DETROIT -- The Tigers' perfect record of avoiding arbitration hearings is now in serious jeopardy. It isn't a star player about to test it, but a potential star pitcher in the making.
Just how valuable Max Scherzer is to the Tigers is about to become a question for an arbitrator to weigh, at least from a financial standpoint.
The Tigers and Scherzer stood $1.35 million apart when they filed numbers two weeks ago. They continue to talk, but they still have a distance to gap, and they're running out of time.
Three-person arbitration panels are scheduled to begin hearings next week in Arizona. A hearing date for Scherzer's case has been set, but so far, the date has been kept private out of mutual interest. Arbitrators aren't told ahead of time whose case they'll be hearing on a given day, and giving a date for players would allow them to put the pieces together and start doing advance research if they so choose.
At some point, if they get to a hearing, the schedule will get out. At that point, the Tigers would be in territory they haven't seen in a decade.
No Tiger has gone to an arbitration hearing since Dave Dombrowski replaced Randy Smith as general manager in 2002. They've come close a couple of times, notably when Justin Verlander became eligible for arbitration in 2009.
That's not to say they're untested at it. Tigers vice president/baseball legal counsel John Westhoff took part in many hearings when was an associate counsel in the Commissioner's Office for 19 years, and he has had to prepare for hearings since coming along with Dombrowski from the Marlins to the Tigers after the 2001 season. But to state the obvious, part of the skill in his current job over the years is that he hasn't had to go through a hearing in a long time.
The Tigers' goal with arbitration cases under Dombrowski and Westhoff has been to reach a deal with players before exchanging numbers. They've exchanged numbers more often in recent years as their young players have gotten better, but they've usually settled those soon after the exchange once a middle ground was clearly established. Given that history, it would be a stretch to suggest the gap between Scherzer and the Tigers is small, though their gap in salaries submitted isn't as big as what the Tigers faced with Verlander.
Part of the appeal in those cases is the knowledge that arbitration panels have to accept one of the two offers submitted. Unlike in hockey, a ruling can't give a player a salary in the middle.
Thus, if the case goes to a hearing, Scherzer would either get $7.4 million or $6.05 million. It won't be an easy matter to settle.
Scherzer made $3.75 million last year as a first-time arbitration eligible. A victory for him would just about double his salary. Unlike last offseason, his arbitration case will be judged on last season's numbers alone.
Scherzer set career highs with 16 wins and 231 strikeouts last year, and was in a tight race with Verlander for the Major League lead in the latter category before shoulder soreness knocked Scherzer out of one start and scratched him from another. It also left him with 187 2/3 innings after back-to-back seasons with at least 195 innings.
Despite the shoulder questions, Scherzer made three starts in the postseason, striking out 26 batters over 18 1/3 innings on 12 hits and four walks.
Super-agent Scott Boras represents Scherzer, but Boras and the Tigers have a history of settling gaps with arbitration-eligible players; Boras' tough negotiations are usually reserved for free agents. He usually encourages players against signing long-term deals avoiding arbitration, not short-term ones, so that they can still test the open market when they become eligible.
That said, Boras is known for keeping a binder's worth of statistics on his clients, normally for free agents but also for arbitration's sake.
Technically, the Tigers' negotiation with Scherzer could actually stretch past a hearing. The two sides are allowed to seek a settlement all the way until an arbitration panel makes its decision. Once a team has to go to a hearing, though, the chances of compromise on a middle ground drop dramatically.