the big leagues. And while they would never say this out loud, they practically are resigned to the reality that they never will.

So that's where the drama mounts. If that's the case, how long will he stick around Philadelphia? And that answer easily could be: maybe only one more year.

Clubs that have spoken to the Phillies are convinced that they were gearing up this past summer to start exploring a Howard trade as early as this winter. Then they went and won the World Series. So there went that plan.

But what if the 2009 season has a different sort of ending -- and Howard looks as unsignable as ever? Then get ready next winter for a barrage of Howard trade rumors, because the Phillies will have no choice but to start listening, with this guy suddenly two years from free agency.

Nevertheless, the Phillies haven't ruled out Plan B: Hang onto Howard through 2011 (when he'll be 32), hope they win again and then let him walk and collect his A-Rod contract elsewhere.

"It really wouldn't shock me if that's what they end up doing because of the age, because of the limitations defensively and because of the way his body's going," one general manager said. "With all that in play, I'm not sure they'll get the kind of value for him they'd feel they have to get to move him."

PRINCE FIELDER

If there's any player in this arbitration class who ought to be president of the Ryan Howard Fan Club, it's Fielder.

He's getting ready to make his first foray into arbitration. And he's a Scott Boras client. So speculation is already building about how bold Fielder and Boras will be in approaching Howard's dollars from last year.

You just wonder, one agent mused, "how close can a slugger get to Howard's [salary] number of last year without the awards?"

He makes a good point. Fielder, although he seems like a similar player, has NOT had Howard's career. Howard already has a rookie of the year award, an MVP award, a second-place MVP finish and (once they measure his ring size) a World Series ring. Fielder owns one third-place rank in the 2007 MVP voting. Period.

[+] EnlargePrince Fielder
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswirePrince Fielder definitely paid attention to how Ryan Howard's arbitration case went last year.
Fielder's lifetime batting average (.278) is just a point less than Howard's. But that's where they diverge. Howard beats him by 57 points in slugging (.590 to .533) and 67 points in OPS (.970 to .906). And Howard has averaged 46 homers and 131 RBIs per 150 games in his career, while Fielder has averaged 33 homers and 91 RBIs. Big difference.

But we're still talking about a Boras client. So one American League exec flatly predicted, "I think that one will go to a hearing. The approach [in Milwaukee] is a little different than it used to be, but they're still a conservative organization. So I'm guessing they won't get close to the player's number. And one thing Scott has proved is that, while he hasn't won a lot in arbitration, he'll definitely go [to a hearing]."

So with Fielder likely heading for a showdown, and Boras already pointing him toward that Mark Teixeira payday in 2011, the Brewers are another team that has to decide: When is the best time to trade this player?

"They know what they need to do," one GM said. "At the end of the day, it's just hard to do it. In [Fielder's] case, they probably should do it now. If they want to get the most value for the player, now's the time. The further you go, the deeper in the arbitration process, the less value you get."

We should point out, however, that the Brewers CAN afford him, for now. They do, after all, have CC Sabathia's, Eric Gagne's and Ben Sheets' dollars coming off the books (although Sheets could return). So trading a guy like Fielder would look like a big step backward to the fan base.

But you also know Boras will push that arbitration envelope and offer no hope of a long-term solution. So Fielder's filing number will relaunch a familiar debate.

"When you're living with the knowledge that he's a Scott Boras client and you know you're not keeping him and building around him," the same GM said, "it's just a matter of how fine a line you want to walk."

COLE HAMELS

Meet the co-star of the Phillies' arbitration soap opera. Like Howard, Hamels has had trouble negotiating deals in his pre-arbitration years. Like Howard, Hamels erupted into stardom just before his first arbitration year arrived. And now, like Howard, he'll be looking for record dollars.

[+] EnlargeCole Hamels
Chris O'Meara/Pool Photo/US PresswireCole Hamels is about to find out what a World Series MVP translates to in arbitration.
It won't be $10 million, because Hamels is working off the starting-pitcher pay scale, not the MVP slugger pay scale. But the buzz is Hamels' request could top $5 million -- based on the $4.6 million Chien-Ming Wang asked for last year as a first-timer in arbitration.

Wang lost his case and wound up with $4 million. But Hamels is coming off an ace-caliber season and a spectacular October for a team that won the World Series. So his leverage is off the charts.

But Hamels also appears less likely than Howard to push his negotiations all the way to a hearing. So this case has a good shot at a short-term resolution. The larger question, though, is: Can the Phillies sign this man for the long haul? And people we've surveyed in the industry are divided on that.

One National League GM said, "If it were me, I would sign him. I wouldn't go beyond four years, but it's so hard to find top-of-the-rotation starters. And he clearly defined last year that that's what he is."

But the other side is this: The Phillies haven't guaranteed a contract or extension longer than three years for any starting pitcher in more than a decade. They wouldn't do it for Curt Schilling. They wouldn't do it for Brett Myers. And with Hamels not eligible for free agency until 2012, they're not likely to take that step now, either.

If they wait, however, the landscape for No. 1 starters who reach free agency now has been stretched to seven years by Sabathia and to six by Johan Santana. So if Hamels just keeps doing what he's doing, the Phillies are going to have to make a radical philosophical shift or start contemplating trading both Howard and Hamels. Yikes.

"That team," one AL executive said, "is about to walk through a mine field."

JONATHAN PAPELBON

There's one more groundbreaking case on this list, and Papelbon is it. From every indication, Papelbon will wind up with the highest salary ever by a closer with three years of service time. The only mystery is: How much?

[+] EnlargeJonathan Papelbon
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireJonathan Papelbon knows how to celebrate a save. But will he celebrate his arbitration number?
"This one perplexes me," one NL executive said. "This guy has been so good, and that team has such deep resources, I don't know what I'm missing. Why haven't they signed him? If you're trying to pick out the next Mariano Rivera, wouldn't it be him? Plus, he's a guy who he handles that whole Boston scene so well."

All true. Yet this has the potential to be a tricky, maybe even explosive, case.

Papelbon has spent the past three years willingly sacrificing himself for the greater good, allowing the Red Sox to define his role outside the boundaries of common modern-day closer ground rules. His 22 saves of four outs or more since 2006 rank second only to Rivera's, and his 35 appearances of four outs or more rank third among closers, behind Rivera and J.J. Putz.

But now, in return, Papelbon is looking for a reward for his sacrifice, his workload and the toll that workload could take on his potential career longevity. The result is a philosophical difference about his value that the Red Sox haven't been able to resolve. You wouldn't think either side would want this to reach a hearing room. But follow this case carefully.

OTHERS TO WATCH

FELIX HERNANDEZ

The Mariners' last regime got nowhere trying to sign King Felix to a long-term deal. Now it's new GM Jack Zduriencik's turn. But Hernandez hasn't seemed real amenable in the past. And now he has to be wondering about the direction of the franchise as he sits three years from free agency, heading for his first shot at arbitration. So his filing numbers will be fascinating, because even though he still hasn't achieved his seemingly inevitable stardom, one executive describes him as "a market-class changer."

Dan Uggla
Uggla
DAN UGGLA

This also is Uggla's first arbitration year, following three seasons of massive production by second-baseman standards. Ordinarily, a player in this position wouldn't be a major blip on the sport's radar -- except he's a Marlin. And as one AL official put it, "Anyone with the Marlins who starts making a lot of money usually leads to an address change."

ZACK GREINKE

Lots of plot lines swirling here. Does Greinke (now two years from free agency) really want to stay? Are the Royals convinced he's a player they could, or should, build around? Those are questions neither side seems ready to answer. "This is a big year," one executive said, "in making that determination. If that team doesn't show some real progress, they'll have no shot at keeping him."

Justin Verlander
Verlander
JUSTIN VERLANDER

It's Verlander's first arbitration roundup. He's coming off his first rough season. And the Tigers can afford him. But affordability might not be the big issue. "This is an interesting one for me, because this is a team that's kind of caught in between," one AL exec said. "They've got to still try to win. But if they don't, they've got to determine whether they want to keep him or use him to get back the other pieces they need. … You've got to remember, if you look at [GM Dave Dombrowski's] track record, is that he's is always going to time moving a guy to get the max in return. So if they find themselves in July, sitting there out of contention, it wouldn't surprise me if Verlander was out there at the [trading] deadline."

ALL THOSE OTHER PHILLIES

It's tough to remember a World Series team with so many high-profile arbitration cases. Beyond Howard and Hamels, the Phillies have a half-dozen other cases hanging -- including Shane Victorino, Jayson Werth, Joe Blanton and Ryan Madson. They all will get resolved. But this is a team whose total arbitration-class price tag could top $25 million. And that will take its toll on the construction of the bottom of the roster.

FIVE OTHER BIG NAMES

Russell Martin, Ryan Zimmerman, Jeff Francoeur, Ervin Santana.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com