By Cliff Corcoran
January 14, 2014

Clayton KershawClayton Kershaw could be headed for the richest contract in baseball history. (Mark J. Terrill/AP)

Salary arbitration season is upon us with 148 players expected to file for arbitration on Tuesday and the exchange of figures from players and their clubs due on Friday. Players are eligible for arbitration after accumulating three years of major league service time, though a small number of "Super Two" players are also eligible each year; that group consists of players with between two and three years of major league service time who rank in the top 22 percent of that group in terms of total service time and who had at least 86 days of service during the preceding season.

Players and their teams exchange proposed salaries for the coming season prior to the player's arbitration hearing and the arbitrator chooses one or the other to be the player's salary based on the arguments presented in the hearing. Prompted by the either/or outcomes of the hearings, most arbitration cases are settled in advance of a hearing. In fact, last winter, all 133 eligible players settled. That was the first time since salary arbitration was instituted in 1972 that no hearings were held, but the overall trend has been the avoidance of hearings. There were just three each in both 2009 and 2011, and multi-year contracts or extensions buying out some of the arbitration years of the best young players in the game have become increasingly common.

If there are any hearings this year, they would begin on Feb. 1. Among the star players eligible for arbitration this year are three of the last for Cy Young award winners in Clayton Kershaw, David Price and Max Scherzer, meaning there's a very good chance that we could see some record-breaking contracts signed. Here's a quick look at some of the top eligible players listed in order of their 2013 salaries.

Clayton Kershaw, LHP, Dodgers

2013 salary: $11 million

Free agent: after 2014 season

Kershaw isn't just the best arbitration eligible player this winter, he's the best pitcher in baseball, the winner of two of the last three National League Cy Young awards (he finished second the other year) and the major league leader in ERA each of the last three seasons. Past attempts by the Dodgers to sign Kershaw to an extension have fallen short, and the assumption at his point is that nothing less than the richest pitching contract in the game's history, likely one in excess of $200 million in total value, is going to convince him to forgo his free agency at the end of the year.

The last time a pitcher with two Cy Young awards to his name reached his final year of arbitration, he (Tim Lincecum) and his team (the Giants) settled on a two-year deal with an average annual value just over $20 million. With fellow aces like Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez both due to make $20 million or more in 2014, Kershaw is due for a significant raise with or without a settlement.

David Price, LHP, Rays

2013 salary: $10.1125 million

Free agent: after 2015 season

Price is one year further away from free agency that Kershaw and one year further removed from the Cy Young award (he won in the American League in 2012). Still, coming off that award, his salary in 2013 set a record for a pitcher in his second-year of arbitration (he was a Super Two player the year before). That prompted the Rays to make Price available via trade in advance of his arbitration this year, but as a true ace, Price is so valuable that few teams have been willing to meet Tampa Bay's asking price. Cost certainty may improve the market for Price, particularly if the Rays can lock him into a two-year deal coming off a season in which he missed a month and a half with a triceps injury.

Chase Headley, 3B, Padres

2013 salary: $8.575 million

Free agent: after 2014 season

Headley had a monster year in 2012 (.286/.376/.498, 31 HR, 115 RBIs) and got a monster raise in arbitration as a result (147 percent), but with Headley having returned to his previous form in 2013, it's all the more clear that the Padres accelerated his salary too quickly. San Diego could smooth things over with an extension, but given that Headley will be 30 in May, a trade would make more sense, though that may not happen until July. Headley would be a perfect fit for the Yankees in the wake of Saturday's Alex Rodriguez decision, but the Yankees appear to lack the prospects to make such a swap worthwhile for the Padres.

Max Scherzer, RHP, Tigers

2013 salary: $6.725 million

Free agent: after 2014 season

The Tigers gained some long-term flexibility by trading Prince Fielder to the Rangers this offseason, and Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez come off the books next winter for an additional short-term savings of $26 million, but Detroit's potential costs still outstrip those savings. In addition to Scherzer, Detroit's arbitration-eligible players this winter include Rick Porcello ($5.1 millions salary in 2013), Austin Jackson ($3.5 million), Alex Avila ($2.95 million) and Super Two players Andy Dirks and Al Alburquerque. The Tigers are also facing the encroaching end of Miguel Cabrera's contract, which expires after the 2015 season.  Given that, an extension for defending AL Cy Young award-winner Scherzer is less of a no-brainer, though it should still be a priority.

Jim Johnson, RHP, A's

2013 salary: $6.5 million

Free agent: after 2014 season

Johnson, who led the majors in saves in each of the last two seasons with 101 total, went to Oakland from Baltimore this season as a salary dump. The A's know that it's better to make closers than buy them, so they'll almost certainly settle for one year with Johnson, then let him walk in the fall.

Justin Masterson, RHP, Indians

2013 salary: $5.6875 million

Free agent: after 2014 season

The Indians, who under general manager John Hart were pioneers in buying out their players' arbitration years in the 1990s, have not gone to an arbitration hearing with a player since 1991 and are said to be interested in extending Masterson in the wake of the likely departure of free agent Ubaldo Jimenez.

Matt Wieters, C, Orioles

2013 salary: $5.5 million

Free agent: after 2015 season

Talks of a Wieters extension have cooled in the wake of his poor 2013 campaign. However, given the role of bad luck in that performance (Wieters hit just .247 on balls in play despite a high line-drive rate), the Orioles could try to buy low on a multi-year deal for a player who won't be 28 until May and was an All-Star and Gold Glover in both 2011 and 2012.

Homer Bailey, RHP, Reds

2013 salary: $5.35 million

Free agent: after 2014 season

It took Bailey a bit longer to bloom than expected given his high draft position (seventh overall in 2004) and top-prospect status, but he has emerged as a front-line starting pitcher over the last two seasons and has two no-hitters on which to hang his hat. With free agency looming, the Reds are keenly aware that they need to extend him or trade him.

Jordan Zimmermann, RHP, Nationals

2013 salary: $5.35 million

Free agent: after 2015 season

Doug Fister, RHP, Nationals

2013 salary: $4 million

Free agent: after 2015 season

Tyler Clippard, RHP, Nationals

2013 salary: $4 million

Free agent: after 2015 season

Ian Desmond, SS, Nationals

2013 salary: $3.8 million

Free agent: after 2015 season

The Nationals just settled with Stephen Strasburg, who was arbitration eligible for the first time now that the four-year major league contract he signed after being drafted has expired, for $3.975 million plus a $125,000 in potential bonuses. Still,  they have the five men above as well as reliever Drew Storen (2013 salary of $2.5 million), lefthanders Ross Detwiler ($2.3375 million) and Jerry Blevins ($1.1 million) and first-year-eligible starting catcher Wilson Ramos due healthy raises. Of that lot, Zimmermann and Desmond are the two most likely to land significant extensions as Zimmermann has emerged as the staff ace over the last two seasons and Desmond has become one of the top shortstops in the game thanks to his rare combination of speed, power and defense.

Chris Davis, 1B, Orioles

2013 salary: $3.3 million

Free agent: after 2015 season

Davis didn't win any major awards in 2013, but he led the majors in home runs (a franchise-record 53), RBIs (138) and total bases (370). After Kershaw and Scherzer, Davis could be the arbitration-eligible player to land the largest raise this winter.

Jeff Samardzija, RHP, Cubs

2013 salary: $2.64 million

Free agent: after 2015 season

After having him on the trading block for most of the winter, the Cubs, who very much need pitching to compliment their emerging hitting prospects, are now said to be interested in extending Samardzija.

Craig Kimbrel, CL, Braves

2013 salary: $655,000

Free agent: after 2016 season

Freddie Freeman, 1B, Braves

2013 salary: $560,000

Free agent: after 2016 season

Mike Minor, LHP, Braves

2013 salary: $505,000

Free agent: after 2016 season

Jason Heyward Kris Medlen Chris Johnson

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