Free agents face uncertain future

THE BALTIMORE SUN

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Rested and tanned, general manager Roland Hemond stood out in front of the Orioles' spring training complex a few days ago and clapped his hands together, something he does habitually when he's excited.

"I'm ready to go," Hemond said. "When things get settled, this is going to be fun."

It turns out that things could be settled and players could return to camp this week. If so, the fun begins for Hemond, other general managers and fans starved for baseball news about something other than luxury tax rates.

The free-agent market, already flooded with big-name players such as Larry Walker, John Franco, Jim Abbott and Dave Winfield, could be watered down with dozens more if teams try to compensate for their financial troubles by dumping arbitration-eligible players.

"I would expect there's going to be a lot of movement," said Hemond. "I think it's going to be exciting."

Particularly for Hemond, because the Orioles will be actively chasing free agents. In addition to honoring a five-year verbal agreement with catcher Chris Hoiles, the Orioles are expected to:

* Continue their pursuit of free-agent left-hander Franco, who was close to signing a two-year, $5.2 million contract before the owners implemented their signing freeze in mid-February.

* Attempt to sign another outfielder. In mid-January, they negotiated with former Pirates outfielder Andy Van Slyke, and they may eventually work out a deal. But because the owners have lost so much money and because there are so many free agents -- creating that buyer's market -- the Orioles could get more for their millions.

Walker, who hit .322 with 19 homers and 86 RBIs for Montreal last year, was seeking a contract in the neighborhood of five years and $25 million. In the current climate, he'll be lucky to get two years and $6 million. Those are numbers the Orioles could absorb.

* Sign another pitcher for their rotation, although the slimmed-down Sid Fernandez -- he has told the Orioles his weight is down to 226 pounds, a reduction of 36 pounds -- has new manager Phil Regan feeling better about his staff. If the Orioles do go after another pitcher, it could be former Texas Ranger Kevin Brown.

"We'll just have to see who's available," Hemond said.

That may depend on who other teams cut loose in the coming purge of arbitration-eligible players.

The owners claim collective losses of $700 million from the strike, and assuming the players return to work under the old rules, one of the very few ways the clubs can recoup their money is to deal harshly with those players eligible for salary arbitration.

The Boston Red Sox, for instance, have six players eligible for arbitration. What Boston GM Dan Duquette may do is offer arbitration to the two players he cannot afford to lose, first baseman Mo Vaughn and third baseman Scott Cooper.

With the other four, Duquette may make them a pre-emptive offer -- say, for infielder Luis Alicea, a one-year contract for $300,000. If Alicea doesn't take it, Duquette will cut Alicea loose.

Some good players could fit into this category, players who have value but not enough to keep at exorbitant cost. They include Oakland infielder Mike Bordick, Atlanta pitcher Kent Mercker, Kansas City outfielder Brian McRae, Milwaukee reliever Mike Fetters, Chicago Cubs catcher Rick Wilkens and Colorado outfielder Dante Bichette.

The Orioles, meanwhile, are expected to keep all their arbitration-eligible players: Hoiles, Ben McDonald, Mike Mussina, Alan Mills, Bret Barberie and Leo Gomez.

General managers searching for pitching or a little extra offense will have a lot to choose from. There are so many potential free agents that the Players Association is seriously considering holding a camp for unsigned players in Homestead, Fla., where they will be able to work out until they get a contract.

"One thing that the players don't understand is that there just isn't any money out there," one National League general manager said last week. "Only the very best players will get good money. The rest of the guys will be at the mercy of the teams."

Before the strike, Brown could've commanded a $4 million per year contract. Now, he'll be lucky to get more than $2.5 million, and may end up taking much less.

There are many questions about whether Abbott can still pitch, and even in a normal year, his salary -- $2.8 million with the Yankees last year -- was going to take a hit. Now he may not get a seven-figure contract.

Catcher Benito Santiago, who made $3.8 million with the Florida Marlins last year, could be worth about $300,000 in the current market. The same for Winfield, a future Hall of Famer.

Some financially devastated clubs, like the Montreal Expos, may trade some of their arbitration-eligible players rather than release them. The Red Sox and Expos are talking about deals involving Marquis Grissom and John Wetteland, and Hemond may be calling Montreal GM Kevin Malone, as well.

The difference between replacement ball and major-league ball is that you couldn't identify the players without a score card. Now you'll know the players. But with this mass of player movement on the horizon, you just may have a tough time

figuring out where they're playing.

COST-CUTTING MOVES?

Some notable arbitration-eligible players who could be cut loose as teams try to pare back their payrolls.

Pos. Player, Team, '94 Salary, Comment

P, Jack McDowell, Yankees, $5,300,000, If they want to keep him, may have to pay $6 million or more. Ouch.

Inf., Mike Bordick, Oakland, $1,050,000, Solid player, but very pricey for a .253 hitter

3B, Ed Sprague, Toronto, $500,000, World Series hero who hasn't justified the big raise he'll get.

OF, Wes Chamberlain, Boston, $350,000, Could get $800,000, a steep price for marginal outfielder

C, Rick Wilkens, Cubs, $350,000, His huge '93 season could make him $1 million player

SS, Craig Grebeck, White Sox, $660,000, How much are backup infielders worth in today's market? Not this much

Brian McRae, Kansas City, $1,900,000, Not an impact player. Why pay impact dollars?

P, Scott Erickson, Minnesota, $1,325,000, Could wind up signing with Colorado

OF, Pedro Munoz, Minnesota, $590,000, Mediocre career, and is in line for big raise

OF, Dante Bichette, Colorado $2,800,000, If the Rockies can sign Larry Walker, they may dump Dante

OF, Orlando Merced,Pittsburgh, $1,485,000, Plays power

position and isn't much of a power

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