O's fly No. 1 payroll coop

$81.5 million figure reflects 6.5% increase, but trails Yanks, L.A.

February 27, 1999|By Joe Strauss | Joe Strauss,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Loaded with multi-year contracts and again possessing the game's most veteran clubhouse, the Orioles have committed $81.485 million to their 23 players under contract and are virtually assured of carrying a payroll exceeding $82 million this season.

The figure, compiled from labor and management sources, represents about an initial 6.5 percent increase over last season's payroll, but will allow the club to cede the title of most expensive clubhouse to the New York Yankees.

In fact, the Orioles have slipped to third. The Los Angeles Dodgers also jumped over the Orioles after signing free-agent pitcher Kevin Brown to a seven-year, $105 million payroll. Both the Yankees and Dodgers are expected to approach $90 million.

Including payments to players released or traded during the season, the Orioles finished 1998 with salary commitments of $77.11 million, a fraction of which was deferred at no interest.

This year, Orioles will carry 13 contracts of $3 million or more, leaving them a projected average salary of $3,283,400 based upon a total projected payroll of $82,085,000. Shortstop Mike Bordick's $3,083,333 salary represents the club median. Eight players will make $1 million or less.

Of the Orioles' projected Opening Day roster, only pitchers Sidney Ponson and Doug Johns remain unsigned. Possessing less than three years of major-league service, both players are "renewable" and may be assigned salaries by the club. The two are expected to sign within the next week for a combined $600,000-$800,000.

Figures do not reflect money deferred at no interest, a staple of long-term contracts negotiated by majority owner Peter Angelos.

This year's escalation reflects both the game's spiraling marketplace and the modification in Angelos' longstanding fiscal policy. The Orioles last May awarded No. 2 starter Scott Erickson a five-year, $32 million contract, making him the club's first pitcher with anything more than a three-year deal.

Desperate for an offensive centerpiece, Angelos then approved signing free-agent outfielder Albert Belle to a five-year, $65 million contract. Angelos previously had vowed to hold the line against bestowing $10 million per season to any player.

"Circumstances within the market dictated that we needed to cross that threshold," said Joe Foss, the Orioles' chief operating officer. "It's entirely in keeping with our promise to provide our fans a contending, entertaining team."

A season-opening salary represents only a base line. The Orioles have never been shy about acquiring high-priced players during a season. Incentive clauses based on number of appearances and awards earned also force payroll higher. Erickson's package even includes a clause stipulating his incentives be increased to the same level of No. 1 starter Mike Mussina should Mussina renegotiate his contract.

Expenses don't stop there. Each major-league team typically spends about $5 million per season on player benefits. By ranking among the freest-spending teams, the Orioles also are subject to a season-ending "luxury tax," which is redistributed to the industry's pauper franchises. Total expenditures associated with payroll could reach $95 million this season.

Belle, who also will receive a $1 million bonus should he be named American League Most Valuable Player, remains the only Oriole making more than $7 million this season. Erickson ($6.43 million), Mussina ($6.825 million), third baseman Cal Ripken ($6.3 million) and center fielder Brady Anderson ($6.2 million) will make more than $6 million. Every Orioles starting position player will earn at least $3 million. Last season right fielder Eric Davis' $2.5 million represented the low for a starting position player.

The Orioles, who entered last season with an industry-leading 14 pending free agents, were forced into an off-season shopping spree, signing second baseman Delino DeShields, first baseman Will Clark and relief pitcher Mike Timlin to multi-year packages before retaining incumbent left fielder B. J. Surhoff. Relief pitchers Heathcliff Slocumb, Ricky Bones and Mike Fetters were subsequently signed to one-year contracts. Fetters' deal is not guaranteed.

Angelos never has apologized for his free spending. The Orioles trail only the Yankees in revenues and Angelos maintains the ownership group never has received a dividend on its investment.

"Everything is reinvested into the club," said Foss.

While this winter's escalation continues a disturbing trend within the industry, the Orioles believe they may soon receive a reprieve from such spikes. What was once a fallow player development system is expected to offer several major-league ready players within the next several years.

Names such as Jerry Hairston Jr., Calvin Pickering, Matt Riley, Jayson Werth and Ryan Minor may allow the club to at least temporarily break from its tradition of rebuilding through free agency.

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