Minutes before teams swapped contract proposals with their arbitration-eligible players, the Brewers agreed to terms on one-year contracts for second baseman Rickie Weeks and center fielder Carlos Gomez, leaving four other eligible players unsigned.
Weeks will earn $2.75 million in 2010, a $400,000 raise from a 2009 season spent mostly on the disabled list, and Gomez will make $1.1 million, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. Gomez, acquired from the Twins in November, earned $437,500 last season with the Twins and qualified for arbitration for the first time as a so-called “Super Two” player.
Work will continue toward deals with four other players who are arbitration-eligible but remain unsigned. The team exchanged salary proposals with all four on Tuesday:
— The biggest gap is with reliever Todd Coffey, who filed for $2.45 million while the Brewers countered with $1.7 million, a difference of $750,000 that nearly matches Coffey’s $800,002 salary last season. Coffey arguably had the best year of any of the Brewers’ eligible players, posting a 2.90 ERA in 78 appearances while leading National League relievers with 83 2/3 innings pitched.
Coffey wasn’t sweating the gap. He spent the day playing with daughters Hannah and Haley in North Carolina.
“I haven’t even checked my voicemail,” Coffey said. “It’s part of the game. It’s the process you have to go through. That’s what I have an agent for, to keep my mind off the business aspect as much as possible. It’s not like you can totally ignore the business side, but I’m focused on playing baseball right now. I already have the itch.”
— Right fielder Corey Hart filed for $4.8 million, $650,000 more than the club’s $4.15 million offer and $1.55 million more than he earned in a disappointing 2009 season. Hart’s year was made even more frustrating when he needed an emergency appendectomy in early August that sidelined him more than a month. He finished with a .260 batting average, 12 home runs and 48 RBIs.
— Starting pitcher Dave Bush filed for $4.45 million and the club offered $4.125 million, a relatively manageable gap of $325,000. Bush earned $4 million in a 2009 season marred by a line drive off the bat of Florida’s Hanley Ramirez on June 4 that struck Bush near the right elbow and caused trouble for the rest of the year. Bush finished his frustrating season with a 5-9 record and a 6.38 ERA, highest of any National League pitcher with at least 100 innings of work. The Brewers could have nontendered Bush in December to erase his salary obligation, but opted to bring him back to a starting rotation that needs every arm it can get.
— Reliever Carlos Villanueva filed for $1.075 million and the team offered $800,000, a $275,000 difference that was the smallest gap in terms of dollars but the second-largest as a percentage of the salary he’s seeking. Like Gomez, Villanueva was eligible for arbitration for the first time after earning $447,000 and is coming off a tough year in which he went 4-10 with a 5.34 ERA in 58 relief appearances and six starts. He did finish strong, with a 3.18 ERA over his final 16 appearances of the season.
Brewers arbitration specialist Teddy Werner will continue negotiations with representatives for Bush, Hart and Villanueva while assistant general manager Gord Ash handles talks with Coffey’s agent, Rick Thurman.
“All the exchange of numbers does is give you the actual parameters instead of the theoretical conversation,” Ash said. “Sometimes that can help you, and sometimes that hurts. I can’t speak for the guys Teddy is dealing with, but given the conversations I had [with Thurman] about Coffey last week, both parties were true to their respective positions.”
Talks can continue until the date of an arbitration hearing in Florida — they’ll be scheduled for Feb. 1-21 — at which time each side presents its case to a three-member panel of judges which chooses one salary or the other. It can be a very uncomfortable process, which is why the vast majority of negotiations end with both sides agreeing on a figure near the midpoint of filings. The Brewers haven’t gone to a hearing with a player during Doug Melvin’s tenure as GM, which began in September 2002.
“You always want to put yourself in a position to avoid a hearing,” Ash said. “But sometimes it makes sense to go to one. We’ll just have to see.”
Gomez, Weeks and outfielder Jody Gerut, who agreed to a $2 million, one-year contract on Monday, avoided that prospect by signing ahead of Tuesday’s deadline.
The Brewers acquired Gomez on Nov. 6 for shortstop J.J. Hardy and installed him as the starting center fielder. He was arbitration-eligible for the first time as a “Super 2” player after batting .229 last season with three home runs and 28 RBIs in 137 games.
Weeks has also yet to tap the potential that prompted the Brewers to select him second overall in the 2003 First-Year Player Draft, partly because of injuries. He was off to a great start in 2009 — .272 average, nine home runs and 24 RBIs in 37 games — before tearing the sheath of a tendon in his left wrist during a May 17 game at St. Louis. Weeks needed surgery and was lost for the season.
The Brewers expect Weeks back in 2010 as the team’s starting second baseman and leadoff hitter.