Last winter, I received a nice letter from a fan asking if we might stop writing about money matters in baseball during the off-season, and write more about the game.
Sounds great, but it's impossible. Everything done in the major leagues is predicated on money or lack thereof, and Albert Belle's $55 million contract will make all teams more diligent about how they spend their dollars. In this strange world created by former union leader Marvin Miller (who began the salary spiral) and Chicago White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf (who is responsible for signing Belle and altering baseball's salary structure dramatically), service time is becoming more important than velocity or speed, minor-leaguers more valuable than solid veterans like B. J. Surhoff.
Let us count the ways Belle's contract changes baseball:
1. There will be a labor agreement, perhaps as soon as this week.
Reinsdorf was the leading hawk in the owners' war against the players association (he once complained, "Baseball is the only industry where I have to pay someone what my dumbest competitor pays." Then on Tuesday he told reporters he asked Belle what he wanted, and then gave it to him.
From the perspective of the other owners, Reinsdorf is a Benedict Arnold, betraying the cause he has trumpeted, and in signing Belle, he effectively undercut the other owners. Orioles owner Peter Angelos was prepared to open the team's books, with the blessing of acting commissioner Bud Selig, and show how a club that regularly sells out can lose $3 million to $6 million in the terrible business of baseball. The intent, of course, was to demonstrate the plight of the small-market teams like Pittsburgh and Milwaukee, demonstrate a need for a drag on salaries.
Then Reinsdorf signed Belle, leaving Angelos and the other owners dangling. The average fan would respond to Angelos by saying, sure, baseball's really hurting for money; that's why Belle's making $11 million per year.
The players association dominates the high ground in its fight against the owners, who had better take the deal Randy Levine negotiated for them -- it's about as good as they're going to get.
2. The small markets have even a smaller chance of winning.
Oh, sure, the revenue sharing that is inevitable will help. But Belle's contract ensures that teams like Pittsburgh and Milwaukee won't be able to keep the game's best talents. Suppose Kansas City is operating with a payroll of $20 million, and it gets $5 million in revenue sharing (numbers pulled out of thin air).
Then suppose that the Royals have a young star who drives in 100 runs in his rookie year. The youngster really blossoms by his sixth year in the majors. The player will be in line, through the natural progression of arbitration and in the salary structure created by the Belle signing, to earn around $7 million or $8
million. The Royals cannot possibly devote that much money to one player -- one-third of their payroll? -- and they cannot possibly sign him as a free agent. Teams cannot win without star players.
"What you'll see in some cities," said one major-league executive, "is that small-market teams won't even try to win anymore. They can't compete, their fans will know it, and their attendance will level off. So instead of spending as much money as they can, they'll cut back to $13 million or $15 million, and go with young players and veterans who cost them nothing. They'll be part of the league, but they won't really be competitive."
3. Major-league teams will covet minor-league prospects and young major-leaguers above all others.
Under the next labor agreement, the minimum salary will be $175,000. So who do you think will be more valuable to the Orioles -- Rocky Coppinger, who won 10 games and is in line to earn around $250,000 to $300,000 next year, or Scott Erickson, who won 13 games while making $3 million last year?
Teams could become more reluctant to use top prospects until they're absolutely sure they're ready to play in the big leagues. Orioles pitching prospect Jimmy Haynes could be a good example of this. They could let him work out of the bullpen next year, as an extra starter, something which could help his confidence.
But they won't do it. Every day he's in the majors Haynes will be one day closer to being eligible for arbitration and a dramatic escalation in salary. The Orioles will leave him in the minors until they're absolutely sure he can contribute. Teams will be far less inclined to develop potential stars in the majors.
On the other hand, young players who are pegged as journeymen will have more opportunity. From the Orioles' perspective, would it be better to pay a guy like Eugene Kingsale $150,000 to be a spare outfielder or someone like Mike Devereaux $1,000,000? Devereaux might be the better player, but Kingsale would be worth more, dollar for dollar.
4. Teams will worry more about marketing and less about winning.
The White Sox had a good team before they signed Belle, and they could have developed a deep roster -- and maybe a better team -- had they used the $11 million they spent on Belle for four or five other players.
But Reinsdorf is no dummy. He knows fans will pay to see Frank Thomas and Belle bat back-to-back. One Belle is worth a heck of a lot more to marketing than four or five players who are the caliber of Darryl Hamilton.
"To me, the concern is the game seems to be more about promoting individuals than winning," said Orioles assistant general manager Kevin Malone. "I thought this was a team sport."
4 5. Premium players will be paid premium dollars.
It took exactly one day for Belle's signing to have an impact on the free-agent market. The Atlanta Braves quickly ascertained that prices would rise, and the next day, they made a pre-emptive bid and signed John Smoltz for $31 million over four years, a record for pitchers.
The increases will soon affect the Orioles. Mike Mussina will be eligible for free agency after next year, unless they give him a long-term contract between now and then.
"It's in the Orioles' interest to sign Mike now to a long-term deal," said Arn Tellem, the agent for Mussina and Belle. "If they don't have him signed to a multi-year deal before next spring, they're looking at an Albert Belle scenario."
6. Teams will avoid arbitration even more than they do now, fearing huge awards against them.
Suppose, for a moment, that Coppinger turns out to be a decent pitcher, but not an All-Star. The Orioles would sooner not tender him a contract -- in other words, release him -- than risk a loss through arbitration. You'll see teams cut ties with good young players after three years, and the number of players available on the free-agent market will continue to rise (which may be the owners' best defense against salary escalation; the greater the supply, the less the demand).
This is baseball now. If you want to teach your kids about the game, buy them some baseball cards, maybe a glove. Then enroll them in Economics 101.
Around the leagues
In case you missed it, Orioles center fielder Brady Anderson was asked about the possibility of moving to left field on WBAL last week. The Orioles are pursuing Hamilton, and if they're successful, they'll move Anderson to left. To move for Kenny Lofton or Ken Griffey would be one thing, Anderson said in so many words. Beyond that, he might not be quite so happy with a change.
The Florida Marlins signed Bobby Bonilla to play third base, and they may not be finished. They're talking about trading young pitcher Livan Hernandez, a Cuban defector, along with a couple of other prospects to Atlanta for first baseman Fred McGriff. The Marlins would have Gary Sheffield, McGriff and Bonilla batting 3-4-5, and the Braves would move Ryan Klesko to first and play Andruw Jones and Jermaine Dye in left and right field, respectively. Florida apparently is ready to throw Smoltz-type dollars at Alex Fernandez.
Before Smoltz re-signed with the Braves, the Orioles were trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting with the Cy Young Award winner.
The Orioles' interest in right-hander Jaime Navarro cooled quickly, and it may be because of Navarro's reputation as something of a head case.
If the owners ratify the labor agreement this week and Mike Bordick becomes a free agent, you will see the Orioles charge hard after the Oakland shortstop. He's a better investment than Kevin Elster, Jay Bell or anyone else available.
The White Sox intend to deal Tony Phillips, and they have at least one interested party: the Athletics. The Orioles, apparently looking for alternatives to Eddie Murray, should get in this bidding war -- Phillips will make only $1.7 million in 1997, with incentives. Phillips walked 125 times last year and scored 119 runs.
Gerry Fraley of the Dallas Morning News added up all the points from the MVP and Cy Young Award balloting in the '90s and found that the Braves have received the most MVP and Cy Young voting points. The Milwaukee Brewers have received no Cy Young points in this decade. The Orioles rank eighth in MVP points, ninth in Cy Young points.
The Brewers are changing their caps again, after only three years since the last change. The new hats will have an M, instead of an M and a B.
An American League general manager on Toronto's blockbuster trade for infielder Carlos Garcia, outfielder Orlando Merced and pitcher Dan Plesac: The Blue Jays "moved past Boston and are a starting pitcher away from Baltimore."
By the numbers
The pitcher toughest against Brady Anderson: David Wells, against whom Anderson is 0-for-11 during his career, with three strikeouts.
Frank Thomas drew 26 intentional walks last year, and has 96 over the past five years. He probably won't have many next year.
Jim Thome's slugging percentage was 75 points higher (.677 vs. .602) when he batted third, in front of Albert Belle, in the Cleveland lineup.
Jesse Orosco gave up three homers in April, and two the rest of the season.
Darryl Hamilton batted .308 before the All-Star break, .276 after.
Scott Erickson had the greatest ratio of quality starts among the Orioles' big three, allowing three earned runs or less in six innings or more in 19 of his 32 starts. David Wells ranked second hTC of 34), and Mike Mussina third (18 of 36).
Pub Date: 11/24/96