Tettleton caught in free-agent traffic jam

November 20, 1990|By Ken Rosenthal | Ken Rosenthal,Evening Sun Staff

Here's the free-agent thought of the day:

What if there's no market for Mickey Tettleton?

True, Philadelphia re-signed its own free-agent catcher, Darren Daulton, to a three-year, $6.75 million contract. But that doesn't TC mean Tettleton, a player of comparable value, will command the same deal.

In fact, the Orioles' chances of retaining Tettleton appear to be improving every day. A record number of free agents are available, and most clubs seem uncertain of which way to turn. Such inactivity benefits the Orioles; in the case of Tettleton, time is on their side.

On Dec. 7, clubs must offer salary arbitration to their free agents to preserve their right to draft-pick compensation. The Orioles almost certainly would do so; their goal is to sign Tettleton for one year, the period covered by arbitration.

Tettleton would have until Dec. 19 to accept the club's offer and retain his free agency for next year. In essence, he'd be deciding if the market will provide the contract he is seeking. The answer, it turns out, might be no.

Tettleton's agent, Tony Attanasio, acknowledged yesterday that he has yet to receive an offer for the six-year veteran, who batted .223 with 15 homers and 51 RBIs last season while setting a major-league record for switch-hitters with 160 strikeouts.

"We're not working on offers at this point. We seem to be working on interest levels, whatever that means," said Attanasio, who also represents two other free agents without offers, pitchers Charlie Hough of Texas and Kevin Gross of Montreal.

Attanasio is not alone in his frustration. Another agent, Jim Turner, said he has received one three-year offer for Houston first baseman/outfielder Franklin Stubbs, a power hitter in whom the Orioles have serious interest. Turner did not specify the club, but said it was not the Orioles.

Only four free agents have agreed to contracts -- including pitcher Tim Leary, a pitcher who signed a three-year, $5.95 million deal yesterday to remain with the New York Yankees. Meanwhile, trade talks remain gridlocked, a situation that will persist until the free-agent traffic clears.

It might not happen anytime soon. Each team reportedly will owe $10.8 million in damages under the upcoming collusion settlement, which is expected to unleash 16 more "new-look" free agents in January. At that point, the free agents could outnumber the clubs by more than 4 to 1.

Turner, however, said he expects teams to be "very active" signing players at the winter meetings in Chicago Dec. 1-6. "This market," he said, "is much too strong not to explode at some point for at least the players of value."

Tettleton figures to be one of those players.

Or does he?

Attanasio said he talked with 14 teams about Tettleton; seven expressed "substantial" interest, three "moderate" interest. Still, a closer look at the needs and desires of each major-league club indicates the agent might be overestimating the market considerably.

At least 16 of the 26 clubs appear set at catcher. Others, like Texas and Houston, are unwilling to sign high-priced free agents. Still others have extenuating circumstances that could prevent them from making a run at Tettleton.

Detroit, for example, can not act until it learns the status of catcher Mike Heath, a potential "new-look" free agent. Yet even if Heath is declared free, the Tigers probably won't try to sign Tettleton, for fear of losing a draft pick.

Then there's Oakland, a team that could have interest in Tettleton, but not as an addition to a payroll that could top $30 million next season. Atlanta would have similar reluctance; its new GM, John Schuerholz, was burned on the free-agent market in Kansas City last year.

Who's left? The New York teams, and that's about it.

Thus, the Dec. 7 deadline looms large.

"I'm not worried," Attanasio said. "I think clubs still have to sign certain players. What's the worst that can happen? Mickey signs a one-year deal with Baltimore, goes back and does it over [next year]. That's not bad.

"I feel comfortable things are going to work out."

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