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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

The reason California is allowing Tellum to look around is because they are not willing to meet his demand for a four-year, $24 million extension. If another team wants Langston, it probably would have to

come up with that kind of money and produce a package of quality prospects to satisfy the Angels.

The Orioles have inquired. So have the Dodgers, but they backed away quickly when they found out what it would cost.

Pulling rank

The Orioles didn't exactly dominate the league leader sheet in 1993. The only player to rank in the top five in any significant offensive department was catcher Chris Hoiles, who ranked fifth in on-base percentage (.416) and slugging percentage (.585). The only other hitter in a top 10 was Brady Anderson, who ranked sixth in triples with nine.

There was more of an Orioles presence in some of the lesser-known categories. It should come as no surprise that Cal Ripken led the league in at-bats and games played, or that Hoiles ranked highly in home run and RBI ratio. What is surprising is that McLemore, who had a breakthrough season, ranked highly in a couple dubious categories.

McLemore tied for third place in times caught stealing (15) and ranked third for the 21 times he grounded into double plays. He was in good company in the latter category. Cecil Fielder, Don Mattingly and George Brett also were among the top five GIDP guys.

A policy of containment

Not a single Orioles pitcher showed up among the top 10 in home runs allowed, which has to be considered something of an upset. Ben McDonald nearly won that dubious title in 1992 when he gave up 32 home runs, but he gave up just 17 last year. Rick Sutcliffe led the club with 23 gopher balls, but was saved a place among the dubious top 10 by the knee injury that shelved him for nearly a month.

The "winner" of the American League home run derby was Detroit Tigers right-hander Mike Moore, who gave up 35 homers. Oakland Athletics right-hander Bob Welch ranked 10th with 25.

Trivia answer

Orioles left fielder Brady Anderson hit three shots off the right-field scoreboard at Oriole Park in 1993. Strangely enough, only one other player hit more than one, and he wasn't even an Oriole. Minnesota Twins outfielder Shane Mack doubled off the scoreboard twice in two days (July 15 and July 16). No Oriole other than Anderson could match that in 81 home games.

Bad decision

If reports out of Los Angeles are true, second baseman Jody Reed may have miscalculated badly when he turned down a multiyear contract proposal from the Dodgers.

The word is that Reed turned down a three-year deal worth $8.5 million before the Dodgers worked the trade with the Montreal Expos for DeShields.

DeShields will cost more than the $2.8 million per year that Reed was offered, but he probably will be worth it. He batted .295 last year and has stolen 187 bases in his four full seasons in the major leagues. Reed batted .276, drove in 31 runs and stole just one base last year.

With those numbers, will Reed find a comparable salary elsewhere? Probably not in this market.

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