Jacobs readies O's for sale, not season


November 05, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

The Orioles can reach the World Series by using their huge profits to sign the right free agent. But if winning ever mattered to Eli Jacobs, it's surely his last consideration now.

The only off-season moves Jacobs will approve are those that enhance the resale value of the club. He doesn't care how Joe Carter would look in right field. Carter would cost millions, and revenues are peaking without him.

This is a team that sold out its final 59 home games, a team so popular it's limiting season-ticket sales for 1993. Jacobs has no financial incentive to improve the club. He only wants to preserve its value.

So, forget about the Orioles signing Carter, Dave Winfield or Candy Maldonado, even though such a move would serve the dual purpose of bolstering their lineup while detracting from the Toronto Blue Jays.'

In fact, don't even count on them re-signing Rick Sutcliffe, not with their payroll expected to increase from $20 million to $30 million. If anything, Jacobs will be looking to save as he tries to sell.

"In my experience, buyers aren't particularly concerned with the quality of the club," says Tal Smith, a former major-league general manager who is now a consultant to several clubs. "They're more concerned with the bottom line.

"Most people who buy clubs feel as soon as they get their hands on it, they'll be able to turn it around. Normally, you're better off having a fire sale, liquidating salaries and so on. That would enhance the value to prospective buyers."

So, think resale. Houston did when it traded Glenn Davis to the Orioles nearly two years ago. Jacobs will, and not simply because of his financial troubles. It was always assumed he'd sell when the value of the club was highest, just before the 1993 All-Star Game at Camden Yards.

In theory, Jacobs can't bleed the Orioles -- a court order has frozen payments due to him, including a $1.325 million management fee. But a man accused of defaulting on $31 million in loans and personal guarantees probably isn't going to call his general manager and say, "Roland, get me Barry Bonds."

True, the Orioles recently signed Cal Ripken to a $30.5 million contract. They gave No. 1 draft pick Jeffrey Hammonds $975,000, a record bonus for a college player. And they even traded for Craig Lefferts, a $2 million pitcher who cost them approximately $380,000 for one month.

"We are operating the franchise as we have for the past several years," club president Larry Lucchino says. Of course, the franchise is far more profitable than in the past several years, but Lucchino is just mouthing the party line. This baby is out of his hands.

Think resale. That -- and that alone -- is why Jacobs finally signed Ripken. Losing his franchise player would have been a public-relations nightmare devastating enough to frighten potential buyers.

"That's such a focal point. They had to do it regardless," Smith said. "But I wouldn't see them getting involved in the free-agent market now. I don't know that they'll unload in their situation. But I don't think they'll add to it."

The Orioles, of course, aren't alone in that regard -- most teams are frantically trying to reduce payrolls as they confront declining attendance and expected reductions in the next national television contract.

A total of 33 players were eligible for free agency only if their clubs refused to offer them salary arbitration -- and 31 of them were released into the crowded market, including Winfield and Mel Hall.

San Diego dumped Tony Fernandez because of his salary. Ditto Cincinnati with Paul O'Neill. Is it any surprise both players were sent to New York teams? Finances not only are dictating trades, but they're also a primary consideration in deciding whom to protect in the expansion draft.

"I don't know that any club wants to add today, whether they're selling or not," said Gene McHale, the former Yankees president who now runs a sports marketing and consulting firm in New York. "Everyone is looking to cut back somewhere, letting players go they might not normally."

As much money as the Orioles made last season, they should be going the other way. Besides a power-hitting right fielder, they need an everyday second baseman and possibly another starting pitcher. But that's thinking pennant, not resale.

The best hope, the only hope, is for Jacobs to sell. The new owner might not be better -- free spenders such as Gene Autry are rapidly becoming dinosaurs -- but how could he possibly be worse?

It's sort of like the rationale many people used Tuesday to elect Bill Clinton.

We've seen one bum. Let's try another.

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