Orioles to be busy working on contracts

SIGN OF THE TIMES

September 30, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The Orioles are preparing to begin the long wait until next season, but it will be no vacation. The coming off-season figures to be one of the busiest in the history of the club.

Who will stay and who will go? That is the $28 million question. The answers are especially difficult to come by now, because a new ownership group -- possibly with a different financial philosophy -- is preparing to take over the club.

No doubt, Orioles fans hope that the new ownership syndrome -- the tendency of new owners to try to make a big first impression -- will translate into the acquisition of a marquee free agent.

But the front office figures to spend the off-season knee-deep in negotiations with the players already on the roster.

There are only two players on the 40-man major-league roster who have contracts that extend beyond the end of this season. Shortstop Cal Ripken is signed through 1997, and first baseman David Segui has a year remaining on the two-year deal he signed last spring. The rest will have to be re-signed, released or readjusted in salary arbitration.

It is a complicated process made more complicated by an intricate system of rules and requirements that have evolved from nearly two decades of collective bargaining. Players with zero to three years' service time are not eligible for arbitration, except the top 15 percent (in terms of service time) of the two-year class. Confused yet?

The players who have three years' service or more (plus the aforementioned 15 percent) are eligible to file for arbitration in January, but only if they are tendered contracts by Dec. 20, except in the case of repeater free agents, who must be tendered contracts within five days of the end of the World Series. Totally confused yet?

Players with six years' service or more are eligible for unrestricted free agency if they have filed for free agency in the past five years. Terms and conditions apply.

That's the fine print that may determine if Mike Devereaux still is an Oriole next year, or if Gregg Olson is still in an Orioles uniform in 1995, or if Chris Hoiles is a happy camper next spring.

That was the last thing that club officials wanted to think about while the Orioles still had a chance to win the American League East, but the time has arrived to get down to business.

"The off-season and the next couple of months are going to be very, very important to this organization," manager Johnny Oates said Monday. "I think there are some very important decisions to be made in this organization . . . very critical decisions."

Not all of them will involve contract negotiations. The Orioles also have to decide how to handle Olson's elbow problem and the troubling neck injury that bothered Jeffrey Hammonds throughout the season, but the vast majority of decisions the club will make will be contract-related.

Of course, not every player is a potential problem. The players with less than three years' service (or most of them, anyway) can be renewed at any figure, as long as the club doesn't cut by more than 20 percent. The youth-oriented Orioles roster includes plenty of such players -- including pitching ace Mike Mussina.

The real intrigue involves the players entering their third year of arbitration eligibility. That is the time when the club has to decide whether to ante up with a long-term deal or risk losing a valuable player to free agency the next year.

Devereaux falls into that category. So do Brady Anderson and Olson. The Orioles must come to grips with the possibility that one or all of them could leave at the end of the 1994 season. Then the club has to decide what to do about it.

Take Devereaux, for example. He had a terrific year in 1992 and will end up with solid offensive numbers this season, but the money he will require to sign a long-term deal could convince the fiscally conservative Orioles to let the youth movement take its course instead.

The team could turn center field over to Hammonds -- if he's healthy -- and package Devereaux in a trade for help in another area. If that is the intent, then Devereaux likely would end up going to arbitration.

Anderson's situation is similar. It could come down to a choice between the two, with Anderson more likely to stay because he is a year behind Devereaux on baseball's progressive salary scale.

The Olson situation is more complex. He's coming to the end of a two-year deal that leaves him one year short of free agency and eligible for arbitration. The Orioles probably would have jumped at another multiyear deal, considering his standing as the most productive young reliever in the history of the sport, but a torn elbow ligament has thrown his future into doubt.

The Orioles have a history of avoiding arbitration. They negotiated their way out of possible hearings with Devereaux, Anderson, Todd Frohwirth and Ben McDonald last year, and dodged several potential cases by releasing Randy Milligan, Mark McLemore, Mark Williamson, Bob Milacki and Sam Horn last December.

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