Minors counting options

March 09, 1995|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,Sun Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Minor-leaguers have been drawn into the middle of the fight between players and owners for a couple of weeks now. But to date, most of those in the eye of the storm have been the run-of-the-mill minor-leaguers.

Later this week, baseball owners could pursue a course of action which would introduce their prize prospects into the fray, and simultaneously force the union to make a difficult decision. "It could get even uglier than it has been already," said one baseball executive.

This is what is expected to transpire: By tomorrow night, general managers will be given the go-ahead to renew the contracts of all unsigned players on their respective 40-man rosters. The Orioles have eight players signed and 30 unsigned; the team has two vacancies on its 40-man roster.

Now this is what could transpire with the minor-leaguers: Owners could prompt their general managers to immediately option out their prospects, assigning them to minor-league affiliates. The Orioles, for example, could assign outfielder Alex Ochoa to Triple-A Rochester and ask him to report to camp and begin working out with other minor-leaguers.

Managers and general managers and those responsible for the development of the players would love to do this. "You don't want your top prospects to be sitting out spring training," one baseball executive said yesterday, "or to sit out the whole year. If you're thinking about those guys playing sometime for you in the future, you want them on the field."

In theory, optioning the prospects to the minors would remove them from the realm of the major-league strike. In theory.

But, in action, the move would place them on the firing line.

Three weeks ago, union head Donald Fehr said he was considering allowing the optioned minor-leaguers to report to camp, so long as they are not compelled to play in any replacement games.

However, even if they don't play in replacement games, allowing xTC the minor-leaguers to return could serve to fragment the union. "I know there are a lot of veteran players who would be pretty upset if those guys are allowed to go back to work," said one agent, "because they consider them a serious threat."

This is why: Suppose the Orioles optioned Curtis Goodwin, who played in Double-A last year and who could figure heavily in their plans for 1995, to the minor leagues. Goodwin takes batting practice and works out for three weeks or a month, when the strike is settled on April 7. Goodwin is in terrific condition, ready to go.

The Orioles could then recall Goodwin from his minor-league assignment and place him on their major-league roster. What chance would Jack Voigt -- a major-leaguer who the union expects to honor the strike -- have in competing against Goodwin for a spot on the team?

The union could, instead, tell the minor-leaguers they must stay out. But that, too, could be risky.

"What reason could they [the union leaders] possibly give them?" said the agent. "What, are they supposed to sit out because they make the veterans nervous? What would that say about the strength of the union?"

The minor-league prospects are, collectively, in the worst financial straits of any of the union members. They haven't made big money yet. Many haven't received major-league benefits, such as licensing money. A major-league general manager says he believes this is why Fehr eventually would relent and let them return to work. "A lot of those guys can't afford to sit out much longer," the general manager said.

Several Orioles minor-leaguers contacted yesterday said they are hoping to be optioned out, hoping to return to work. "Oh, yeah," said pitcher Joe Borowski, who pitched for Double-A Bowie last summer, "I can't see myself being able to afford to sit out the whole season."

Left-hander Jimmy Haynes, 14-8 in the minors last year, said, "It would sound good, really. It would let me play and I wouldn't have to sit out. I could go and get myself back in shape, and I would have a chance to get [to the majors].

"I don't have the money, like the big-league players. I need money."

Last summer, Haynes made $1,400 a month.

The agent and the baseball executive agreed, however, that the owners may prefer to keep the minor-leaguers out of camp, because if and when the union does crack, the prospects will be the most likely to turn a trickle of dissension into a flood.

Imagine that no deal is imminent and Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Lenny Dykstra crossed the picket line just before Opening Day, joined by two or three other prominent players. "Those minor-leaguers," said the executive, "will be the first to follow them."

If he's right, they would create a heavy tide of sentiment; the prospects make up nearly 40 percent of the players sitting out right now.

The battle between baseball owners and players, an agent mused yesterday, has been brutal. "But the thing is," the agent said, "unless there's a settlement, it's only going to get nastier. You ain't seen nothing yet."

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