Rising Oriole payroll could send Orsulaks, Milligans packing

Ken Rosenthal

September 24, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

Take a good look at some of your favorite Orioles on this final homestand. Chances are, many of them won't be back.

Joe Orsulak probably will depart as a free agent. Randy Milligan probably will be left unprotected in the expansion draft. And Mike Flanagan probably will retire.

You've heard of untouchables. These are just the opposite. Storm Davis. Sam Horn. Mark Williamson.

Bill Ripken. Bob Milacki. David Segui.

The expansion draft alone won't trigger a dramatic roster upheaval. The true catalyst of change, the one looming above all others, is the Orioles' rising payroll.

Six players -- Cal Ripken, Glenn Davis, Gregg Olson, Mike Devereaux, Brady Anderson and Ben McDonald -- figure to earn nearly $18 million next season. Add free agent Rick Sutcliffe, and the total rises to approximately $20 million.

That sum matches the club's entire 1992 payroll, and still excludes 18 of 25 players. Thus, it's possible the Orioles' payroll will exceed $30 million, assuming the current team stays intact.

Don't count on it.

Regardless of how much they earn this season, the Orioles almost certainly will seek ways to reduce their payroll. It's not simply an Eli Jacobs scheme. It's a trend in the game.

The superstars get the big contracts.

Lesser free agents and marginal players suffer.

"You know what has happened in recent years," agent Ron Shapiro said. "A few middle-level free agents have done well. Others have had to regroup and deal with the new realities."

As the agent for Cal Ripken, Shapiro helped create the new realities he must now confront with his other Oriole clients -- Orsulak, Davis and even a non-free agent like Bill Ripken.

Cal got his $30 million.

Now the bean counters take over.

Orsulak, 30, is a .279 lifetime hitter whom the Orioles probably want back, but not as a free agent seeking a raise from $1.3 million. The club can probably save $1 million by turning to Chito Martinez, 26, or Luis Mercedes, 24, in right field.

A poor baseball decision? Maybe, maybe not. Orsulak doesn't steal bases or drive in many runs. He's obviously a good enough player to find a job, but shouldn't be surprised if the market for his services is limited.

Two years ago, Candy Maldonado became a free agent after driving in 95 runs for Cleveland. Instead of signing for millions, he was forced to accept a spring-training invitation from Milwaukee without a contract.

Maldonado, now 32, signed only after making the club as a non-roster player. Today, he remains productive in Toronto (.275, 19 HRs, 63 RBI), but at a relatively modest salary of $1.25 million.

That's just one example.

The Orioles will produce others.

Milligan, 30, is a first baseman with limited power earning $1.05 million. Segui, 26, can provide better defense and similar run production, again at a savings approaching $1 million -- $1.7 million if you also subtract a reserve like Horn.

Grasp the concept?

It applies to second base, where Bill Ripken earns $685,000 to Mark McLemore's $250,000, with little difference between the two. And it especially applies on the pitching staff, where the most difficult off-season questions loom.

First, the Orioles must decide whether to offer salary arbitration to Storm Davis and Craig Lefferts within five days after the end of the World Series. Otherwise, the two veterans become free agents.

Lefferts is an interesting case. He turns 35 Tuesday, but as a 13-game winner with San Diego this season, he will seek an increase from $2.04 million. The Orioles already traded two prospects for the left-hander. They might balk at the added cost.

Then again, a rotation of Lefferts, Sutcliffe, Mike Mussina, Ben McDonald and Arthur Rhodes is enticing -- balanced with left-handers and right-handers, veterans and kids.

Or, picture Lefferts as a left-handed reliever. Flanagan and free agent Pat Clements won't be back. Jim Poole isn't certain to be healthy. Brad Pennington isn't certain to be ready.

But $2.5 million for a 35-year-old? Eli might sue.

Then there's Storm Davis -- the club's second highest-paid player at $2.47 million, and only a middle-inning reliever. He wants to finish his career here, but for that to happen, he would probably have to accept at least a 50 percent salary cut.

The maximum cut is 20 percent, but the Orioles can allow Davis to become a free agent, then sign him for whatever they wish. Davis, 30, said this week that he is open to the idea. He knows it's the only way he'll return to the club.

"Shoot, yeah, I'd be willing to take a cut," said Davis, who hasn't always been available to pitch due to minor physical problems. "Money's not an issue at this point in my career. But that doesn't mean I'll be stupid either."

Even if the Orioles retain Lefferts and Davis, they won't be obligated to protect them in the expansion draft. But the return of either or both veterans almost certainly would have an impact on less prominent pitchers.

Take Milacki ($1.18 million) and Williamson ($900,000). Their salaries are close to the major-league average, but would the Orioles even offer them contracts if their payroll continued skyrocketing?

Remember, this is business.

Take a last look at your favorites.

The club won't be sentimental.

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