Orioles, facing big payment, flirting softly with free agents

November 07, 1990|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Evening Sun Staff

In the last two weeks, the Orioles have expressed preliminary interest in at least a dozen free agents, including Milwaukee lefthander Teddy Higuera and Boston outfielder Tom Brunansky.

The question now is whether the club will dramatically alter its offseason strategy because of the $10.8 million payment for collusion damages facing each of the 26 major-league teams.

The $10.8 million figure is not yet official, but no one is disputing published reports assessing the total settlement at $280 million, leaving Orioles officials to brace for the inevitable.

"It is a tremendous number, and it clearly will have important implications for us," club president Larry Lucchino said yesterday. "But I'm not prepared to assess what those will be until I know exactly what the figure will be and when the payments will be made."

News of the settlement broke Sunday, the day before free agents could begin negotiating with all 26 clubs. Before that, only informal contact was permitted; clubs could express interest in free agents, nothing more.

It was during that time Orioles general manager Roland Hemond contacted no fewer than six agents, laying the groundwork for future negotiations if the club indeed decides to enter the free-agent market.

According to the agents -- each of whom represents at least one of the players on the Orioles' list -- Hemond inquired about free agents who would fit into the club's principal areas of need:

* Starting pitchers: Boston righthander Mike Boddicker and lefthanders Higuera, Bud Black (Toronto), Danny Jackson (Cincinnati) and Matt Young (Seattle).

* Power-hitting outfielders: Brunansky, Cleveland's Candy Maldonado, Houston's Franklin Stubbs, Seattle's Jeffrey Leonard and Milwaukee's Rob Deer.

* Lefthanded relievers: St. Louis' Ken Dayley and Toronto's John Candelaria.

Again, the operative word is preliminary.

"These are not the types of conversations you get a lot of indication one way or the other," said Chuck Berry, the agent for Maldonado, Leonard and Candelaria.

In the case of Brunansky, agent Nick Lampros said Hemond merely inquired whether the outfielder would consider playing in Baltimore. Lampros issued a standard reply: "We're keeping all options open."

So are the Orioles.

The above list does not include every player in whom they might have interest. Nor does it include players who would become new-look free agents in January under the collusion settlement.

The new-look group features a number of starting pitchers who might prove attractive to the Orioles, including Houston's Danny Darwin, Montreal's Dennis Martinez and Detroit's Jack Morris.

Will the Orioles actually sign a free agent? It's too early to tell, but the number of players on Hemond's wish list indicates club officials are at least exploring free agency as a viable option for improving the team.

In fact, The Early Dozen includes five Type A free agents -- Boddicker, Black, Dayley, Brunansky, Stubbs. Those players usually are the most costly both in terms of dollars and draft-pick compensation.

The Orioles, though, would catch a break in the latter area because of their 76-85 finish, the ninth-worst in the majors. Teams in the Bottom 13 lose only a second-round draft pick for signing a Type A free agent. Teams in the Top 13 lose a first-round pick.

In 1989 the Orioles tied for the eighth-best record and for the fourth straight year did not sign a Type A free agent. Their resulting first-round pick was pitcher Mike Mussina, who was projected as a future member of the starting rotation.

This year, they could gain either a first- or second-round pick, plus a sandwich pick between those two rounds, if free-agent catcher Mickey Tettleton signs with another club. Thus, the fear of losing a high draft pick should have little impact on their approach to free agency.

The collusion damages, however, present an unexpected curve, one that could lead the Orioles to rethink their entire approach, including potential trades for high-priced players such as Boston outfielder Mike Greenwell and Philadelphia outfielder Von Hayes.

The $10.8 million figure is nearly $3 million more than the club's 1990 payroll, which was by far the lowest in the majors. And the ownership group headed by Eli Jacobs will foot the entire bill, as part of the December 1988 sale agreement with the Edward Bennett Williams estate.

Like other clubs, the Orioles found it impossible to budget for the penalty without knowing its size -- estimates ranged from $2-3 million to $10-15 million. Not surprisingly, commissioner Fay Vincent expressed concern this week on the effect the payments might have on clubs.

The Orioles are believed to be sound financially after drawing 4.9 million fans the past two seasons. Still, many in baseball doubt they are willing to pay large salaries, and the collusion damages might make them even more reluctant.

Just yesterday, one agent asked, "Is it true they won't sign anyone for more than Ripken?" The agent was referring to All-Star shortstop Cal Ripken, who signed a three-year, $6.2 million contract extension in July 1988.

Ripken's salary averages to $2.067 million per season, a figure that no longer is considered astronomical. Philadelphia catcher Darren Daulton -- a .206 career hitter before last season -- will average $2.25 million in his new three-year deal.

In any case, Hemond said he does not expect to make follow-up calls on free agents until he and farm director Doug Melvin return from the general managers' meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz., later this week.

Remember, it's one thing to make that first call.

It's quite another to make an offer.

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