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Arbitration hearings likely to shape Braves' future

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Arbitration hearings likely to shape Braves' future play video for Arbitration hearings likely to shape Braves' future

ATLANTA -- Barring the unlikely possibility that they reach an agreement on a long-term contract within the next few weeks, Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward seem destined to experience separate arbitration hearings that will determine their respective salaries for the upcoming season.

The Braves will present their case to support the salaries they have offered. The representatives for each player will make arguments to support the salaries each have requested. Arbitrators will hear both sides and then award the player with one of the two salary figures that were exchanged this past Friday.

Kimbrel's salary will either be $9 million or the $6.55 million offered by the Braves. Freeman will earn either $5.75 million or $4.5 million. Heyward's salary for 2014 will either be $5.5 million or $5.2 million.

While teams have the right to continue negotiations leading up to the hearings, which will be held during the first three weeks of February, the Braves are among those teams who have adopted the "file and trial" policy, which means they stop negotiating and begin planning to go to a hearing once salary arbitration figures are exchanged.

From this aspect, all seems simple. But the long-term effects of these hearings will almost certainly impact how the Braves' roster looks over the course of the next few years.

If Kimbrel wins his case and is awarded a $9 million salary as a first-year arbitration player, there will be more reason to believe he could be traded before he is eligible for free agency after the 2016 season. This would put the dominant closer on a track that could provide him a $13 million salary in 2015 and a $16-plus million salary in 2016, which would be his final two years of arbitration eligibility.

While life with Kimbrel has proven to be a luxury, the Braves could certainly be uncomfortable allocating these salaries to a pitcher who will complete approximately 65 innings a season and be subject to the same uncertainties that has long made the lifespan of a closer so unpredictable.

Even if the Braves were to win a hearing against Kimbrel this year, there is still a chance they could feel the urge to trade him after the upcoming season. But if the $6.55 million salary proves to be a starting point, it would at least be more realistic to think they could manage the salaries he could gain during his final two arbitration-eligible seasons.

As last week progressed, it appeared Kimbrel, Freeman and Mike Minor would be the players who were least likely to reach an agreement with the Braves. Minor struck his one-year, $3.85 million deal Friday afternoon, just before arbitration figures were exchanged.

Heyward did not prove to be as fortunate. Multiple agents and industry sources were confident the Braves would eventually reach an agreement with the 25-year-old outfielder. Their reasoning was easy to understand once $300,000 stood as the difference between Heyward's request and the team's offer.

The fact that an agreement was not reached, despite the minimal disparity between these figures, will put Heyward in that category of players who annually say, "I'll remember this when I become a free agent."

Essentially the same thing is often said when a player who has not yet gained arbitration-eligible status has his contract renewed. It is all part of this business process, which allows the player to ask for more money from a team that is given the difficult task of making sound financial decisions while keeping its players happy.

While it might have been in the club's best interest to find a suitable compromise with a homegrown, hometown talent who could prove valuable for many years to come, the Braves were not comfortable raising their offer any higher to Heyward, whose arbitration case could be weakened by the fact he missed two months with two unavoidable ailments (appendectomy and fractured jaw) last year.

"It's not personal, it's about the numbers," Braves general manager Frank Wren said on Friday.

Since the end of the season, clubs have had the opportunity to analyze and compare statistics in an effort to determine what they see as a fair-market value for each of their arbitration-eligible players. But these plans and projections can be influenced by the offers and agreements made by other clubs.

Giancarlo Stanton has batted .265, totaled 117 home runs and compiled a 14.8 WAR through the first 489 games of his career. Freeman has batted .285, notched 68 home runs and compiled a 9.3 WAR through the first 471 games of his career.

While they might not be in the same exact category, these players stood as two of this year's most prominent offensive first-year arbitration-eligible players. Thus, Freeman's potential cost rose last week when the Marlins exceeded projections and expectations by giving Stanton a one-year, $6.5 million contract.

This decision furthered the divide between what the Braves expected to offer and what Freeman expected to receive after finishing fifth in last year's National League MVP Award balloting.

So like Heyward, Freeman felt a little sting last week, when it became apparent that an agreement would not be reached. Players never want to experience an arbitration hearing, during which they hear their employer say why they should not gain their requested salary.

There is a chance this could have a future negative impact when the Braves attempt to prevent Heyward or Freeman from leaving the club via free agency. But while the two players might be feeling slighted right now, their agent, Casey Close, is well aware of the fact that going to a hearing is simply a part of the arbitration process and not necessarily a definitive sign that a long-term relationship with the current club is out of the question.

Close represented Ryan Howard when the first baseman won a $10 million settlement during a 2008 salary arbitration hearing with the Phillies. One year later, Howard committed himself to Philadelphia by signing a three-year, $54 million contract. Another year later, he signed an extension that stands as his current five-year, $125 million deal.

Still, given baseball's economic system, it seems highly unlikely that Kimbrel, Freeman and Heyward will all still be together when the Braves move into their new stadium in 2017. At some point, you have to expect at least one of these players will exit as free agent or be involved in a trade that would could give the Braves a more significant return than they would be compensated with via a free-agent departure.

Over the past few years, the Braves have benefited from an abundance of talented young players who have provided value that has far exceeded their cost. But now that many of these players have become arbitration-eligible, the cost of business has risen, and the likelihood of keeping this core together has diminished.

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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