Frustrated, unsigned free agents wonder why they missed out on big-money spree

BASEBALL

February 10, 1991|By PETER SCHMUCK

The free-agent free-for-all of December was fun while it lasted, but now it is just a frustrating memory for a long list of free agents who were left out of the money.

Welcome to free agency's secondary market, where 31 veteran players are beginning to feel the bite of the hard economic times we live in. Less than two job-hunting weeks remain before the opening of spring training.

There is enough talent still out there to put an expansion team in Washington (though why anyone would want to do that remains a mystery). Well-known players are available at every position, but there apparently are not positions available for more than a few of them.

Of course, there is the usual array of aging stars who might be better off on the golf course anyway. But there are a few quality players who have to be wondering how baseball's latest salary explosion could have missed them.

Figure this one out. Outfielder Candy Maldonado had 22 home runs and 95 RBI last year and still has not hooked on with anyone. The Cleveland Indians didn't even offer him salary arbitration.

Maldonado was expected to be a very attractive commodity when the free-agent filing period began last November. He had better run-production numbers than Franklin Stubbs, who signed three-year contract worth more than $6 million with the Milwaukee Brewers, and he was far more effective than Rob Deer, who signed with the Detroit Tigers for three years at an annual salary in excess of $2 million. But he apparently asked for too much too early and priced himself out of the primary market.

This is one marketplace where it doesn't always pay to wait around for the best possible offer. Rosters have a way of filling up. General managers don't generally wait until the snow is melting to make their major personnel decisions. Where the free-agent possibilities once seemed infinite, they now seem all but invisible.

Now, when a Candy Maldonado is ready to settle for less, most clubs are preoccupied with signing their younger players and preparing for salary arbitration hearings. He is expected to sign with someone soon, but might have to settle for a one-year contract and another stab at free agency next year.

Third baseman Jim Presley also ranked among the prominent but ignored, despite a 19-homer, 72-RBI season for the Atlanta Braves, but that situation was corrected Friday when the San Diego Padres signed him to a one-year contract.

Geting back to the unsigned contingent, designated hitter Brian Downing proved he still could produce at the plate last year, but finally wore out his welcome with the California Angels. The list also includes pitchers Joe Price and Rick Mahler, venerable second basemen Willie Randolph and Frank White and veteran catchers Bob Boone, Rick Dempsey, Ron Hassey and Rich Gedman.

For most, the salary boom has been reduced to a faint echo. For some, free agency is just another word for retirement.

*

Baltimore native Dave Johnson always dreamed of playing major-league baseball in his hometown, but living here in the off-season is taking a toll on his peace of mind.

Johnson is a regular talk-show listener, and he doesn't like what he has been hearing lately. In particular, the winningest Orioles pitcher of 1990 doesn't like being an afterthought when people talk about next year's starting rotation.

"I listen the majority of the time, because it's nice to know what the fans are thinking," Johnson said, "but it's a little disappointing when I hear people name off the starting rotation and my name isn't in it. I won more games than anyone on the staff last year, and I had a chance to win 16 or 17 games until I got hurt.

"I didn't think I was just going to have a chance to be starting. I'm going in with a chance to be the Opening Day starter. But I hear people name seven or eight possible starters and I'm not even on the list. It's strange to hear that. It doesn't make me mad, but it does affect me. I've had to listen to that my whole career. I guess I'll just have to go out and prove myself again."

Johnson might have to keep proving himself to a skeptical public, but manager Frank Robinson already has him tentatively penciled into the regular-season starting rotation.

"I don't know what Frank thinks," Johnson said, "but I don't see why he would have any reservations. I had three, four, five games I pitched well enough to win that I didn't for a number of reasons. That happens with everybody. Nobody expects to get every decision. But I think it's important that I could have won 16 or 17 games in just 29 starts."

*

The Detroit Tigers have made great strides in the reconstruction their once-explosive offensive lineup, but the departure of Jack Morris last week left the starting rotation in a state of emergency.

Not one of the seven pitchers with a chance to be in the rotation won more than 10 games last year, and two of them -- Rusty Meacham and David Haas -- have never pitched above the Class AA level.

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