Collusion or illusion? Slow free-agent market has agents suspicious

BASEBALL

November 28, 1993|By PETER SCHMUCK

It might seem like Baltimore is in the middle of a free-agent frenzy, but the free-agent market has drawn so little interest in certain quarters that some player agents are beginning to suspect that it isn't a coincidence.

No one is ready to go public with accusations, but there have been murmurs about the possibility baseball owners are again making a concerted effort to muzzle the market.

"I've heard a lot of [agents] saying the C-word," said one player representative, referring to collusion. "There are just so many teams that don't even want to talk."

Of course, there are plenty of other possible explanations for the apparent lack of free-agent activity.

It's no secret that a lot of clubs are trying to reduce their payrolls, which is well within their rights under the terms of the soon-to-expire collective-bargaining agreement -- as long as they act individually.

The word is that a number of financially burdened teams are looking to make up for a downturn in television revenues by cutting payrolls the $7 million per year each team is projected to lose under terms of their new television partnership with the networks. It would be easy to prove collusion if all 28 teams did that, but there are enough maverick clubs such as the Orioles and Texas Rangers to keep the heat off.

The prospect of a labor confrontation and the possible imposition of a salary cap also could be cause for constraint with baseball's Basic Agreement due to expire Dec. 31.

The agents have a right to be suspicious. The owners have acted in concert before, and the decision this year to pull out of the December winter meetings was an obvious attempt to alter the impact of the free-agent market on player personnel decisions. But there has been just enough movement among a subpar free-agent crop to allay the fear that the owners are conspiring to restrict salaries and player movement.

First baseman Will Clark signed a five-year, $30 million contract after two seasons of statistical decline. Pitcher Mark Portugal left the Houston Astros for a three-year, $11 million deal after one breakthrough season. Sid Fernandez got three years for $9 million plus an option and incentive from the Orioles.

Several players without free-agent eligibility have been rewarded with megabucks contracts lately, too. American League MVP Frank Thomas signed a four-year extension worth $29.5 million and Detroit shortstop Travis Fryman signed for five yars and $25.5 million.

Do the exceptions prove the owners are acting in good faith? Maybe not. But there is too little evidence to prove they are doing anything more unseemly than trying to get a handle on their expenses at a time when revenues are guaranteed to decline.

The real indicator may come in three weeks, when clubs face a Dec. 20 deadline for tendering contracts to all players under reserve. There has been speculation that scores of players will go untendered to reduce the impact of salary arbitration. The same suspicion went largely unrealized a year ago, but the pending expiration of the labor agreement makes the scenario seem far more plausible this year.

Reynolds still waiting

Free-agent second baseman Harold Reynolds still holds out hope that he'll be re-signed by the Orioles, but the club appears to be moving in other directions.

"They've got Mark [McLemore], so I think I'm second on the totem pole," Reynolds said Friday. "I don't think I'm the guy they are looking for. That's disappointing, because I'd like to come back."

The Orioles adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Reynolds, waiting to find out whether they would have the outfield depth to move McLemore back to second base. The positive medical reports on Jeffrey Hammonds appear to make that the most likely scenario.

Reynolds has talked to a number of teams. He was rumored to be close to signing with the Los Angeles Dodgers a few weeks ago, a report he says was accurate.

"I thought I was going there," he said, "but then they made the deal for Delino DeShields and that was that. You can't fault them for making that trade."

Ten-second editorial

The acquisition of free-agent first baseman Eddie Murray could have a major impact on the Orioles' fortunes in 1994. If he -- and the fans and the media -- were able to leave the past behind, it probably would be a very positive impact. If not, the Orioles' good clubhouse chemistry could deteriorate in a hurry and affect the club's on-field performance.

Trivia quiz

Only two players hit more than one fly ball off the right-field scoreboard at Camden Yards last year. One should be obvious, but the other will require a serious trivial pursuit. Can you name both?

Why not Langston?

Reports that the Angels have given agent Arn Tellum permission to negotiate a contract extension for left-hander Mark Langston have been confirmed, but that doesn't mean Langston presents a strong trade possibility for the Orioles.

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