Taking stock of the free-agent market Labor uncertainty, abundance of talent make prospectus a tough read

Here we go again. Baseball's labor situation has not been settled, and the economic outlook for the sport remains unclear, leaving the off-season market for free-agent players and even the eligibility requirements for free agency uncertain.

There will be plenty of talent out there. This year's list of eligible free agents includes many of the game's top pitchers and impact offensive players. If a team is one starter away from contention, David Cone and Jack McDowell may be available. If there's a run-production gap to fill, 1995 offensive standouts Edgar Martinez and Dante Bichette are willing to move. Middle infielder? There's Roberto Alomar or Shawon Dunston.


They all will command big money, but it remains to be seen whether there will be enough to go around for everybody. Front-office executives -- faced with tighter and tighter player personnel budgets -- will have to decide whether to hit the ground running and try to tie up the players they need or wait for market uncertainty to create a free-agent glut that pushes salaries down the way it did last year.

The same kind of dynamic will be at work for players and their agents. They will have to decide whether to move quickly and lock up a piece of the diminishing economic pie or hope that competitive bidding drives prices up to pre-strike levels. Those who guessed wrong last year ended up signing one-year deals or minor-league contracts or just waited around at the Major League Baseball Players Association free-agent camp in Homestead, Fla., until everybody else went to work.


It could happen again.

"I think there will be a lot of the same type of thinking going on this year," said Baltimore attorney/agent Michael Maas. "I don't know if there will be more uncertainty. There is going to be more of the certainty that there is going to be less money out there."

No doubt about it. Major-league attendance is down nearly 20 percent this year, and there is no long-term television contract to cushion the decline in revenue. What used to look like collusion now seems to pass as a prudent economic strategy. There are a few large-market clubs, such as the Orioles, who will have money to spend, but most will be looking to improve on the cheap . . . unless there is a dramatic change in the environment the next few weeks.

"I guess things might be different if we find peace and they get a rich, new TV deal that changes everything," Maas said, "but there's no indication of that yet."

The average player salary slipped last year, and that could happen again. The number of quality players already on the free-agent eligible list is enough to tie up a lot of the money that figures to be available, and that list could get much longer after clubs pare their rosters of this year's high-priced underachievers.

Orioles pitcher Ben McDonald, for example, is not eligible, but seems likely to become a free agent because the club must give him at least 80 percent of his 1995 salary ($4.5 million) to keep him under reserve. Then there are the players who could become free agents if the owners and players come to their senses at the bargaining table in the next few months.

The 7 1/2 -month players strike wiped out 41 days of service time at the end of the 1994 season and 12 more when the scheduled start of the 1995 season was delayed. That will prevent many players from reaching the six-year eligibility requirement for free agency, but the possibility that service time will be restored in the next labor agreement adds a variable that could affect the marketplace.

Union officials have been trying to persuade ownership to restore service time in advance of a new agreement, but they are resigned to the likelihood that many players will have to negotiate '96 contracts without those 53 lost days. It doesn't sound like much, but each level of service can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.


"Some players are suffering a double hit," said union associate general counsel Eugene Orza. "If you take a guy who would have been salary arbitration eligible last year and free-agent eligible this year, he lost the chance to become a free agent, and he lost the opportunity to move up to that next level of service."

These factors have combined to take some fun out of baseball's annual off-season roster shuffle, but there still will be plenty to fuel the hot-stove league this winter:

* The Cleveland Indians are rumored to be in the market for Alomar, which would make baseball's super team that much more intimidating. They would have to move Carlos Baerga to third base and Jim Thome to first, but the temporary defensive instability would be worth the risk.

* Eddie Murray might be headed back to Baltimore. The Orioles don't need a new DH -- Harold Baines has done a solid job there the past three years -- but the prospect of Murray's hitting his 500th home run at Camden Yards may be too good for owner Peter Angelos to pass up. The Orioles also could pursue a big-name closer. Dennis Eckersley and Rick Aguilera are on a short list of premier short relievers available.

* McDowell seems likely to leave New York, where he was treated rudely by Yankees fans early in the season. The impact of his departure would be doubled if he signed with another AL East club.

* The Boston Red Sox could have trouble holding their division-winning club together, with Aguilera, slugger Jose Canseco and starting pitcher Erik Hanson on this year's list.


* The pitching-rich Los Angeles Dodgers might lose winningest starter Ramon Martinez and closer Todd Worrell.

It could be interesting, especially in the aftermath of baseball's first wild-card summer. Rebuilding teams that once might have written off the possibility of making the postseason have seen that it doesn't even require a .500 record to be in the hunt for a playoff berth in September.

One more big hitter and the San Diego Padres might be printing playoff tickets right now. One more front-line starting pitcher and Cub Fever might be running rampant in Chicago. It was that kind of thinking -- albeit at a higher level of competition -- that used to push player salaries ever skyward, but it's not that simple anymore.

Next year's wild-card berths may go on sale in November, but how many of baseball's small-revenue teams will have the money to pay for one?