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Braves face crunch time on arbitration eligibles

Craig 
Kimbrel

Craig Kimbrel

While the Braves have not been major players on the free agent and trade markets this winter, they’re one of the busier teams in baseball when it comes to salary arbitration.

Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman and Mike Minor were among seven Braves players who filed for arbitration on Tuesday. The process ramps up this week as teams approach the Friday deadline to exchange salary figures with arbitration-eligible players. The Braves have used it as a firm deadline in recent years, taking a “file or trial” or file-to-go stance, preferring to sign their arbitration-eligible players by 1 p.m. Eastern on Friday or end negotiations and leave it to a hearing.

Martin Prado was the only Braves arbitration-eligible player in recent years not to sign by the deadline. He was probably headed for a hearing last February, before the Braves included him in the trade with Arizona for Justin Upton on Jan. 24.

By the deadline Friday, the team and each remaining arbitration-eligible player will propose a salary figure for 2014. If the process then goes go to a hearing, an arbitration panel decides on either the team’s figure or the player’s. Hearings are scheduled for Feb. 1-21.

The Braves haven’t been to a hearing since 2001 when the team won its case over closer John Rocker. Jeff Francoeur reached agreement with the Braves on the eve of his scheduled hearing in 2009. Both sides generally prefer to avoid the grueling process of a hearing.

The Braves entered the offseason with 14 players eligible for arbitration, those with three to six years of service time or “Super 2” status (the top 22 percent of players with the most service time below three years). Entering Friday’s deadline, the Braves were down to seven unsigned arbitration-eligible players. The Braves have reached agreement on 1-year deals with Brandon Beachy, Jonny Venters, Jordan Walden and Ramiro Pena.

In early December, the Braves non-tendered three other arbitration-eligible players, who then became free agents: Elliot Johnson, Cristhian Martinez, and Paul Janish. Four of the remaining seven unsigned are in their first year eligible for arbitration and stand to the take the biggest pay raises. Chief among them is Kimbrel, who could set a record for a first-year arbitration eligible reliever by signing for more than $7 million.

Kimbrel, who made $655,000 last season, became the youngest pitcher to collect 50 saves in a season at age 25. He tied with Baltimore’s Jim Johnson (50) for the major-league lead.

Freeman stands to make nearly $5 million in his first year eligible, coming off his first All-Star season in which he hit .319 to tie Yadier Molina for sixth-highest batting average in the majors. Freeman, who made $560,000 last season, hit .443 (58-for-131) with runners in scoring position, second in the majors only to St. Louis’ Allen Craig (.454). He topped 20 homers for the third straight season and drove in more than 100 runs (109) for the first time in his career.

Minor is expected to get a bump in salary from $505,000 last year to somewhere between $3 million and $4 million. He has the least service time of the Braves first-year eligible players but qualifies as a “Super 2.” Minor had career-bests last season in wins (13), ERA (3.21), innings (204 2/3), starts (32) and strikeouts (181).

Among the second-year arbitration-eligible players, Jason Heyward should see his salary rise to at least $4.4 million, while Chris Johnson is expected to get around $4.2 million. Kris Medlen’s salary figures to double from $2.6 million in his first year of arbitration to the neighborhood of $6 million this year. Jordan Schafer, in his first year eligible, should also get a raise to around $1 million.

While there was some thought that the Braves might approach some of these younger players this winter about long-term contracts, like Heyward or Freeman, buying out some of their arbitration years, the Braves appear to have made little movement on that front. With only two years left until free agency, Heyward might be the least likely to sign long-term now.

Kimbrel is seen as a risky long-term commitment as a reliever. But Freeman and shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who is at least a year away from being arbitration-eligible, seem the most likely candidates.