New economic world is anything but tender Released have-nots pay price for haves

BASEBALL

December 20, 1992|By PETER SCHMUCK

Call it the tender massacre. The Orioles left five well-liked members of last year's major-league roster untendered on Friday and sent them reeling into an uncertain free-agent market.

Welcome to baseball's brave new economic world.

The deadline for tendering contracts never used to be particularly newsworthy. It held some suspense for a few fringe players, but it was largely a routine administrative procedure for anyone with a chance to make the 25-man roster out of spring training.

The procedure went something like this: The general manager ** filled in a ridiculously low salary and mailed the contract to the player. The player opened his mail, laughed uproariously at the salary figure and used the back of the contract for scratch paper near the phone. Three months of fruitless negotiations later, the club exercised its right to renew the contract at a salary figure of its choosing and the player finally realized that the joke was on him.

It should come as no surprise that longtime baseball executives wax nostalgic for those good old days. Now, some of the players do, too.

The new procedure goes something like this: The general manager fills in a ridiculously high salary and then says "Oh, the heck with it" and throws the contract in the trash. The player, who was one arbitration hearing away from a comfortable retirement (at 28), waits by the fax machine until it is obvious that he has become a free agent and then signs a Triple-A contract for a fraction of his previous salary.

This is the realization of ownership's self-fulfilling economic prophecy. The salary gap between the game's elite and the rest of the baseball rank and file is getting wider by the day. Barry Bonds just signed a $43.75 million contract. Mark McLemore just got released because the Orioles were afraid his salary might skyrocket to $450,000 in arbitration.

The Orioles made no excuses. They don't like the arbitration process and they aren't going to take part in it unless a Brady Anderson or a Mike Devereaux forces them into it. That is their privilege under the terms of baseball's soon-to-expire Basic Agreement.

In some cases, you can hardly blame them. Bob Milacki beat them out of $1.18 million last year and then ran up a 5.84 ERA. Sam Horn hit .235 with five home runs and 19 RBI in 1992, but the club would have had to tender him a minimum of $550,000 for next year.

Mark Williamson missed most of last season after elbow surgery, so the team was hesitant to renew him at a minimum of $720,000. This way, the true value of all will be determined on the open market.

The arguments for leaving Randy Milligan and McLemore untendered are less compelling. Milligan has played the good soldier at first base even though the club has tried to displace him in each of the past two years. He also has endeared himself to the community with the creation of a charitable foundation to help inner-city kids. McLemore did everything that was asked of him last year, and didn't figure to make any waves in 1993. But business is business.

Baseball ownership continues to make its case for a drastic change in the player compensation system. In the meantime, budget-conscious teams such as the Orioles appear to be taking matters into their own hands.

Still looking

The Orioles may have left the door open to further negotiations with the five players they released Friday, but they also intend to shop the newly re-stocked free-agent market for help.

The 38 players released throughout the majors brought the total number of available free agents back above 100. That list includes a number of players who could provide the club with added depth in the outfield.

Club officials have yet to sit down and examine the new additions to the free-agent market, but they might be wise to take a long look at switch-hitting outfielder Gene Larkin, who was the consummate role player for the Minnesota Twins.

If the Orioles still are looking for left-handed power, they might want to reconsider free agent Daryl Boston, who hit 11 home runs in 289 at-bats last year for the New York Mets.

Abbott reacts

Left-hander Jim Abbott held a news conference in Anaheim, Calif., last week to give his account of the circumstances that led to the winter meetings trade that sent him to the New York Yankees for three prospects.

The California Angels let go of their most popular player and blamed the deal on a long-running contract squabble with Abbott and agent Scott Boras. Abbott told reporters that he had been willing to compromise and politely disputed the notion that the confrontational Boras had forced the Angels into the trade.

"To say this was an agent's trade sounds to me like people starting to lay the blame," Abbott said. "I don't want to point fingers at whose ego got in the way and whose didn't, but at the very least, the fault was on both sides."

Abbott didn't seem particularly unhappy to be moving East, not when it is apparent that the Angels could be several years from being a competitive club.

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