(This blog has been updated.)
The last time the Braves were forced to go to salary arbitration was 2001, when they won their hearing over John Rocker. An arbitrator ruled Rocker would be paid $1.9 million, not the $2.98 million he was seeking. If all of those stupid things the pitcher said and did cost him more than $1 million, well, bless that arbitrator.
Teams do not like going to arbitration. They’re forced to accentuate negatives to win their case. That can be problematic considering they spend most of their time trying to build up their players and tell them how important they are to the team.
Which is why Jason Heyward will be an interesting case.
The Braves had seven salary-arbitration players. They came to terms with four before Friday’s deadline: starting pitchers Kris Medlen and Mike Minor, third baseman Chris Johnson and outfielder Jordan Schafer. The other three rejected offers and opted for hearings: Heyward, Freddie Freeman and closer Craig Kimbrel.
There’s always a chance of a pre-hearing settlements, but Braves general manager Frank Wren told David O’Brien Friday night, “We’re done” with negotiations.
Heyward is seeking $5.5 million, which is only $300,000 more than what the Braves are offering ($5.2 million). Freeman is asking for significantly more ($5.75 million) than the team’s offer ($4.5 million), and could get it. The biggest difference is between Kimbrel ($9 million) and the Braves ($6.55 million).
Even Freeman and Kimbrel don’t win their cases, or they settle, they’ll get healthy raises. Freeman turned into the team’s most valuable player last season, batting .319 with 23 homers and 109 RBI last season. He finished fifth in National League MVP voting. Kimbrel has nothing to worry about. The Braves can address the frequent flame-out factor for closers but otherwise there’s nothing negative to say. In the last three seasons he has 138 saves and 341 strikeouts in 206.2 innings.
The interesting case is Heyward. Are these two really going to battle over $300,000? Because if so, that’s not a good sign for the future.
Hewyard might have been better off settling instead of letting the team come to the table with their binders of statistics. This isn’t meant to be a bash-Heyward blog. I actually think the guy has been criticized far more than he deserves. But numbers are numbers and Heyward and his representatives will have some baggage to overcome if they hope to sway an arbitrator.
He played in the All-Star Game as a rookie but not in the three years since. He has been injured often (though last year was just bad luck: an emergency appendectomy and a broken jaw after getting hit by a pitch were the biggest reasons he was limited to 104 games).
His batting averages the last three seasons are .227, .269 and .254. He hit .277 as a rookie. His on-base percentages of .319, .335 and .349 also are lower than in his rookie season (.393). His power numbers are down but so was his strikeout percentage last season.
One issue will be what does either side use as comparables? What is Heyward? He was expected to be a No. 3 hitter, or certainly somewhere from third to six in the order. He evolved into the leadoff hitter last season by default. Nobody else on the roster could do it and Heyward excelled at it. He hit .322 as a leadoff batter, .226 at second in the order and .238 when hitting third.
But are we really going to start thinking of Heyward as the team’s permanent leadoff hitter – and, if so, what’s the monetary value of that? Just speculating here: Heyward would rather be in a position to drive in runs.
This will be an interesting one to watch, especially since Heyward has been central to so much of the team’s marketing efforts over the past four seasons.