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January 19, 2005

Prospectus Today

Swapping Numbers

by Joe Sheehan

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Players and teams exchanged arbitration figures Tuesday. While 40 players are currently in line to go through the process, the final hearings count will likely be something under 15. The key element to arbitration is that it forces both sides to put a number on the table, and once that happens, it's usually easier to find some common ground.

So let's chuck the boring ones, most of which will be settled at or near the midpoint between the figures. I mean, it'll cost the Angels more than $225,000--the gap between what Josh Paul wants and what they've offered him--to research and present the case. There are a bunch of guys like this: John Parrish, Jesus Colome, Mike Koplove and others who might sign before this column gets posted.

Obviously, Roger Clemens' figure garnered most of the attention. The number, $22 million, appears designed more for that and less out of any expectation that he'd win his case. Clemens won the NL Cy Young Award last year, which gives him a pretty good argument for being the highest-paid pitcher in baseball. In 2005, that'll be Randy Johnson at $17 million, which coincidentally is a tiny bit under the midpoint between Clemens' asking price and the Astros' offer of $13.5 million.

It's a little more complicated than that, of course, although not much. Clemens' agents will also probably compare him to guys like Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, who each make more than $10 million a year for average to nonexistent performance. They may point to a Clemens effect on attendance; a very raw analysis indicates that the Astros picked up an extra 1600 fans on the nights he pitched. That's 320,000 over the course of his 20 home starts, which at an extremely low level of $10/fan is an extra $3 million he could be considered responsible for. That doesn't control for any outside factors, but in arbitration cases, complexity isn't a virtue.

Just looking at the numbers tells us that Clemens probably can't win this case. The midpoint argument aside, there's little precedent for setting salary records through the process, or making someone the highest-paid player at a particular position. The $22 million figure isn't designed to win; it's designed for attention.

The problem the Astros face is that Clemens doesn't need to play. Part of the reason his figure is that high, that he and Randy Hendricks can have some fun with this, is that he's not sure if he wants to come back at any price. The Astros are in a situation where they might lose the case, only to see Clemens say, "Well, that was fun. See you guys on TV." He might do that if they win the case. It's that freedom that allowed Clemens and Hendricks to file at a ridiculous number.

The Astros have two other prominent players going to arbitration and facing a big spread. Lance Berkman has filed at $11 million, with the team offering $10MM. It's a small number by percentage, and Berkman's injured knee is a wild card in this, so I expect it to be settled in advance. Roy Oswalt, however, has an even wider split: $1.8 million, and that's not the kind of number that goes away easily.

The Clemens situation plays into this as well, as the $8.5-million gap between the salaries in that case is a budget buster. Not that the Astros don't have money in their pockets, money that was intended for Carlos Beltran, but they're going into February not knowing whether they'll be paying $30 million or $40 million for their three best players. Not knowing the outcome of Clemens makes it harder to give on Berkman and Oswalt.

They exchanged figures in places other than Houston, too. Two starting pitchers who took huge steps forward last season are at odds with their teams on their value. Ben Sheets has asked for $6.5 million with the Brewers filing at $5.5 million, while Johan Santana, lowballed by the Twins on a multi-year offer, filed at $6.8 million with the team at $5 million.

As a four-year player who even in his first three seasons was durable, Sheets seems to have a very good chance at making his figure. He'll compare favorably to Jeff Weaver, who made $6.25 million in his fifth year. Santana has comparable service time and the Cy Young Award on his resumé, which may allow him to argue that he's a player of special achievement. Weaver will figure prominently in his case, Roy Halladay, who made $6 million last season in his fifth year, also the one after his Cy Young, should as well. I like both pitchers' chances to win their cases.

The biggest surprise on the list for me was Aramis Ramirez, who filed at $10.25 million, with the Cubs signing in at $8 million. Does anyone think of Ramirez, even after his huge '04 season, as an eight-figure player? It was a tremendous year, with across-the-board improvement that included a big drop in his strikeout rate and jump in power.

As a five-plus player, Ramirez can compare himself to recent free agents such as Troy Glaus and Adrian Beltre. Ramirez has been much more durable than Glaus and has more good years on his record than Beltre does, and even if you can't argue that he's worth as much as either player, it's going to be hard to make the case that he's worth just $8 million or even $9.1 million. Ramirez has flat-out been better than Glaus since '03.

One thing to remember as we head into compromise month: arbitration, whatever its flaws, has completely eliminated the holdout as a negotiation tactic. I'm too young to remember it, but there was a time when many players each year wouldn't report to spring training because they didn't have a contract, a problem with the one-sidedness of negotiations pre-1972. We don't see that anymore; we don't even see it with pre-arbitration players, which I think is because it's just not a part of the culture. This is a good thing for the game.

Joe DiMaggio would have loved it.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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