Washington Nationals pitchers Sean Burnett, Brian Bruney lose out in arbitration

Reliever Sean Burnett hardly enjoyed his arbitration hearing, saying:
Reliever Sean Burnett hardly enjoyed his arbitration hearing, saying: "It does wear on you. . . . The whole situation is awkward." (Toni L. Sandys/the Washington Post)
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By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 21, 2010

VIERA, FLA. -- Saturday, no longer consumed by all that grim business from earlier in the week, Washington Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo again called Brian Bruney and Sean Burnett two of his favorite guys on the team. "Both," Rizzo said, "are going to be huge not only in 2010 but beyond."

Bruney, a righty, is 28. Burnett, a lefty, is 27. In previous months, Rizzo orchestrated trades to acquire both of them, the clearest possible sign that they are wanted. For the most part, despite all those mixed messages from the past week, Bruney and Burnett still believe this.

The relationship between the Nationals and their two relief pitchers only grew complicated because of something both sides found miserable. This week, both players -- Bruney on Tuesday, Burnett on Thursday -- drove several hours across Florida, walked into a conference room at the St. Petersburg Renaissance Vinoy, and argued for several hours with their employers about money. In both cases, several hundred thousand dollars were at stake. In both cases, the Nationals, arguing for a lower salary, spent an hour describing each player's shortcomings. In both cases, a three-person arbitration panel sided with the Nationals, and so by Saturday both Bruney and Burnett were back at Washington's spring training complex, trying to reconcile the strange feeling of losing to your own team in a financial battle and helping it win in the months to come.

Those who call arbitration hearings just business typically haven't attended one. "Brutal," Bruney called his. "Uncomfortable," Burnett called his. "It does wear on you. You listen to guys belittle you, make you feel like you're invaluable. It's like, '[Damn], these guys really hate me.' But at the same time, too, when your guy is talking it's weird to hear all the praise. The whole situation is awkward."

Major League Baseball's arbitration process, at its core, is a matter of finance. Barring a few exceptions, players are eligible for arbitration hearings once they have between three and six years of big league service time. Every season, hundreds of players can, conceivably, opt for this method: The player (or his agent, rather) recommends a desired salary. The team recommends a lower salary. A panel of strangers picks one or the other.

But because the arbitration process also leaves scar tissue -- "a hatefest," said Jason Bergmann, an arbitration-eligible pitcher who agreed to a contract in January, thus avoiding a hearing -- very few teams and players end up in battle. Since 2006, 32 cases league-wide have gone to a hearing. Washington has been involved in seven of those cases, winning five. This year, the Nationals had two of the eight cases. Historically, arbiters award the lower salary with 57.6-percent frequency. Historically, too, baseball is loaded with guys such as Bruney and Burnett willing to gamble on their own performance.

"I'm not much of a gambler," Burnett said, "but I know I'm pretty good at baseball and I know I had a pretty damn good year last year. So this was a chance I was willing to take."

To hear Burnett and Bruney describe it, salary -- and the willingness to fight for several hundred thousand dollars of it -- is less a matter of money than pride. Bruney, pitching for the New York Yankees, made $1.25 million last season; he finished with a 3.92 ERA in 39 innings, and asked to earn $1.85 million in 2010. Burnett, splitting his year between the Pirates and Nationals, earned $408,500 in 2009; he finished with a 3.12 ERA and asked for $925,000 in 2010.

The arbitration-eligible players arrived at those target numbers not by happenstance, but by comparing salaries and performances with analogous peers. In a way, that comparison -- not the desire for more money -- seduces the desire to fight. By the time a player has typically reached his third year, he's placed himself -- reasonably or not -- within a hierarchy, armed with either numbers or opinion. Early in the offseason, Bergmann, for instance, received from his agent a three-inch binder of numbers, stats and salaries. "I read the damn thing, too," Bergmann said. "Because it's homework. You see other players, you compare, you find your value." Bergmann eventually agreed to a one-year, $750,000 deal.

According to Bruney, both sides spent much of his hearing using the influence of comparable players. Washington, requesting a salary of $1.5 million, compared Bruney to, among others, Houston's Tim Byrdak. Bruney and his agent, Gregg Clifton, found Detroit's Bobby Seay as a better parallel.

"There is a method to picking the number," Bruney said. "And I've got strong principles, values and beliefs. What it boils down to is, I'm not pitching to please the people that were in that arbitration case. I'm pitching for the guys in here and for myself. You know, for me, I don't play this game to be an all-star, I don't play it to make a [boat]load of money. That's not why I play. At the end of the day it's about respect."

At the respective hearings, the abstractions for both players vanished. The room that Burnett walked into was big, with tables set up in a T formation -- agents here, team there, arbiters in between. All told, about 80 people, including representatives from the players' union and commissioner's office, crowded the room. "And they're all just staring at you," Burnett said. Rizzo, though in attendance, remained silent, which for Burnett was a relief. Washington vice president and general counsel Damon Jones spoke on behalf of the team.

Burnett's case took four hours.

Afterward, though the panel wouldn't deliver its decision until the following day, Rizzo found his reliever and said, "We put those things behind us and we move on, and now it's baseball."

By Saturday afternoon, Burnett and Bruney had taken their annual physicals, in advance of Sunday's first official workout. Burnett, now with a 2010 salary of $775,000, headed to the outfield at Space Coast Stadium, where he played catch with teammate Matt Capps. Bruney hung out in the clubhouse with pitcher Shawn Estes, shooting the breeze about pitch grips. Neither reliever regretted his decision.

"If you've got pride and you think you're worth more," Burnett said, "that's a risk you are willing to take."

"If anything, I think [the hearing] can better you," Bruney said. "Because I know the only bad things they can say about me are things I can fix."

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