Club wins Burnes' arbitration case (source)

February 16th, 2023

PHOENIX -- Ace right-hander lost his arbitration case against the Brewers and will earn $10.01 million in 2023, rather than the $10.75 million he asked for, a source told on Wednesday.

Burnes made a $6.5 million base salary last year, when he was coming off winning the 2021 National League Cy Young Award and was eligible for arbitration. This year, Burnes and the Brewers were unable to agree on a salary before the January deadline for parties to formally exchange figures. That sent them on a path to a hearing before a three-member arbitration panel on Tuesday in St. Petersburg, Fla.

“He means a ton to our team and regardless of the outcome, we want to treat our players exceptionally well,” Brewers GM Matt Arnold said Wednesday afternoon as the sides awaited a ruling. “Corbin has been a leader for our franchise. He has been a pillar for the community. He has done everything you could possibly ask and beyond.

“We respect the process. And Corbin is a pro. We know he is going to take the ball every day and dominate every fifth day like he has for years, whatever the outcome is today.”

The relatively modest $740,000 difference between Burnes’ proposal and the Brewers’ proposal struck some observers as not worth the potential hard feelings that can come from a hearing, during which each side cites comparable players in previous years to support their case. Burnes, it’s believed, attended in person on Tuesday, as is customary for a player whose case goes all the way to the hearing room.

He's expected in camp on Thursday for the first workout for Milwaukee pitchers and catchers.

“Corbin is going to have a great season,” manager Craig Counsell said. “He’s a great pitcher. He’s incredibly focused and disciplined. We say that about players and people, but Corbin is at another level, the way he treats it. That’s always a recipe for success for guys when you combine it with talent.”

There were no rules preventing the Brewers and Burnes from settling after the formal exchange deadline, and in the past there would be a slew of settlements at or near the midpoint of where the team filed and where the player filed. But many teams took the position that players were filing artificially high figures that would be difficult to defend at a hearing in the interest of driving up the midpoint. That, in turn, teams said, would drive up future player salaries.

So, many teams decided that if the sides reached the point of formally exchanging figures, it meant they would cease talks and prepare for a hearing. Typically, the only exception is for multi-year agreements.

Former Brewers executive Teddy Werner, who used to handle Milwaukee’s arbitration strategy under then-GM Doug Melvin, explained the thinking of that general strategy for back in 2014.

"It doesn't mean you're going to win every case. Hey, it doesn't mean you're going to win any cases," Werner explained. "But what you're going to get is a pre-exchange date negotiation that is far more fair and reasonable. The party on the other side knows that if we don't have a deal by [the exchange deadline], the club is going to file a very serious number and go to a hearing. Nobody wants to do that, but they know that when push comes to shove, we are going to do that. You get better negotiations.”

Occasionally, though, going to a hearing creates problems. In 2020, the Brewers prevailed over closer Josh Hader, who earned $4.1 million instead of the $6.4 million he’d sought. He publicly aired his frustration with the process, which, in the case of a reliever, undervalued his performance because the parameters of salary arbitration emphasizes counting stats like saves.

After that, Hader made clear he wanted to be used more like a traditional, one-inning closer. It impacted how the Brewers employed him in ensuing seasons before they traded him to the Padres last summer.

Such situations instance the potential risk of quibbling with a star player over what seems a modest amount of money. Burnes certainly fits the star category after he began emerging as an ace in 2020, then became the third pitcher in Brewers history to win his league’s Cy Young Award after leading the National League with a 2.43 ERA in ‘21. In ‘22, Burnes made his first Opening Day start, made his second All-Star Game, topped 200 innings for the first time in his career and became the first Brewers pitcher to lead his league in strikeouts.

Then, a stalemate over salary. Burnes is expected to address the process on Thursday.

“Look, we and he both tried exceptionally hard to come to an agreement,” Arnold said. “To Corbin’s credit, he has the opportunity to say, ‘No.’ We did what we could to avoid the hearing if at all possible, as evidenced, I think, by the fact that we settled with 10 out of 11 of our cases. That is our hope, that we settle all of these cases before we go to a hearing.

“We want to be solution-based. We always want to try to get to a place where the player is comfortable. And also, we respect the heck out of Corbin’s right to push for what he believes is fair.”