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Hader, Suter unsigned at arbitration deadline

January 10, 2020

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers avoided arbitration with catcher Omar Narváez ahead of Friday’s deadline for teams to formally exchange proposals with arbitration-eligible players, but were unable to strike a deal with left-handers Josh Hader or Brent Suter. The next stop could be a hearing room. The Brewers don’t disclose their

MILWAUKEE -- The Brewers avoided arbitration with catcher Omar Narváez ahead of Friday’s deadline for teams to formally exchange proposals with arbitration-eligible players, but were unable to strike a deal with left-handers Josh Hader or Brent Suter. The next stop could be a hearing room.

The Brewers don’t disclose their policy, but it is believed they are a “file and trial” team, meaning that if players who are arbitration-eligible reach this stage without a deal, the negotiations cease and the case goes to a hearing to decide players’ salaries for the coming season.

Hader filed for $6.4 million and the Brewers filed at $4.1 million, according to a source. Suter filed for $1.25 million and the Brewers filed at $825,000, per MLB Network insider Jon Heyman.

“This is the first time we've exchanged filing numbers in a couple of years, so we've had a nice run of being able to get to settlements prior to [exchanging offers],” Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns said. “But this was a year when we had a couple of players that we just weren't able to line up.”

Hader and Suter are eligible as so-called Super Two players, with Hader having qualified at the precise cutoff of two years and 115 days of Major League service. That means he is not only in line for a substantial raise this year, but stands to earn more in his subsequent three arbitration years.

Hader’s representatives at CAA Sports will argue that he’s earned it. Hader has won the National League’s Reliever of the Year Award each of the past two seasons and made the NL All-Star team both years while posting some of the highest strikeout rates in Major League history. His 47.8 K% in 2019 and 46.7 K% in ’18 are the fourth- and fifth-highest strikeout rates in history for pitchers who logged at least 35 innings in a season.

“I think we consider him the best reliever in baseball right now,” Stearns said during last month’s Winter Meetings.

A primer on the rules of arbitration is in order.

How they qualify
Typically, players are arbitration-eligible for three years, but not until they have logged three years of MLB service. As usual, there is an exception. A select group of players -- those in the top 22 percent of service time between two and three years, qualify for a fourth year of arbitration as a Super Two. The cutoff varies from year to year, and this year it happened to be abnormally low at two years, 115 days. Coincidentally, that was exactly Hader’s number.

Qualifying for arbitration is a big deal for a player. During his pre-arbitration years, a player is essentially paid whatever his team wants to pay, provided it meets the MLB minimum ($563,500 in 2020) salary. Many teams, including the Brewers, reward so-called “zero to three” players with salaries slightly better than the minimum using a mathematical formula based on performance. Often, the player simply accepts the team’s offer and signs. Sometimes, the player and his representatives opt to make a statement by declining to accept. In those instances, the team “renews” the player’s contract at whatever salary the team wants.

Last spring, the Brewers and Hader were unable to agree, so Hader’s contract was renewed at $687,600.

“First of all, I love being here in Milwaukee. I love the organization, I love how they treat us,” Hader said then. “In that end, it was a business decision that I talked to my agent about, and it was just the route that we decided to go.”

How arbitration works
After a player qualifies for arbitration, his salary jumps to a figure relative to players of similar accomplishment in the same service class. That is why websites like MLB Trade Rumors and Cot’s Contracts are able to look at comparable players and estimate salaries of those eligible, sometimes with great accuracy. Those sites peg Hader for a 2020 salary between $4.5 million and $4.6 million. But again, there is an exception. Hader’s representatives could choose to argue that he is a player of “special accomplishment,” and seek a comp outside of Hader’s service class. MLB Network insider Ken Rosenthal wrote in The Athletic that the record for a first-year eligible reliever is Jonathan Papelbon’s $6.25 million deal with the Red Sox in 2009.

So, the sides gather information and negotiate. If they remain at odds by a certain date in January -- this year’s deadline was Friday -- each side formally files a salary proposal that it is willing to defend at a hearing scheduled for February. If the process goes all the way to a hearing room, representatives for each side present to a three-member panel of judges while the player himself watches his own team argue his weaknesses. After deliberation, that panel chooses one salary or the other, with no compromise.

It’s the period between Friday’s exchange deadline and those hearings in February when things get interesting. Some clubs continue to negotiate, often striking an agreement at or near the midpoint to avoid the unpleasantries of a hearing. The Brewers did so for years, sometimes settling on the literal doorstep of a hearing. But some MLB officials believed that practice led to artificially inflated salaries, so more and more teams adopted a “file and trial” approach, whereby negotiations cease after the exchange of figures, and the case goes straight to a hearing in February.

In 2017, the team took right-hander Chase Anderson to a hearing and won. That’s the only hearing during Stearns’ tenure. Last year, the team settled with all six of its remaining arbitration-eligible players on the same day figures were to be exchanged.

On Friday, Narváez signed for $2.725 million, according to ESPN. But Hader and Suter remained unsigned. Both are compelling cases based on their recent success -- Hader, over the course of the past three years, and Suter, particularly last September, when he returned from Tommy John surgery and became one of Milwaukee’s most reliable relievers.

“I think all players, in different ways, provide challenges to find appropriate comparables,” Stearns said. “Most of the time, we've been able to do that, but this year, we just weren't with a couple of players. This is part of this segment of the salary structure. It's part of what you go through with arbitration-eligible players. The system is certainly deigned to produce settlements and we've been able to achieve that over the last couple of years but on occasion, you have complicated cases where for one reason or another, you can't get on the same page. Sometimes, those cases end up in hearings.”

Adam McCalvy has covered the Brewers for since 2001. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram and like him on Facebook.