When Bobby Bonilla signed a five-year contract worth $29.5 million in late November, it set a salary standard for top-name free agents. It also guaranteed that this would be another record year for salary arbitration.
Baseball executives winced when they heard the value of the package, but not just because the price of free agency had gone up again. The effect on the free-agent market was predictable -- and free-agent signings are, after all, voluntary. The major aftershock will be felt in arbitration, where a number of front-line players will be able to use the contracts signed by Bonilla and Danny Tartabull to help justify their own salary demands.
Detroit Tigers first baseman Cecil Fielder, for instance, already turned down a four-year offer worth a guaranteed $17 million because he feels he can do better going year-to-year. He figures to ask for close to $5 million for the upcoming season, and likely will set an arbitration record even if he loses. Texas Rangers outfielder Ruben Sierra and Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Barry Bonds also can look forward to 1992 salaries far larger than anything awarded through arbitration before.
Eligible players have until midnight tonight to file for arbitration. Five Orioles -- Randy Milligan, Mike Devereaux, Bob Milacki, Bill Ripken and Sam Horn -- are expected to file, but the Orioles have a history of settling their contract disputes out of court.
No one on the Orioles roster figures to stand out in this year's arbitration field anyway. The list includes Pirates pitcher Doug Drabek, who won a record $3.35 million judgment last year, and the likes of Barry Larkin, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, National League Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine and 18-game winner Jim Abbott.
Players who meet the filing deadline have 72 hours to exchange salary figures with their clubs. February hearings are scheduled and an arbitrator must choose between the player's salary demand and the contract figure delivered by the club. But contract negotiations can continue right up until the arbitrator's decision is ready.
Fielder, who has hit 95 home runs the past two seasons, earned an average of $1.5 million the past two years. He is expected to file for at least $4.7 million. Sierra earned $2.625 million last season and stands to come away with more than $4 million in arbitration if the Rangers don't sign him to a long-term contract.
Sierra batted .307 last year and had 203 hits, 25 homers and 116 RBIs. By way of comparison, Bonilla batted .302 with 174 hits, 18 home runs and 100 RBIs, and Tartabull batted .316 with 153 hits, 31 homers and 100 RBIs. The only thing that kept Sierra from joining them in the $5 million club this year was the 45 days of service time he was short of free-agent eligibility.
The large contracts signed recently by Jack Morris and Frank Viola figure to have an impact on the front-line starting pitchers in this year's arbitration field, but perhaps less so than the free-agent contracts signed by the top position players. Morris and Viola are both longtime veterans, so the difference in service time with the best arbitration eligible pitchers will make direct statistical comparisons more difficult.
The five Orioles players will be working on a much smaller scale. Ripken signed for $700,000 in his first year of arbitration eligibility, but his chances for another major bump were undermined by a disappointing season. He is the only eligible Orioles player who has been eligible before.
Milligan stands to get the biggest percentage increase after a solid season in which he earned a base salary of $330,000. He batted .263 with 16 home runs and 70 RBIs, and could come away with a seven-figure salary in arbitration. Devereaux also should get a substantial raise after earning $210,000 for a season in which he hit 19 homers and drove in 59 runs batting leadoff.
Milacki earned $280,000 for a modest comeback season in which he won 10 games and re-established himself as a solid starting pitcher. Despite so-so statistics, he should double his salary this year. Horn earned $205,000 for a 1991 season in which he hit 23 homers in a part-time role, which should mean a major increase even though his playing time is expected to decrease in 1992.