ST. PETERSBURG -- Will Ryan Howard earn $7 million or $10 million?

The answer comes on Thursday.

While the rest of his teammates worked out at Bright House Field on a chilly Wednesday morning, Ryan Howard strolled through the majestic Renaissance Vinoy Hotel & Resort. Wearing a dark gray pinstriped suit, he and his father, Ron Howard, arrived just before 9 a.m. ET. To a gathering of reporters, the big guy smiled and said, "You're here bright and early."

The next time Howard was seen, at around 3:15 p.m., it wasn't as bright and much, much later. His morning smile remained, even 90 minutes after a nearly five-hour process, where each side presented its respective case, then had a 30-minute rebuttal period.

"I'm always upbeat," Howard said, while signing autographs for young fans assembled outside the hotel. "I'm always happy. Are you kidding me? It was a different experience being in there. As far as the result, we'll see tomorrow."

This much is true: Howard will be a multimillionaire regardless of whether a three-person panel opts for the $7 million offered by the club and the $10 million requested by Howard. A decision will come on Thursday, though both sides can still settle. Players are 0-for-5 this season in arbitration hearings.

For the meeting, father and son first went to Conference Room 301 for some informal time. Eventually, the parties moved downstairs to a conference room, where Howard sat through arguments from both sides that will be factors in determining his 2008 salary.

Astros president Tal Smith, who prepared the Phillies' case and spoke on their behalf, said the session wasn't contentious, as is often the perception.

"It's about what's the appropriate salary," Smith said. "It doesn't have to be [contentious]. To me, it's nothing more than a continuation of the debate. The only difference is they're presenting their arguments to the arbitrators. I don't think there's anything degrading or demeaning at all."

Asked if Howard agreed with that, he shrugged slightly, and said, "I don't know about that."

At that point, agent Casey Close told the media that Howard couldn't discuss the matter any further. He signed a few more autographs before walking toward his Cadillac Escalade, saying, "We'll talk about it tomorrow. That will answer everything."

Members of the front office left the Vinoy without comment, and a team spokesman said the Phillies wouldn't comment until a resolution was reached.

Phillies general manager Pat Gillick, assistant GMs Mike Arbuckle and Ruben Amaro Jr., information analyst Jay McLaughlin and assistant director of Minor League operations Mike Ondo accompanied the Phillies, though Smith did most of the talking. Also in attendance were legal representatives for both sides, the arbitrators, and officials from Major League Baseball and the Players Association.

Minutes before the hearing, Amaro and Close met in the hallway, but a hearing couldn't be avoided.

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Smith, who has been involved in about 150 hearings to Close's four, likely argued that Howard's limited Major League service time should determine where he fits in baseball's salary structure. Howard has two years and 145 days in the big leagues, and he can't become a free agent until after the 2011 season.

A win would award him the largest salary for a first-year arbitration player.

"That's certainly a major portion of the criteria, length and consistency of career, and that's what the discussion is about," Smith said. "There's no denying his performance. It's a question of how that slots in with the rest of the criteria."

Close likely based his argument on the fact that Howard, who won the 2005 National League Rookie of the Year and 2006 NL MVP Awards, has more home runs (105) and RBIs (285) than any player during the past two seasons.

Against the backdrop of a posh -- and supposedly haunted -- hotel and the calm of boats floating on the water nearby, a roomful of businessmen debated the greatness of one of baseball's dominant sluggers. The debate consisted of charts, stats, service time, comparable salaries (Florida's Miguel Cabrera won a case last year and earned $7.4 million, for example) and mentions of individual awards.

The $3 million gap between Howard and the Phillies will evaporate on Thursday, and Howard will again concentrate on playing baseball.

"I'm pretty sure he'll be happy it's over," said Jimmy Rollins. "Hopefully [the Phillies] weren't rough, because I've heard it can get pretty personal. He knows as long as he stays healthy that he's going to have success in this game."

Rollins, one of Howard's closest friends on the team, stressed that Howard understands that continued success will provide exorbitant wealth.

"With that success comes money," Rollins said. "After the season, they don't want to play around with him too much longer. He's going to be up there in that nine-digit range he's looking at. That's pretty tall. Either way, you go from $900,000 to $7 or $10 million. You win. You feel better when you get the number you ask for, but that's a pride thing. If you don't get it now, you'll get it later.

"He's definitely going to get it later."