The reign over, many A's free to go Team set on cutting $40 million payroll

October 16, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

TORONTO -- The dynasty is about to be dismantled.

The Oakland Athletics came up short in their 1992 run for the American League pennant, and now must face some hard economic facts. They cannot afford to bring the same team back for another try.

This is not exactly hot news. The veterans on the club have viewed 1992 as the last hurrah right from Opening Day. The A's won four American League West titles, three pennants and a world championship the past five years, but success has come at a high price.

Free agency beckons for 14 members of the club that was eliminated from the American League playoffs on Wednesday. The A's seem certain to bring back offensive cornerstone Mark McGwire and catcher Terry Steinbach, but there is the possibility that nearly half of the roster will turn over by the start of next season.

General manager Sandy Alderson stops short of saying that the A's will be going back to square one this winter, but he has made it clear that the club will downscale its $40 million payroll. What else can that mean?

"The Haas family has gone a long way to keep together this team against all odds," Alderson said. "It is a team that under the circumstances might have been torn apart a long time ago. That was by paying out more money than they took in. But at some point, you can't do that anymore. They aren't going to put five or ten million a year into the team."

Who will stay and who will go? There are too many possible combinations to get specific. The only veteran players (six years of service) who are signed through next year are stopper Dennis Eckersley, starting pitchers Bobby Witt and Bob Welch and outfielders Dave and Rickey Henderson.

"We're going to have some changes," said veteran pitcher Dave Stewart, who could be forced to leave his hometown after seven stellar years in Oakland. "I don't know how many or who will be where, but we'll have some changes."

Stewart would like to be back. He won just 12 games during the regular season, but finished strong and pitched two outstanding games in the playoffs. Though he won 20 or more games for the A's four straight years (1987-90), he doesn't see tremendous injustice in the possibility that he might have to go elsewhere.

"That's just baseball," he said. A couple of years ago, Don Baylor was part of this team. So was Dave Parker. I've had a great seven years here."

Stewart and his teammates seem to grasp the reality of the situation. This is the same organization that reported a loss of $15 million in 1984, prompting new commissioner Peter Ueberroth to call on major-league owners to get their finances in order or face eventual ruin.

The A's got their books more in balance, but club president Wally Haas gave Alderson a virtual blank check to make the team a consistent winner in the late 1980s. The emergence of Jose Canseco and McGwire and the acquisition of Rickey Henderson gave the team one of the game's most exciting offensive lineups. Veterans Stewart, Welch and Eckersley made the pitching staff almost invincible. But the price of keeping the club together went through the roof.

This is the year when the roof gets repaired. The A's can't afford to keep more than a handful of the players eligible for free agency.

That means that Stewart may be gone, along with right-hander Mike Moore and left-hander Rick Honeycutt. Designated hitter Harold Baines and veteran outfielder Willie Wilson also could be in different uniforms.

Don't underestimate Alderson's ability to make hard choices. He engineered the deal that sent Canseco to the Texas Rangers on Aug. 31, knowing full well that the A's might not be able to re-sign outfielder Ruben Sierra or reliever Jeff Russell. Witt is the only player from that deal who is under contract to the team next year, and he has the right to demand a trade.

The Canseco deal left room to wonder if the A's were stockpiling free agents for the coming off-season, hoping to reap enough draft choices in compensation to accelerate the rebuilding process. That still appears to be a plausible scenario, but it apparently isn't quite as simple as it sounds.

The A's would stand to receive at least one supplemental draft choice next June for each ranking free agent signed by another club, but there is a catch.

"That's assuming they will sign with somebody else after we offer arbitration," Alderson said. "There have been instances where we offered salary arbitration to protect our right to compensation, then the player accepted arbitration and we got stuck with a player we didn't want. So that isn't a slam dunk."

The A's almost certainly will come out of the winter with an enhanced ability to restock their minor-league system, but a total housecleaning seems very unlikely. Both Alderson and manager Tony La Russa insist that the club will be competitive next year, something that would not be possible with an entire team of Mike Bordicks and Lance Blankenships.

Alderson likes to point to the Minnesota Twins as the best argument for rebuilding.

"They won in 1987, then they took a downward turn and came back to win in '91," he said. "Would they have been able to do that if they had kept the Gary Gaettis and the Frank Violas? There is something to be said for retooling, though I'm not saying that we're going to do that."

Free A-gents

The list of Oakland players eligible for free agency:

Player....... ....... Position

Harold Baines ....... OF

Jerry Browne ........ IF-OF

Ron Darling ......... P

Kelly Downs ......... P

Rick Honeycutt ...... P

Mark McGwire ........ 1B

Mike Moore .. ....... P

Jeff Parrett ........ P

Jamie Quirk ......... C

Jeff Russell ........ P

Ruben Sierra ........ OF

Terry Steinbach ..... C

Dave Stewart ........ P

Willie Wilson ....... OF

Note: Carney Lansford also would have been eligible for free agency, but announced his retirement after the final game of the American League Championship Series.

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