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Arbitration paranoia may cost O's


Even before free agency became a way of baseball life after the 1976 season, arbitration was the bane of management's existence. Not much has changed in 20 years.

Teams will go to almost any extreme to avoid the process whenever it's economically practical. Often they will risk losing a quality player rather than face an arbitration hearing.

That's the reason the Orioles are in such an awkward position with reliever Gregg Olson. They would rather have the other 27 major-league teams establish his market value than an arbitrator who is unlikely to consider the elbow injury that sidelined the ace closer for almost half of last season.

The Orioles' position is that free agency is the lesser of two gambles. For the club's sake, they better be right.

If Olson surfaces somewhere else and proves to be healthy, which he and his agent, Jeff Moorad, insist he is, then the Orioles made a costly mistake. And if their assessment that nobody can be sure of Olson's condition until he throws under game conditions is correct, they will have made a prudent financial decision.

But, one has to wonder if the fear of arbitration isn't sometimes overrated. As Toronto general manager Pat Gillick (one of those interested in Olson) often has said, arbitration is not always as great a risk as pictured.

"I don't worry about arbitration," Gillick has said, "because it's a nonguaranteed contract."

In other words, there are risks on both sides.

Catcher Andy Allanson found that out the hard way four years ago, after winning a healthy raise through arbitration. After learning of the arbitration award, ex-Orioles general manager Hank Peters, then with Cleveland, left no doubt that the decision cost Allanson his job.

"Andy Allanson's future with the Indians is behind him," said Peters.

Once considered a bright prospect, Allanson did not play in the major leagues in 1990 and has played in only 82 games as an emergency fill-in with the Tigers, Brewers and Giants the past three years.

While most teams continue to try to avoid arbitration at almost any cost, they inadvertently are guilty of helping to set standards they insist are unrealistic. For instance, one of the complaints is that players who go to arbitration are automatically guaranteed a generous increase in salary because service time is equated with performance.

However, teams continue to bait their own trap because they are afraid to challenge the system. Baseball's Basic Agreement allows for no more than a 20-percent reduction in salary in any given year, provided that salary doesn't fall below the minimum allowed.

That 20-percent rule is the first thing the players could get thrown out of the next Basic Agreement because it's almost never invoked. Of the 80 players who filed for salary arbitration, only two were offered pay cuts -- Randy Milligan, the ex-Orioles first baseman now with the Expos, and Reds reliever Rob Dibble.

Even taking into consideration that an arbitrator must consider the previous two years before making a decision, it's hard to believe only two arbitration-eligible players are deemed

deserving of a pay cut. More and more, teams are deciding that the best way around arbitration is to not tender a contract -- which grants a player free agency, but also sends his salary base back to the minimum.

That's why players such as Todd Frohwirth, like Mark Williamson the year before, found themselves without an offer once they got into the $1 million range. That strategy, to a degree, has curtailed arbitration awards while also flooding the free-agent market.

But you have to wonder if management's unaggressive approach to arbitration hasn't contributed to what they like to call "the big picture." The Orioles were willing to give Leo Gomez a 60-percent raise (to $500,000) rather than make a challenge in arbitration.

As long as teams offer substantial raises for bland performances, they are going to escalate arbitration, the process they say is most responsible for knocking the salary structure out of whack. Now, unable to cope with a system that's been in place for two decades, baseball is going to try to jam a salary cap into the players' wallets.

In order to do that, the least they'll have to prove is that every team will meet the salary maximum. Which gives a whole new meaning to "the last shall be [tied for] first."

Even with help from the big boys, it's difficult to picture the San Diego Padres matching the payroll of the New York Yankees. How will arbitration fit into that scenario? And what happens when the proposed salary cap doesn't work?

Harnisch's fate

While on the subject, arbitration may decide whether the Houston Astros trade ex-Orioles right-hander Pete Harnisch. The two sides are $1 million apart, with Harnisch asking for $3.8 million. If he wins, that could put too much of a strain on the Astros' budget.

Despite the rumors about Harnisch being traded to the Orioles, Yankees or Blue Jays, Houston general manager Bob Watson has repeatedly said he isn't interested.

"No fewer than 10 teams have talked to me about Harnisch," Watson said. "Don't you think if I was going to trade him, I'd have done it by now?"

That, however, was before arbitration figures were exchanged. The Astros figured they'd have to go to about $3 million to sign Harnisch, but if it gets close to $4 million, Watson may have to reconsider -- as may some of the teams who have expressed interest.

Free-agency review

Despite some of the heady payouts, it generally hasn't been a good off-season for free agents. It all started when Rafael Palmeiro signed with the Orioles for no more money than he could have netted from the Rangers, his first choice.

Chris Sabo, who got a guarantee for $2 million from the Orioles, earlier turned down a two-year, $6.4 million offer from the Reds. Walt Weiss had a three-year, $6.5 million offer from the Marlins, asked for another $1 million and ended up getting $2.2 million from the Rockies -- for two years.

Jody Reed turned down a three-year, $8 million offer from the Dodgers. When the Dodgers then traded for Delano DeShields, Reed was left without a viable bidder and is still looking for a job.

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