Free-agent glut makes Hemond's job tough

December 06, 1992|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Orioles general manager Roland Hemond loves the winter meetings. This is the arena where the front-office types get to be the gladiators, and he is still a competitor after all these years.

But this is one year where he probably will be reduced to a spectator. Baseball's annual trading convention has been reduced to the mother of all owners meetings, with a series of major issues to be debated - and some of them decided - in the next four days.

Will there be a labor confrontation? Stay tuned. The owners will meet to discuss the possibility of reopening their collective bargaining agreement with the Major League Players Association. If they do, there is the distinct possibility that the 1993 season will begin with a lockout.

Will the sale of the San Francisco Giants be approved? The owners will vote whether to affirm a deal that will keep the club in the Bay Area. This one is a no-brainer. The new owner already has hired a new general manager and fired the old manager. The Giants will play at Candlestick Park next year.

Will the owners take decisive action against Cincinnati Reds managing partner Marge Schott? The four-member investigating committee has not been given a firm timetable for looking into allegations that Schott made racially insensitive comments on several occasions, but the owners are under intense public pressure to act quickly.

It is against this backdrop that the general managers from all 28 teams will try to conduct business as usual, but that might be next to impossible even if the meetings weren't in danger of drowning in a sea of labor strife and racial controversy. The talent hunt that used to make the winter meetings so exciting for executives such as Hemond has been replaced by a free-agent auction that is threatening to make trading obsolete.

There are so many players available to sign that there is no reason to give up a valuable player to acquire one who already is under contract. The free-agent market has depressed trading activity for years, but never to the extent it could this winter.

Hemond remains hopeful that he can break through the free agent gridlock, but he concedes that it will be hard to concentrate on trade talks with so much going on.

"You still go with the idea of trying to make deals," Hemond said. "There still is the possibility that you are compatible with a team and something can be done. Not all situations are the same. But it's just that there have been fewer and fewer trades made in recent years at the convention, and there are more and more things that consume the time you have there."

In the past, the availability of free agents had a chilling effect on December trade talks because of the uncertainty created by player movement. Teams didn't know which players they could re-sign so they didn't know what they might need. That uncertainty still exists, but the situation is further complicated by the potential availability of nearly a third of the major league players.

"You have to try and shut out all of the outside things and go about your usual business," Hemond said, "but I would guess that there will be a lot of agents working the floor. There is the possibility that you'll use up a lot of your time talking to them."

The bumper crop of free agents already on the market could be further inflated on Dec. 20, when teams must tender contracts to their rostered players. It seems very likely that dozens of players could be released at that time by teams unwilling to gamble on salary arbitration.

The law of supply and demand finally seems to be working in the favor of ownership. The high number of free agents and potential free agents has made it prudent to let go of certain high-salaried, arbitration-eligible players, who either can be re-signed at a lower price or replaced with similar players who figure to be desperate to find a job.

Collusion or common sense? The players union won a series of grievances during the late 1980s by proving to an arbitrator that baseball owners acted in concert to shut down the free-agent market. No doubt, there is suspicion that ownership again is making a concerted effort to get control over player salaries, but it appears that they are letting natural market forces do their work for them.

No one can charge that teams aren't signing free agents. Player movement has been brisk. No one can say that the premier players aren't being offered premier salaries. Doug Drabek and Greg Swindell signed big-money contracts last week with the Houston Astros. The New York Yankees are believed to have offered outfielder Barry Bonds a five-year, $35-million contract. But the salary spiral appears to be over for baseball's rank and file.

Remember when light-hitting infielder Mike Gallego signed a three-year contract with the Yankees for more than $5 million? Last week, infielder Scott Fletcher signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox worth $1.2 million.

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