The Baltimore Orioles will be spending $10.8 million on free agents soon, but not for anyone who can help them next season.
No, this large lump-sum payment will be made for free agents the Orioles and the other 25 major-league clubs allegedly conspired against over the past four years. It is their share of a long-awaited, long-debated collusion damage settlement. It is almost enough money to sign a Darryl Strawberry to a three-year contract.
Sad but true. The Orioles have to pay up just like everybody else, even though no one needed to tell them to hold down their spending on free agents. They probably would have done that, anyway.
Baseball ownership and the Major League Players Association agreed over the weekend to settle all of the collusion grievances with one $280 million payment, which will be divided equally among the 26 major-league clubs. Included in the agreement was new-look free agency for 16 players who became free agents after the 1987 season, including Detroit Tigers pitcher Jack Morris, San Diego Padres first baseman Jack Clark and Minnesota Twins third baseman Gary Gaetti.
The only recent Orioles player affected by the new-look ruling is left-handed reliever Joe Price, who already became a free agent when the club decided not to exercise its option to renew his contract for 1991. But the effect of another new-look free-agency period could be felt more by the Orioles than other teams, precisely because of their apparent lack of interest in the free-agent market.
The Orioles are working feverishly to trade for at least one top-flight run-producer. Boston Red Sox outfielder Mike Greenwell has been mentioned. So has the Philadelphia Phillies' Von Hayes, among others. But trade talks usually bog down when free-agent market activity picks up, largely because of the roster instability that is fostered by free-agent movement.
The latest proposal would free the 16 new-look players in January and February, which would -- in effect -- keep the free-agent market open for the entire off-season. This would not make it impossible to consummate a trade, but trading activity figures to be depressed by the prospect of a second wave of free agents.
Orioles president Larry Lucchino deferred comment on the settlement to Major League Baseball's Player Relations Committee, but he agreed that such a settlement could have an adverse effect on trading activity.
"Free agency does complicate the trade market because it diverts people's attention and injects an element of uncertainty into the decision-making process," Lucchino said. "Extending the period of free agency would especially complicate things for a club like the Orioles that is very involved in trading activity."
The Orioles have been trying to lay the groundwork for a major deal since the regular season ended. Lucchino and general manager Roland Hemond attended the American League playoffs and the World Series, where they talked trade with anyone willing to listen. Now Hemond is at the General Managers Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., where he hopes to do more trade talking.