'We're on the same team': Burnes, Brewers face gap in salary talks

Club agrees with all other eligible players, can still negotiate with 2021 NL Cy Young winner

January 14th, 2023

MILWAUKEE -- Unable to agree on a suitable salary for 2023, the Brewers and representatives for ace formally exchanged contract proposals on Friday in a procedural step that could lead to a salary arbitration hearing.

Friday’s stalemate does not preclude the Brewers from continuing to negotiate with Burnes, the 28-year-old 2021 NL Cy Young Award winner who went 12-8 with a 2.94 ERA and an NL-best 243 strikeouts in a career-high 202 innings in ‘22. But it does increase the odds that the sides could go to a hearing next month to set the right-hander’s salary for this season.

“Look, we’re still open to having conversations,” Brewers GM Matt Arnold said. “Corbin is a super-talented player, and it’s a unique case, right? There are very relevant comparables for him on both sides of the ledger that make sense, and it’s really just part of the process. We certainly don’t want anyone to take any of these negotiations personally. We love these guys like crazy.”

Thirty-three players representing 19 teams remained unsigned by the close of business Friday, including Burnes as the lone Brewer. He filed for $10.75 million. The Brewers filed at $10.01 million.  

While they couldn’t strike a deal with Burnes, the Brewers did settle with all of their other arbitration-eligible players ahead of a deadline on Friday afternoon. They included Burnes’ co-ace, , and shortstop , who is coming off back-to-back club MVP honors.

Most of the agreements came Friday, when the Brewers struck deals with Woodruff (he will earn $10.8 million, a source told MLB.com), Adames ($8.7 million), left-hander ($5.075 million), first baseman ($4.95 million), infielder Luis Urías ($4.7 million), closer ($3.35 million), infielder ($2.2 million) and infielder ($1.25 million). Those deals came after sources told MLB.com the team settled Thursday with catcher at $2.8 million and reliever at $1.025 million.

Earlier this offseason, the Brewers also settled with pitchers and and infielder to avoid arbitration.

Burnes and his representatives at CAA Sports, however, had a difference of opinion. Thus, he remains in arbitration, the process used to set the salaries of players who have established themselves in the Majors -- typically it takes three years of service time to qualify -- but have yet to qualify for free agency.

The salaries of arbitration-eligible players are relative to other players of comparable service and production in previous years. Teams and agencies examine relevant comps and build their case for a salary they believe is fair. Usually, they reach a settlement with the club prior to a hearing.

If they remain at odds by a certain date every January -- this year's soft deadline was noon CT on Friday -- each party files a proposal it is willing to defend at a hearing during Spring Training. In a hearing, each side presents to a three-member panel of arbitrators, with the player usually in the room. After deliberation, the panel chooses one salary or the other, with no more compromise at that point.

It’s the period between Friday’s exchange deadline and those hearings in February when things get a little complicated. Some clubs continue to negotiate, often agreeing at or near the midpoint of figures to avoid the unpleasantries of a hearing. The Brewers did just that for years, sometimes settling on the literal doorstep of the hearing room. But some officials believed that practice led to inflated salaries, so more and more teams began to adopt a stricter approach whereby negotiations cease after the exchange deadline, and the case goes to a hearing.

As usual in baseball, there’s an exception. In this case, it’s for a player who agrees to a multiyear deal. In 2020, for example, the Brewers were unable to agree with reliever Brent Suter at the exchange deadline, so they swapped figures and continued to talk. Before the hearing date, they struck a two-year deal.

In other instances, however, filing figures means the sides are going to a hearing. During David Stearns’ tenure running baseball operations with Arnold as his top deputy, the Brewers went to hearings against Chase Anderson in 2016, Josh Hader in '20 and Adrian Houser in ’22. The club prevailed each time. Stearns stepped down in October and Arnold took over the top job.

Arnold declined to say Friday afternoon whether it would take a multiyear agreement to avoid a hearing with Burnes now that the sides have filed figures.

“I can’t get into details about our process, but what I can say is we can continue to have conversations,” Arnold said. “This doesn’t cut us off from anything going forward, which is something we’re happy about. Nobody enjoys the process of arbitration. We’re on the same team. Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about.”