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When the Phillies raised Ryan Howard's salary to $900,000 last spring, they may have set a challenging precedent for other Major League teams.
As a player with less than three years of Major League experience, Howard could have been paid as little as the league minimum without much recourse for objection. But after a season in which he hit .313 with 58 HR and 149 RBI, the Phillies wanted to reward him with a long-term deal; the sides couldn't agree, but Philadelphia gave Howard a significant raise anyway.
In the first several weeks of spring training, several talented young players have announced their expectation of a big payday, or voiced disapproval when teams have renewed their contracts at or near the league minimum.
Phils pitcher Cole Hamels called his $100,000 raise to $500,000 for this season a " low blow ;" Orioles outfielder Nick Markakis, who was renewed at $455,000, groused that "I don't have much of a choice;" and when asked about his $670,000 contract renewal, Milwaukee first baseman Prince Fielder said " I'm not happy about it at all."
And then there is Boston closer Jonathan Papelpon, who is campaigning with the media to get a bigger raise than the expected $550,00 contract renewal: "I feel like with me being at the top of my position, I feel like that standard needs to be set, and I’m the one who set that standard."
Most people don't work in jobs where complaining about our salaries will do any good, nor do most employees ever have the option to ask for a certain amount of money and have an arbiter rule if it is reasonable. But almost everyone is familiar with the concept of "paying your dues," and in that one sense we can relate to these talented, but admittedly underpaid, youngsters.
Any player is worth what the market will (or in this case, would) pay; a team with the chance to sign Hamels tomorrow would probably shell out five years and $60 million, if not more. But the rules in place are designed to protect the rights of the owners and place a high premium on the minor league system.
Can you imagine what would happen if players could become free agents after a single season?
Players like Hamels, Markakis, Fielder and Papelbon will get their dues -- eventually. And they should take comfort in the fact that most likely, they will one day sign a multi-year contract in the twilight of their careers. They will under-perform but be overpaid, probably by tens of millions of dollars.
See? It all evens out in the end.