Brewers exploring extension for Braun
Young slugger could be eligible for arbitration after '10 season
PHOENIX -- The agent for reigning National League Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun was in Brewers camp last week, and the visit was not purely for pleasure.
"I think there was some business in there, too," Braun said with a smile.
Nez Balelo, who also negotiated the three-year deal between the Brewers and free-agent pickup David Riske two months ago, sat down with Brewers assistant general manager Gord Ash at Maryvale Baseball Park regarding Braun's 2008 contract. Those talks could lead to discussions on a multi-year extension, the new gold standard of which, at least for players with one-plus year of service time, belongs to NL Rookie of the Year runner-up Troy Tulowitzki.
Brewers officials, including principal owner Mark Attanasio, met Saturday to mull the merits of multi-year deals for young players, a group that includes Braun, first baseman Prince Fielder, outfielder Corey Hart and second baseman Rickie Weeks.
"It's certainly something I am open to, but I honestly haven't thought about it too much yet," Braun said. "I'm definitely not opposed to considering whatever they have to say."
Tulowitzki's six-year, $31 million contract set a record for a player with less than two years of experience. It surpassed the six years and $23.45 million that the Indians guaranteed center fielder Grady Sizemore in March 2006 and the six years and $26.8 million that the Braves gave catcher Brian McCann in March 2007.
Tulowitzki played Gold Glove-caliber defense to go with solid offensive numbers, but Braun put up historic numbers at the plate. He set a Major League rookie record with a .634 slugging percentage and batted .324 with 34 home runs, 97 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in only 113 games. Last month, Braun, who led the NL in errors while playing third base, agreed to move to left field.
Both Ash and Balelo characterized their meeting as informal and positive. Ash said he laid out the Brewers' system of compensating players with zero to three years of Major League service, which is based on the past year's performance, awards and on the annual Elias rankings.
"Every player in our camp is given the same formula," Ash said. "This is not subjective, it's objective. You're going to get what the formula says you're going to get. There's no playing favorites."Teams control the rights to players for their first six years of Major League service, but still negotiate terms each year unless a long-term contract is in place. If the sides cannot come to terms, the team can renew a contract at the salary of its choice, with certain constraints. Several of Milwaukee's "zero-to-three" players have already come to terms, but the list does not include core players like Braun, Fielder, Hart and Weeks. Weeks is a bit of an exception because he signed a Major League contract after the 2003 Draft that expired after last season, and the terms of that deal will affect his 2008 salary.
The deadline for new contracts is March 1, Ash said. He expects to sign players to one-year deals before pursuing multi-year ones, and said the Brewers would look at the group as a whole instead of targeting one or two for extensions.
If the Brewers do pursue a multi-year contract with Braun, it is reasonable to look at Tulowitzki's contract as a marker. Brewers officials were somewhat surprised to see Colorado break its tradition by locking up a "zero-to-three" player, but the amount of the deal was in line with expectations.
Does that make the Tulowitzki deal a starting point for Braun?
"It would certainly be a factor, but I wouldn't say whether it's a starting point or not," Braun said. "It's definitely a factor. For players in general, it's nice to have the financial security. It's difficult for a lot of players to pass that up. I am definitely open to talking, and we'll see what happens.
"It seems like a little bit of a trend that a lot of teams are going in, an opportunity to lock guys up, maybe save a little bit of money. But it provides financial security for the player as well. The way arbitration is going these days, I think it makes a lot of sense for both sides."
Balelo said he looks at players on a case-to-case basis and is open to talking with teams about multi-year contracts, but only if it makes sense for a particular player.
The 110 players in salary arbitration averaged a 120 percent increase in salary, according to a study by The Associated Press, and first-year eligibles traditionally enjoy the biggest bump. This week, Phillies slugger Ryan Howard won a case before an arbitration panel and his salary increased from $900,000 to $10 million, a record for a player eligible for the first time and $3 million more than the Phillies had wanted to spend. Balelo is affiliated with Howard's agent, Casey Close.
The Rockies apparently wanted to avoid that process with Tulowitzki, so they signed him to a deal that buys out all of his arbitration years and one season of free agency. Tulowitzki spent all of 2007 with the Rockies and would have been arbitration-eligible during the 2009-10 offseason.
Braun, though, was not promoted to the Majors until late May and accumulated 129 days of service time. There is a strong chance he will not be eligible for arbitration until the 2010-11 offseason.
"We're trying to look at the guys as a group," Attanasio said. "We've done a lot of background preparations. There's a pretty detailed memorandum, so we're going to have our first detailed session to talk about it today."Fielder is the most immediate concern. He will be arbitration-eligible following this season, and likely is directly affected by the Howard case.
No worries, Attanasio insisted."I'm rooting for Prince to hit 60 home runs this year," Attanasio said, "and we'll figure out how to pay him." If the Brewers do not reach multi-year agreements with any of their young players, it does not represent a setback, Attanasio stressed.
"There's an aspect of 'paying as you go' that, even in the escalating salary context that we have, is very favorable," Attanasio said. "As you pay as you go, you are paying for value. If guys get hurt, or as guys tail off, they don't get paid or they get paid a lot less. If a guy performs, he gets paid more. I don't know if you're in a worse position, therefore.
"There is a very strong case to pay as you go. I think the fans have to realize that we control these players through their six years, and so they should expect to see them for that period of time. They are going to see these guys for a number of years either way."
Adam McCalvy is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.