Braves plan to go to arbitration hearings with young stars

The Atlanta Journal-ConstitutionJanuary 18, 2014 

ATLANTA -- After not taking a player to a salary-arbitration hearing since John Rocker in 2001, the Braves are set for hearings with three of their prominent young stars: Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward.

The Braves agreed to terms with Kris Medlen, Chris Johnson, Mike Minor and Jordan Schafer, but couldn't reach agreements with Kimbrel, Freeman and Heyward before or after Friday's 1 p.m. deadline for teams to come to terms with unsigned arbitration-eligible players or swap salary figures with them in preparation for hearings.

Teams are permitted to continue negotiations with players until the hearings, but the Braves are one of six or seven teams that have recently taken a firm stance of not negotiating with arbitration-eligible players after salary-swap day. So unless the players take what was offered by the Braves, there will be hearings.

"We have an organization philosophy (that) the filing date is our last date of negotiation prior to a hearing," Wren said Friday evening. "We're done."

Kimbrel, the youngest pitcher to record 50 saves in a season, asked for $9 million -- $3.75 million above the previous record amount for a reliever in his first year of arbitration. The Braves offered $6.55 million, which was above the record amount, but some $500,000 below what Kimbrel was projected to get.

The split was small between salaries proposed by Heyward ($5.5 million) and the Braves ($5.2 million), but there was a more significant gap between Freeman ($5.75 million) and the team ($4.5 million). Heyward was projected to get $4.5-4.7 million and Freeman about $5 million.

At each player's hearing, a panel will choose one salary or the other and not consider any other amount.

"Some clubs are adamant they're not going to go to arbitration," Wren said, "and some clubs feel as we do, that it's just part of the process. You hope to get an agreement, but short of getting an agreement, it's part of the process for both sides."

Arbitration hearings can become acrimonious. Wren said that the Braves would use only statistical analysis, avoid making it personal, and be aware that Kimbrel, Freeman and Heyward are three of the team's best players and leaders.

The Braves won their 2001 arbitration hearing against Rocker. They were prepared to go to arbitration last year with Martin Prado before trading him to Arizona on Jan. 24. In 2009, the Braves came to terms with Jeff Francoeur the night before he was to leave spring training and fly to Arizona for his arbitration hearing.

Since then, they changed their strategy and say they no longer will negotiate between salary-swap day and a hearing.

Medlen more than doubled his salary to $5.8 million after going 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA in 197 innings in his first season as a full-time starter (he moved from the bullpen in July 2012). He made $2.6 million in 2013, his first year of arbitration, and said the new $5.8 million seemed almost "surreal" for a kid raised in a working-class family, the son of a truck driver.

"I didn't have much growing up," Medlen said. "Had to fight for every opportunity I've ever gotten. I'm happy it's done so we can focus on winning the (National League) East again."

Johnson agreed to a $4.75 million deal, well above the $4.2 million that some projected he would get following a career-best season. The third baseman made $2.785 million in his first year of arbitration and was a surprise leader in the NL batting race much of the season before finishing at .321 with 34 doubles and 12 homers.

Minor gets a raise from $505,000 to $3.85 million in his first year of arbitration. The left-hander went 13-9 and had career-bests in wins, ERA (3.21), WHIP (1.09), innings (204 2/3), starts (32) and strikeouts (181), while his 46 walks were 10 fewer in 25 more innings than he posted the previous season.

Schafer, a versatile and solid defensive outfielder, nearly doubled his salary to $1.09 million. He batted .247 with a .331 OBP and three triples, three homers and 22 stolen bases in 94 games in an injury-marred season.

Last year, for the first time since the process began, no major leaguer had an arbitration hearing. This year, the Braves will have three.

Kimbrel, 25, made $655,000 last season and had a 1.21 ERA with 98 strikeouts in 67 innings. He tied Baltimore's Jim Johnson for the majors lead with 50 saves and has led or tied for the NL lead in saves in all three of his full seasons.

Freeman made the All-Star team for the first time and batted .319 with 23 homers and a career-high 109 RBIs. He surpassed 20 homers in each of his three full seasons and made $560,000 in 2013.

Heyward was limited to 104 games in 2013 because of an early-season appendectomy and a late-season broken jaw. He made $3.65 million and hit .254 with 37 extra-base hits (14 homers) in 440 at-bats, including .322 with a .403 OBP and six homers in 118 at-bats in the leadoff spot.

While many teams have signed their young standouts to multiyear deals to buy out arbitration years and, in many cases, some free-agent years, the Braves haven't signed a young player to such a deal since catcher Brian McCann in 2007.

The Braves have had organizational discussions about extensions for some current young players, but haven't started negotiations. It could be particularly difficult to sign Heyward to a long-term deal at this point, only two years from free agency. He might reason that it's better to wait and test the open market.

Taking a player to a hearing wouldn't help and could possibly damage the chances of later signing that player to an extension. Arbitration hearings can be uncomfortable, with the team's representative pointing out why the player doesn't deserve the higher proposed salary, usually with the player sitting in the hearing.

"The way we go about it in the room, it's a numbers-based process," Wren said. "You're comparing one player to another based on statistics, and that's what arbitration is about. It doesn't have to or need to be directed toward the individual. That's not the direction we're going to be going."

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