Orioles' moves for next season keyed to arbitration decisions

November 22, 1992|By Jim Henneman | Jim Henneman,Staff Writer

Where do the Orioles, and the rest of the major-league teams for that matter, go from here?

Now that the expansion draft is over, what happens next? What is the order of priorities?

Trades? Free agents? Players eligible for arbitration? A potential lockout for spring training?

The last question, which most likely will be answered in less than three weeks, is the most ominous. Management and labor have until Dec. 11 to decide whether the current basic agreement will be re-opened before it expires next year.

But, for now at least, that issue has to be put aside as the Orioles prepare for 1993, looking to improve on last season's 89 wins. They survived the expansion draft with minor losses.

There is no question the current roster, which is in better shape than it was a year ago, needs to be retooled if the Orioles are going to challenge the Toronto Blue Jays. Yet they have few, if any, major trade possibilities. They have an acknowledged "healthy skepticism" toward free agency. And, despite what probably is the most positive profit-loss ledger in baseball this year, they share a common desire to stifle the growth of escalating salaries.

For the past few years, the Orioles' payroll has been among the lowest in baseball for two reasons: merit and inexperience. But no longer.

The Orioles face 11 possible arbitration cases this year. Most of them are significant (outfielders Mike Devereaux and Brady Anderson, infielders Randy Milligan, Bill Ripken and Mark McLemore, pitchers Ben McDonald, Todd Frohwirth). Two others are borderline cases (pitcher Mark Williamson, catcher Mark Parent), and pitcher Bob Milacki and designated hitter Sam Horn may not be tendered contracts.

Those decisions don't have to be made until Dec. 20, when players either are offered contracts, or become free agents. Until then, there will be little serious negotiating.

There is a perception that all players who weren't on the protected list for the expansion draft are expendable and will be sent packing. But the Orioles had 90 players (the fewest in baseball) who were eligible, and only 15 who could be protected on the first round.

As young and solid as the Orioles feel that nucleus of 15 players might be, they'd be hard-pressed if that's all they had to build on for next year. Most of the others on the big-league roster will be back. But which ones, and under what conditions?

General manager Roland Hemond refuses to be drawn into any speculation in regard to the latter, and is as evasive as usual about the club's approach to trades and free agents. And unless you want to ruin the GM's generally good nature, don't even suggest a work stoppage.

"We've talked about the possibility of trades," said Hemond. "We presented some thoughts to clubs at the expansion draft. This is the trading time of the year, but the free-gent process sometimes delays that."

How active the Orioles are either in the trade or free-agent market will likely be determined by how they deal with their arbitration-eligible players. There is a general feeling that, with 153 free agents already available, there is a move afoot to flood the market by not tendering contracts to many players who are eligible for arbitration.

"When you see a couple of guys [Mel Hall and Glenn Braggs] go to Japan this year, you get the impression that not much is going to happen [in the free-agent market]," said one player agent. "So with the huge numbers [of free agents] out there, yes, you'd have to say there's a possibility that a lot of players won't be tendered contracts.

"I'm not suggesting collusion, because I don't know yet what they're going to do. But if a lot of arbitration-eligible players turn up on the free-agent market it would suggest two reasons.

"One would be to bring a frontal attack on arbitration. They'd be saying 'see what arbitration got you -- it got you released.'

"Teams might decide not to risk arbitration with a certain player because there might be somebody equal out there who they could sign for less money.

"Another reason would be, in the event of a lockout, that with so many players out of a job there wouldn't be as much support for the union."

One theory is that the owners might go so far as to not offer contracts to anybody eligible for arbitration. Such a move, in effect, would leave a majority of players without a team. The tactic isn't new: It was first suggested when free agency became part of baseball 16 years ago.

But such a move would be so radical that few people believe it would work. The Orioles, for instance, could not risk losing Devereaux, Anderson and McDonald -- unless there was a blatant, unified attempt to beat the system.

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