The day we all hoped both parties could avoid has finally arrived: As I type, superstar first baseman Ryan Howard and his agent are probably sitting across the table from the Phillies' front office representatives and attorneys, attempting to convince a panel of arbitrators to join them on their side of the $3 million gap between Howard's $10 million demand and the Phillies' $7 million offer.
Both sides have legitimate, convincing arguments to make, with Howard's tilting to the more emotional, and the Phillies' on the side of precedent and cold logic. A $10 million award would shatter the league's previous award for a third full-season player, while a 2008 salary of $7 million would be reasonably in line with what similar young players - Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, and Miguel Cabrera, notably - have received at the same point in their careers.
The reserve clause is the framework upon which the sport's salary structure is supported - it allows larger market teams to shell out big bucks for free agents by keeping their young talent cheap and under control for several seasons, and it allows savvy smaller market teams to stay competitive through solid drafting, skilled player evaluation, and quality talent development.
The Phillies have never lost an arbitration hearing, and winning today's could be a Pyrrhic victory. A ruling for Howard would raise the bar and set a precedent for the rest of the league in future salary negotiations and arbitrations. A victory for the Phillies could irreparably damage relations between player and team. Is preserving the benefits of the reserve clause for all 30 Major League clubs worth alienating your model citizen, productive, fan favorite superstar?