Ripken Rule of thumb unlikely to be broken As retooling takes place, salaries will stay in line

July 12, 1998|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

Ripken Rule: As it applies to the Orioles' financial stepladder, no position player may receive a higher average salary than the All-Star third baseman's $6.3 million. The rule applies in cases of trades and free agency and of current and future team members. (See: Brady Anderson contract.) Rule is usually unspoken.

Whoever thought reshaping a franchise was simple never walked Ripken through the Orioles' front office. Less than three weeks remain before the July 31 trading deadline, and club officials remain uncertain of what course will be taken in revitalizing an "experienced" clubhouse long on career accomplishments but short on recent productivity. An intriguing mix of personalities, finances, job security and personnel evaluation will determine how the Orioles emerge from a jarring transition.

Apparently, one survivor will be the so-called Ripken Rule that has governed the Orioles' salary structure since Eddie Murray's first departure in 1988.

Orioles officials insist if the Ripken Rule survives the coming off-season, it won't be out of deference to Cal Ripken, who is in the first season of a guaranteed two-year deal worth $15.1 million. (The contract includes a $2.5 million buyout if the Orioles don't assume his option for 2000.) A front-office recommendation will be made to majority owner Peter Angelos urging the club to instead pursue younger position players as replacements for pending free agents, including second baseman Roberto Alomar and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro. Big money will be committed to marquee pitchers, according to the recommendation.

No decision will be final until Angelos returns next weekend from vacation. Any trade activity likely will wait until then.

Orioles chief operating officer Joe Foss says any assumptions that Ripken's benchmark will be replaced are unfounded.

"I don't know if we're going to come to that position among position players. The emphasis will be on pitching," Foss said.

Foss also projected next year's payroll would not match this year's record $69 million that included 14 pending free agents at the season's outset. Not only does younger mean more flexible. It also means cheaper.

JTC "There is a suggestion by many that the club should get younger," Foss said. "You put your dollars in pitching and get younger in position players."

The club has conceded the loss of Alomar by month's end. It may hold on to Palmeiro beyond the deadline if it can not receive what it considers to be fair compensation. The next several months would permit further talks for a contract extension. If unsuccessful, the club would be prepared to accept compensation for Palmeiro in next year's amateur draft.

But for Palmeiro to remain at Camden Yards, the Ripken Rule must become history. Ripken himself seemed to advocate the abolition Thursday night when advocating the club re-sign both Palmeiro and Alomar. Both players will command at least $8 million per season. Palmeiro, citing Anderson's five-year, $31 million contract signed last December, remains adamant that he also receive a five-year deal.

"It doesn't mean [Alomar and Palmeiro] aren't going to come back," Foss said. "To suggest we're somehow limited by the so-called Ripken Rule is incorrect. We need to evaluate the whole payroll, then what we want to accomplish."

However, the plan favored by most front-office types calls for the Orioles to deal Alomar (and Palmeiro) for other organizations' younger talent. By 2000, the club projects some of its own -- i.e., first baseman Calvin Pickering, third baseman Ryan Minor, outfielder Danny Clyburn -- should be ready to contribute.

Meanwhile, the club relies heavily on a retooled pitching staff that could include free agents Kevin Brown, Todd Stottlemyre and Al Leiter or trade acquisitions such as Pete Harnisch, Mark Leiter and Willie Blair. A renegotiation of Mike Mussina's obsolete three-year, $20.45 million contract is also in order.

Still unclear is who carries out the plan. General manager Pat Gillick has given every indication he plans to bolt Charm City after this season. Assistant general manager Kevin Malone is without a contract. "At this point, nothing is etched in stone," said one club official.

Several weeks ago, the Orioles established July 20 as the earliest day things could begin happening. Angelos returns to his office the same day. It will likely take several more months to determine whether the Ripken Rule survives the transition.

Pub Date: 7/12/98

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