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01/20/09 6:34 PM EST

A's, Duchscherer exchange figures

Sides are $1.6 million apart but hope to avoid arbitration hearing

OAKLAND -- The A's and their ace, All-Star righty Justin Duchscherer, took the penultimate step of the arbitration process Tuesday by exchanging proposed salaries for the 2009 season.

There's a $1.6 million difference between the figures, but both sides expressed cautious optimism that the final step of the process -- an early February hearing -- won't be necessary.

Duchscherer's agent submitted a figure of $4.6 million. The A's countered with the same figure -- $3 million -- that MLB.com has learned was attached to a one-year contract offer that Duchscherer's camp recently turned down.

"I'm not really surprised, but I feel like we know what I'm worth, and their number obviously doesn't match up with that," Duchscherer told MLB.com by phone from Arizona. "So we'll continue to negotiate and try to come to an agreement. Hopefully we do. If we don't, we'll go to the hearing."

This year's arbitration hearings will take place Feb. 1-21. Presenting to a three-member panel, each side states the case for its proposed salary, after which the panel decides on one number or the other -- there is no middle ground.

Middle ground is what the A's and Duchscherer reached the first time he was eligible for arbitration.

In January 2007, they avoided a hearing by agreeing to a deal that represented the midpoint between their proposed numbers. Duchscherer, who had made $344,500 in 2006 and asked for about $2 million, ended up with a raise of $843,000 -- up to $1.1875 million for the season.

"Justin has been through this process twice before, so he knows how it works," A's assistant general manager David Forst said. "And despite the gap, we're optimistic that we'll be able to come to an agreement before it goes to a hearing."

Forst called the middle ground, which in this case is $3.8 million, "something of a guide" in negotiations, but noted that it doesn't always end up being the number the sides settle on to avoid a hearing.

Last January, for example, Duchscherer wasn't in much of a position to lobby for a hefty raise because surgery on his right hip forced him to miss much of the previous season. He settled on a fairly modest -- by big league baseball's standards -- raise of $125,000 raise, up to $1.2 million.

That settled, Duchscherer made a successful transition from the bullpen to the starting rotation and was named to the American League All-Star team for the second time in his career after going 10-5 with a 1.82 ERA in 16 starts before the break.

He was 0-3 with a 4.91 ERA in six starts after the break, however, and didn't pitch again after straining the same hip in an Aug. 18 game at Minnesota. He underwent another hip surgery in September.

Arbitration hearings can get ugly, with clubs typically pounding on the players' shortcomings. If Duchscherer's case goes to a hearing, the A's are expected to lean heavily on the fact that he's has been on the disabled list in each of the past three seasons, and he's missed time without being on the DL with other injuries.

Duchscherer's camp is expected to note that his 2008 salary was that of a relief pitcher, so the raise for which he's asking isn't as disproportionate as it might appear.

A successful starter in the Minors Leagues, Duchscherer made persistent-but-private pleas to join Oakland's rotation for years after his big league debut in 2003, but the A's used him exclusively out of the bullpen from 2004-2007.

He made the AL All-Star team as a setup man in 2005.

"Starters make more than guys in the bullpen," Duchscherer, 31, said last spring. "There's no question about that. That's just the way it is."

Mychael Urban is a national writer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.