Breaking down the Nats’ arbitration cases

It’s that time of year again -- the annual point in the offseason that begins what I think is one of the strangest procedures in professional sports.

Imagine you went into your boss’ office to ask for a raise (OK, OK, imagine it’s a better time when your boss wouldn’t laugh hysterically or trail off muttering some line about “economic challenges” or “a difficult climate”). You come to the table with a dutifully-prepared list of all your achievements -- e-mails congratulating you on a job well done, sales records, ways you saved the company money, employee-of-the-month awards, etc. And across the table, your boss is waiting with an equally meticulous list of reasons why you’re not that great -- times you’ve been tardy, mistakes you’ve made, other employees in the company who are better than you, and the like.

You spend hours arguing back and forth, to the point you wonder if the things he’s saying mean he’s as likely to fire you as to boost your paycheck. Then, you finally agree on a price, at which point he shakes your hand, says, “We couldn’t be happier to have you with us,” and goes on to tell other managers how happy he is that you’re satisfied with what you’re making.

Seem odd? Well, every major-league team in the country is going to go through that process in the next two weeks -- only with lawyers involved and more money at stake than you or I will make in our lifetimes.

I’m talking, of course, about salary arbitration. And my long-winded intro into the subject aside, it’s going to be an interesting process for the Nats this year.

They have six players who filed for arbitration on Friday: pitchers Jason Bergmann, Brian Bruney and Sean Burnett, catchers Jesus Flores and Wil Nieves and outfielder Josh Willingham. And in almost all the cases, save Willingham and perhaps Burnett, are going to be very interesting.

Willingham is the most predictable case, because his performance has been relatively steady for most of his career. He helped himself by staying healthy all season and posting a career-high OPS of .863, but even that was only 11 points better than his 2006 mark. He signed a one-year, $2.95 million deal just before arbitration last year, and I’d expect him to negotiate a modest raise this year. Burnett’s performance last season was the best of his career, but he had a 4.76 ERA the year before with a 1.606 WHIP. That season will cost him a little bit of money (remember, it’s a two-year look-back), but his case isn’t as tricky as the rest of the guys in the group.

From here, the Nats have a bit of a conundrum with each player. Bergmann, first of all, has been a starter and a reliever in his career. He’s had stretches where he looked promising (remember the 20 2/3-inning shutout streak he had in May 2008?), and stretches where he looked lost. The Nats won’t have to shell out large sums of money to keep him, but I’m interested to see how Bergmann’s camp plays his first arbitration hearing--I’ve heard rumblings that they might try to stress his history as a starter to squeeze some more dollars out of the Nats. Bruney, likewise, won’t be a terribly expensive case. But he comes in having been a reasonably effective reliever on a World Series team, and he’ll have a shot to close in Washington. That won’t affect his status in an arbitration hearing, but it will probably be in the back of the Nats’ minds as they figure out how to handle him.

Nieves will be a cheap pick-up, but he comes in with a slim chance of making the team, assuming the Nats don’t keep three catchers and Jesus Flores is healthy. And that brings us to the young catcher, who is by far the most interesting piece of the Nationals’ 2010 arbitration puzzle. First, he’s a Super Two, meaning he hit the arbitration process a year earlier than he would have otherwise because he’s got one of the highest service-time totals among players with more than two years but less than three. He’s shown he can be productive, but is coming off a season where he played just 29 games and enters the 2010 campaign as a major injury concern because of a surgically-repaired shoulder. It’s even worth asking if the Nationals still consider him their catcher of the future. And if his case goes to arbitration, how does Scott Boras play it? Flores hit .301 last year and drove in 59 runs during his first season as a starter in 2008. But his youth and his injuries might necessitate a more conservative strategy.

So that’s what I’ll be watching as the Nationals start the arbitration process. For a series of mundane court proceedings, there’s certainly plenty of intrigue this time around.