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Howard headed for arbitration

Howard headed for arbitration

Ryan Howard's first few years in the Majors have been nothing short of historic.

His new contract is about to become the same.

Howard and infielder Eric Bruntlett exchanged salary figures with the Phillies on Friday, in anticipation of next month's arbitration hearings. And regardless of the result, the slugging first baseman stands to earn one of the richest contracts awarded through arbitration.

Howard is seeking $10 million, which would match the most money any Major Leaguer has received through arbitration. The Phillies countered with an offer of $7 million, which would still rank his new deal among the highest arbitration contracts.

Bruntlett submitted a request for $800,000, while the Phillies are offering $550,000.

Howard couldn't quite replicate his breakout 2006 season, but his numbers -- a .268 average and 47 home runs -- still placed him among the top sluggers in the game. A slow start robbed him of any chance to match the 58 home runs he hit the previous season, but he made up for it with 26 homers and 79 RBIs in the second half.

"I started to get more comfortable at the plate after the All-Star break and it carried over," Howard said just before the start of the playoffs. "I never let a tough at-bat bother me. I kept working and found my stroke."

Still, he struck out 199 times to set a new Major League record.

Last offseason, the Phillies signed Howard to a $900,000 deal, the largest for a player with fewer than two years of service time -- but still relatively meager compensation for a reigning MVP. Attempts to lock him up to a long-term contract proved fruitless.

"We discussed a variety of things," Phillies assistant general manager Ruben Amaro said after signing Howard to just a one-year deal last winter. "It's our goal to keep our star players in red pinstripes, and we're going to work to that end. We didn't get to the finish line on this, but we'll have continued talks on this one."

Because of Howard's status as a "super two" player -- he's in the top tier of total service time among players with between two and three years of big league service time -- he won't qualify for free agency until 2011.

Hot Stove

That means that the Phillies can go to arbitration with Howard for four straight years if they want, but it doesn't also mean he'll come cheap. In his first year of arbitration, slugger Miguel Cabrera earned $7.4 million from the Marlins, which still stands as the record for first-year arbitration players. The previous winter, Alfonso Soriano lost his hearing but still earned a record $10 million from the Nationals, and in 2001, Andruw Jones earned $8.2 million through arbitration from the Braves.

Howard stands to join that elite group and become one of the highest-paid arbitration players ever.

The Phillies can still negotiate a new contract with Howard up until the arbitration hearings, which run from Feb. 1-21. But should they reach the hearing date with a contract unresolved, then the arbitration panel will choose one of the two salary figures, and the decision is binding.

Bruntlett, 29, also stands to earn a raise, after making $525,000 last season in limited duty with the Astros. He hit .246 without any homers, but more importantly, provided versatility by playing every position on the diamond other than pitcher and catcher. He came to the Phillies in the deal that also brought along Brad Lidge.

The Phillies have managed to avoid these hearings in the past, and haven't gone to arbitration with any player since winning a case against Travis Lee in 2001. By agreeing to one-year contracts with both Lidge and Ryan Madson on Thursday, the Phillies have already avoided two potential hearings this week.

Lidge, one of the newest Phillies, signed a $6.35 million contract, while Madson inked a $1.4 million deal.

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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