The Orioles are gambling in their contract negotiations with Mickey Tettleton, gambling they can convince him to defer free agency at a time when baseball salaries continue to skyrocket.
Tettleton's agent, Tony Attanasio, said yesterday the club wants the switch-hitting catcher to sign a one-year contract that would enable him to preserve his rights to negotiate on the open market next year.
Attanasio concedes the plan has merit -- certainly for the Orioles, and maybe for Tettleton too. The question now is whether Tettleton will be tempted by a long-term contract offer in the coming weeks.
That scenario appears likely: Philadelphia's Darren Daulton, the other prominent free-agent catcher, already has rejected a three-year, $6.6 million offer from the Phillies.
Still, there are indications the market will be unusually volatile this year, due to a complex set of circumstances that range from the sluggish economy to the enormous collusion damages facing major-league owners.
Though club officials are refusing comment, the Orioles apparently believe Tettleton's value has declined to the point where a lucrative multi-year contract might be out of his range.
Tettleton filed for free agency Sunday, and Attanasio said three of the five clubs he contacted yesterday expressed interest in a player who hit 15 home runs even in an off-year.
Attanasio is prohibited from exchanging contract figures with other clubs until the 15-day filing period ends Nov. 4. But it's clear the Orioles are now willing to engage in a high-stakes game of roulette.
"They're not going to get Mickey Tettleton unless one of two things happens," Attanasio said from his San Diego office. "They overwhelm him with a premium offer for one year, or they offer him a multi-year deal."
The chances of either happening might appear slim, but the Orioles have said from the start they want to keep Tettleton, the only ranking free agent on a team that had the lowest payroll in baseball in 1990.
Tettleton, 30, batted .223 this year, the lowest average among 23 players used primarily at catcher who had a minimum of 300 at-bats. No one statistic, however, accurately reflects his season.
His 160 strikeouts were a record for a switch-hitter, and his .155 average with men in scoring position was the lowest in the majors for players with at least 100 plate appearances in those situations.
Still, his 106 walks were second in the majors, and he reached base often enough to score 68 runs, tops among the 23 catchers. His 15 homers ranked in the top five, his 51 RBIs in the middle.
"I question if they realize what they have here," Attanasio said. "What do you expect a catcher to do? If you start comparing
what other catchers are doing, what other catchers are making, it's irrefutable."
So, if the Orioles are indeed intent on signing Tettleton, they probably will have to increase their one-year offer to the "premium" level suggested by Attanasio, doubling and perhaps tripling the catcher's $750,000 salary.
In effect, the Orioles would be paying Tettleton to sacrifice his free agency for one year. They then could decide if he is truly deserving of a long-term pact, or if they'd be better off with Bob Melvin and rookie Chris Hoiles as their catchers.
"I think it makes good business sense on their part," Attanasio said. "It places in the Orioles' hands many cards that are good. I can't fault that."
But as talks continue, a deadline looms. Tettleton can retain his free agency by signing a one-year deal before the 15-day filing period ends Nov. 4. After that, the Orioles must offer arbitration for the carryover to take place.
The Orioles loathe that process, in which the club submits one salary figure and the player another, with an independent arbitrator picking either 'A' or 'B.' But they might be forced to make the offer in a last-ditch effort to keep Tettleton.
The club's strategy apparently is predicated on speculation that top free agents like Darryl Strawberry will continue drawing sizable contracts while middle-level players like Tettleton are pinched in a period of fiscal restraint.
Such restraint likely would result in Collusion IV, with players again accusing owners of conspiring to hold down free-agent salaries. But it's possible the owners could present legitimate reasons for curbing their spending.
For one thing, many of the players in the free-agent class of 1989 (Mark Davis, Mark Langston, et al) did not prove worthy of long-term investments. Also, the owners soon will be assessed financial damages from Collusion II and then III.
The owners, of course, were found guilty in all three collusion cases, and it's difficult to imagine them making the same mistake again. Still, Attanasio has heard the rumors of a depressed market, and he's preparing for the worst.
"We're not sure they're accurate," he said. "If they aren't and Mickey loses out, that's the nature of the beast. But if they are and there is no market, then we'll have to assume the market is contrived."
In which case baseball would say hello to Collusion IV, and Tettleton could be declared a "new-look" free agent -- presumably after re-signing with the Orioles at a salary far lower than he is seeking.
Is such a scenario likely? Probably not. But the Orioles are gambling that somehow, they'll sign Tettleton for one year, gambling that his value is down, that the market will be depressed, or both.
Meanwhile, Attanasio said Tettleton would accept less money to sign with a club of his liking. The Orioles remain No. 1 on his list: They signed him as a minor-league free agent after he was released by Oakland in April 1988.
"Some clubs might offer him more money, but he'd be less inclined to accept," Attanasio said. "He wants to go back to Baltimore. There's no doubt about that. He's made his position known."
How Mickey Tettleton ranked among the 23 players who were used primarily at catcher this season with a minimum of 300 at-bats:
1. Tettleton, 68.
Fisk (White Sox), 65.
3. Daulton (Phillies), 62.
4. Zeile (Cardinals), 62.
5. Pena (Red Sox), 62.
HOME RUNS 1. Parrish (Angels), 24.
Fisk (White Sox), 18.
3. Tettleton, 15.
4. Zeile (Cardinals), 15.
5. Borders (Blue Jays), 15.
1. Parrish (Angels), 70.
2. Scioscia (Dodgers), 66.
3. Alomar (Indians), 66.
4. Fisk (White Sox), 65.
13. Tettleton, 51.
1. Harper (Twins), .294.
Alomar (Indians), .290.
3. Borders (Blue Jays), .286.
4. Fisk (White Sox), .285.
23. Tettleton, .223.
1. Parrish (Angels), $1,916,667.
Fisk (White Sox), $1,750,000.
3. Pena (Red Sox), $1,700,000.
4. Santiago (Padres), $1,250,000.
7. (tie) Tettleton, $750,000.
Steinbach (A's), $750,000.