Baseball's harsh economic climate hit Baltimore where it hurts yesterday, when the Orioles released five popular players to avoid the prospect of costly salary arbitration.
First baseman Randy Milligan and pitchers Bob Milacki and Mark Williamson, all major components of a four-year rebuilding program that began with the club's 1989 revival, became free agents when the club chose not to tender them 1993 contracts by last night's midnight deadline.
Designated hitter Sam Horn and utility man Mark McLemore also were released as the Orioles and other clubs moved decisively to limit arbitration-driven salary increases for next year.
The club has not ruled out the possibility that one or more of the five players will be re-signed at a later date, but the door remains open only because a glutted free-agent market may force them to accept drastically reduced salaries.
The number of players affected was surprising, but the full-scale assault on arbitration was not. Baseball management has been frustrated with spiraling arbitration awards, and there was every indication that teams would take drastic action this year to reduce the number of filings.
"It's just a matter of not wanting to get involved in the arbitration process," said Orioles assistant general manager Doug Melvin. "While salaries are escalating quickly on one end, there is no way to reduce them on the other end."
Free agency has long been blamed for runaway salaries, but management now is looking at arbitration as the driving force behind their rapidly inflating payrolls. Clubs can exercise control over their free-agent spending -- even if many of them don't -- but the only way to avoid giant arbitration awards is to stay away from the hearing room.
Milacki defeated the Orioles in arbitration last year and came away with a 1992 salary of $1.18 million. Milligan used the prospect of a pending arbitration hearing to leverage the Orioles for a salary of $1.05 million. Both turned in disappointing performances last season, but would have been guaranteed 80 percent of their 1992 salaries if they had been tendered contracts.
The club was expected to release Milacki, who was 6-8 with a 5.84 ERA at the major-league level last year. Milligan was a different story, because the uncertain physical sta
tus of first baseman Glenn Davis appeared to make him less dispensable. Club officials would want him back only at a much lesser salary.
"There's a lot of that going on right now," said Milligan's agent, Mike Powers. "It was not a surprise, but it was disappointing. I think Randy deserved something better than that, but I understand that this is a business.
"Roland [Hemond] and Doug have made it clear that the door is not closed. I'll probably go in and talk to Doug next week. Randy has made it clear that he loves it here. He loves the city, and the city loves him. I'm hopeful that he can remain here. If he can't, he can't, but that would certainly be his first choice."
The Orioles already have offered Williamson a reduced contract for next season, but he chose to accept free agency and keep his options open. He missed most of the 1992 season after undergoing elbow surgery, but pitched well enough at the end of the year to hold out hope that another club will be interested in his services.
"I understand the feeling on their part," Williamson said. "They were concerned about how I would come back from surgery. I knew I was going to have to take a cut, but we couldn't agree on a dollar figure."
Horn, who was displaced when Davis was forced into a full-time designated hitter role last year, doesn't necessarily have a place in the club's 1993 schematic. He seems in the least enviable position among the five released yesterday.
McLemore was left without the prospect of significant playing time when the Orioles signed free agent Harold Reynolds to be the full-time second baseman last week. However, it's possible he could return in an expanded utility role that could include outfield play.
McLemore, Milligan, Milacki and Horn were unavailable for comment.
The Orioles appear to have put a significant dent in their salary spiral. With Reynolds (one year, $1.65 million) the only addition, the Orioles have removed 11 players from the roster for a net reduction of about $7.5 million from a payroll that already was low by industry standards.
But Melvin insists that the club's payroll still will end up higher in '93 than it was in '92.
"Our payroll will be much higher than last year," he said. "The way player salaries escalate, I can't say where we'll be at budget-wise, but our payroll will be higher."