Salary arbitration hearings are scheduled to begin today in Phoenix, but the Phillies and Ryan Howard still have time to strike a deal before heading to the table.
The date of Howard's hearing has been a closely guarded secret, but people with knowledge of the schedule have indicated it will take place during the second week of hearings - Feb. 9-13.
Hearings run through Feb. 20.
Howard, who led the majors in homers (153) and RBIs (431) over the last three seasons, is seeking a 2009 salary of $18 million. The Phillies have offered $14 million, a raise of $4 million over the $10 million Howard won in salary arbitration last year.
If an agreement is not reached, an arbitration panel will listen to arguments from both sides and pick either the team's or the player's figure. There is no middle ground.
"We're still hopeful of avoiding [a hearing]," Phils general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. said. "Our goal remains the same - get an equitable deal done."
Amaro said the team and Howard's representative, Casey Close, have been involved in contract discussions. Amaro would not say whether the two sides were discussing a multiyear contract or a one-year deal. The Phillies unsuccessfully tried to sign Howard to a multiyear deal each of the last two off-seasons. Howard, 29, can not be a free agent until after the 2011 season.
There were indications last winter that the Phils were willing to give Howard a contract in line with the seven-year, $85 million deal that Chase Utley got in January 2007. Howard's side has likely set $200 million as its target.
So, despite efforts to get a deal done in the days that remain before a hearing, this one seems headed back to the table.
While the dates of some hearings involving other players have leaked out, both the Phillies and Close have refused to reveal the date of Howard's hearing. Amaro has gone as far as to say the Phils could be fined for giving out the information. Although Major League Baseball has not specifically threatened fines for revealing hearing dates, the commissioner's office and the players' association have instructed involved parties to keep the information private. Neither side wants to risk an arbitration panel becoming prejudiced by knowing in advance which case it will hear.
Howard's case is one of the most high-profile ever. His $18 million request is the third-highest since baseball adopted the arbitration process in 1974. Houston's Roger Clemens sought $22 million and settled for $18 million in 2005. Derek Jeter sought $18.5 million while the New York Yankees offered $14.25 million in 2001. The two sides settled on a 10-year, $189 million contract.
An arbitration panel is made up of three people selected from a pool of 15 American Arbitration Association members. Arbitrators are not informed of which case they will hear until moments before it begins.
The ordering of hearings can be significant. There were eight hearings last year. Howard's was heard seventh, after management had already won six cases. The "possession arrow," as baseball insiders call it, may have favored Howard after management had won six in a row last year. This year, it appears that Howard's case will be heard around the middle of the three-week period, so the possession arrow might not be a factor.
The order of hearings is agreed upon by MLB and the players' union.