A’s sign four arbitration-eligible players; Balfour deal official

There’s lots of A’s news today, so here’s a quick round-up of what’s going down …

–The A’s announced they’ve avoided arbitration with pitcher Dallas Braden, outfielders Josh Willingham and Conor Jackson and third baseman Kevin Kouzmanoff. All signed one-year deals, with Willingham getting $6 million, Kouzmanoff $4.75 million, Braden $3.35 million and Jackson reportedly $3.32 million. That leaves reliever Craig Breslow as the only unsigned player who’s eligible for arbitration. If Breslow doesn’t sign today, his agent will exchange salary figures with the A’s in advance of a possible arbitration hearing in February. That’s not the biggest development, as both sides can continue working to negotiate a contract somewhere in the middle ground of what each side proposed. I’d expect the A’s and Breslow to hammer out an agreement long before they get to the arbitration table.

–The team officially announced the two-year, $8.1 million contract with reliever Grant Balfour. He’ll be addressing the media in a conference call a bit later, but it appears the A’s won’t announce the signing of fellow reliever Brian Fuentes until tomorrow. It’s likely Fuentes still needs to take his physical. To make room on the 40-man roster for Balfour, right-hander Clayton Mortensen was designated for assignment. That’s not insignificant, as Mortensen has drawn a few big league starts over the past two seasons and was considered insurance as a possible fifth starter. The A’s have 10 days to either trade, release or send Mortensen to the minors, but he still must pass through waivers, where any team can claim him. Reliever Philip Humber was claimed by the White Sox earlier today, so Humber’s A’s career ended before he even put on the uniform.

–Braden, who made $420,000 last season and will get $3.35 million in 2011, got the biggest pay hike among the four Athletics to sign. The baseball world discovered Braden last season when he threw his Mother’s Day perfect game, but surely his season-long body of work was even more important when it came to salary negotiations. Braden went just 11-14 but had a solid 3.50 ERA. He also ranked fourth in the AL with five complete games and he tied for the league lead with two shutouts. “I told my grandmother, and I don’t think she’s stopped crying yet,” Braden said of his new contract. Braden told me he and A’s assistant trainer Walt Horn have come up with a stretching routine that should help ease the pain in his left foot as he pitches. Since the end of 2009, he’s been pitching with permanent nerve damage and numbness in his foot.

–Willingham, acquired in December as the A’s new left fielder, is eligible for free agency for the first time after the upcoming season. His agent, Matt Sosnick, told me Willingham is open to signing an extension with the A’s. “He’d like to stay here for a long period of time,” Sosnick said. “That’s at the A’s discretion. If they came to him with a deal that’s reasonable, he’d consider it.” But Sosnick added that if Willingham enjoys a healthy and productive season, testing the open market also is an attractive option.

That’s all for now …

Joe Stiglich