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Phillies out to avoid Howard arbitration

One way or another, slugger will get a big raise. Sides are $3 million apart in proposals.

PHILADELPHIA — Ryan Howard has been baseball’s best bargain for three years. It’s time for the slugger to get paid big bucks.

Howard and the Philadelphia Phillies were $3 million apart when the two sides exchanged proposals for salary arbitration last week. The 2006 NL MVP asked for a $10 million contract, while the team countered with an offer for $7 million.

Either way, the 28-year-old first baseman will get a huge raise. How much is the sticking point. Arbitration cases sometimes can be contentious, so both sides would be better off reaching an agreement before a hearing takes place next month.

“This is a process you go through,” general manager Pat Gillick said Tuesday. “We’re going to probe as many different ideas as we can to hopefully get this settled and it’ll be a win-win for everyone.”

Despite playing just 88 games in 2005, Howard won the NL Rookie of the Year award. He topped that with one of the best seasons by a second-year player, hitting 58 homers with 149 RBI and a .313 average. Howard batted .268 with 47 homers and 136 RBI last year, but also set the major league record for strikeouts in a season with 199.

Howard earned just $355,000 during his MVP season and $900,000 last year. For a mere $1.25 million, the Phillies sure got their money’s worth. No player hit more homers or drove in more runs during the last two years.

The Phillies and Howard’s agent, Casey Close, discussed a long-term deal last spring. Howard’s salary matched St. Louis’ Albert Pujols for the highest base total in a one-year deal for a player not eligible for arbitration.

Once again, the Phillies are using Pujols’ contract as the model for Howard. Their offer of $7 million matches the Cardinals’ offer to Pujols in 2004 for the largest amount a team has offered a player who is arbitration eligible for the first time. Pujols and St. Louis eventually agreed to a $100 million, seven-year deal.

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