With this free-agent lineup, owners are trying a new...

BASEBALL

November 01, 1992|By PETER SCHMUCK

With this free-agent lineup, owners are trying a new salary 0) strategy

There is reason to wonder if salary arbitration will soon be the wave of the past. It only takes a glance at baseball's daily transactions list to see that few teams are willing to put their payroll decisions in the hands of an arbitrator -- if they have any choice.

Most potential free agents who could have been retained if they were offered arbitration last week were cut loose instead, leaving them free to enter a very uncertain free-agent market. They are not in the same class as the three-to-six-year players who can file for arbitration in January, but an economic trend appears to be forming that could carry through the winter.

The Toronto Blue Jays didn't offer Dave Winfield arbitration. The New York Yankees declined on Mel Hall, one of their most productive hitters. The Atlanta Braves let go relief stopper Jeff Reardon. The Orioles passed on Craig Lefferts, even though they traded promising shortstop Ricky Gutierrez for him just two months ago.

In all, there were 33 players who could have been offered arbitration during the five days after the end of the World Series. Only two -- Jim Gott and Tony Phillips -- received offers.

This could be the first indication that payrolls finally have begun to top out. Front-office officials have been grumbling about the salaries granted through arbitration for years, but never have they been this willing to cut loose front-line players to avoid the process.

"I think it's a combination of a couple of things," Orioles president Larry Lucchino said. "One, it's an indication of a changing market, and two, a recognition on the part of the clubs that the player compensation system -- of which salary arbitration is a linchpin -- is in urgent need of reform. The structure needs to change because the system is flawed."

Lucchino is echoing the feelings expressed by management since arbitration took over as the driving force behind baseball's runaway salary spiral.

In the past week, there has been a decisive repudiation of the arbitration process, but it came on a relatively small scale. The big question is whether we'll see a significantly higher than usual percentage of "three-to-six" players released when it comes time to tender contracts Dec. 20.

By that time, ownership's labor strategy may already be apparent, but the activity of the past week could be viewed as the first indication that the owners will try to solve their payroll problems without exercising their right to reopen collective bargaining Dec. 11.

Lucchino correctly points out that the anti-arbitration trend could also be market motivated. The Yankees, for instance, may have declined on Hall in anticipation of a free-agent glut this winter.

The free-agent crop of 1992-93 will be one of the deepest in history -- including such marquee names as Kirby Puckett, Barry Bonds, Greg Maddux and Wade Boggs. Why, if you're the Yankees, do you risk a $4 million arbitration award for Hall when you might be able to sign a more attractive player for the same or less? They might be banking that a handful of big names suck most of the money out of the market and leave dozens of quality players walking around with their hands out.

It is not an incredible scenario. Who would have expected to see so many veteran players agree to Triple-A contracts a year ago? The addition of two new teams should help on the demand side, but this off-season could be very uncertain for the scores of players who are caught in the middle of the talent glut.

That could be good news for the Orioles, who may be looking for some bargains in this year's market. They scored big with Rick Sutcliffe a year ago, and could go looking for some run-production help after the Nov. 17 expansion draft. Soon-to-be free agent Joe Carter voluntarily limited his marketability recently when he struck two wealthy teams from his off-season wish list.

"Joe is not going to play in New York," he said, "so there's two teams you can eliminate."

Not a smart move from a bargaining standpoint. If there is anything to the theory that only a handful of teams are now in a position to dole out the kind of money (five years, $25 million maybe?) he might command, then Carter may have severely limited his options by eliminating the Yankees and New York Mets.

Sweet music

The unofficial limit on contract length appears to be five years, but the Chicago White Sox made an exception for one of their most versatile players.

Organist Nancy Faust recently signed a six-year contract that will keep her tickling the ivories at Comiskey Park through the 1998 season.

Fisk will be back

The White Sox declined to offer salary arbitration to catcher Carlton Fisk last week, but he seems certain to be back. Fisk needs to catch 25 more games to break Bob Boone's major-league record for most games played behind the plate. The White Sox want him to do it in Chicago.

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