With Dodger President Peter O’Malley intervening to help convince Fernando Valenzuela that the club sincerely wanted him back, the free-agent pitcher accepted an arbitration offer before the Wednesday night deadline.
The 30-year-old left-hander, 13-13 with a 4.91 earned-run average in 1990, is returning, but as what?
Starter, reliever or candidate to be cut or traded when the Dodgers sort out a congested pitching staff during spring training?
“It will be a competitive situation, no getting around it,” Executive Vice President Fred Claire said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had this kind of depth and experience.”
Even with Orel Hershiser’s return still uncertain, a rotation of Tim Belcher, Ramon Martinez, Kevin Gross and Bob Ojeda has only one vacancy.
And if Hershiser is not ready, the candidates for that one spot include Mike Morgan, Dennis Cook, Mike Hartley and Jim Neidlinger, in addition to Valenzuela, who completed only five of 33 starts as he continued his recovery from the shoulder problems of 1988.
It is believed that management was divided on the wisdom of offering arbitration, giving Valenzuela a chance to return, though his acceptance sparked denial that there was ever dissent.
The versatile Mickey Hatcher also accepted the Dodgers’ arbitration offer, and both he and Valenzuela will have their 1991 contracts determined either through negotiation or arbitration.
In arbitration (and negotiation as well, if the club insists on it), the contract is not fully guaranteed until opening day, leaving players at risk in spring training.
However, by accepting arbitration rather than remaining free agents, the players can become free agents again next winter.
In addition, Valenzuela, who made $2.2 million in salary and bonuses last season, is likely to receive a major raise through arbitration by favorably comparing his 13 victories to a number of less successful pitchers who have signed lucrative contracts this winter.
“We think one year will be good for Fernando,” agent Tony DeMarco said of the contract length. “We think we’re in a very nice position.”
DeMarco insisted that Valenzuela had offers from clubs he refused to identify but decided to stay with the Dodgers because of his love for team, city and fans, and assurances by O’Malley in a meeting with Claire and DeMarco Tuesday that Valenzuela is appreciated as much as ever.
Considering the absence of a Dodger contract offer, Valenzuela might have harbored doubts.
“I don’t want to comment on that, but you can draw your own conclusions,” said DeMarco, who went on to imply that Valenzuela was appeased by O’Malley’s role, not the first time “he’s come through in the clutch. I mean, I’ve requested his help before, but this was spontaneous, which should not be taken as a criticism of Fred Claire. He’s always been a gentleman, but the boss is the boss.”
Said O’Malley: “We talked as friends and I told Tony that everyone wanted Fernando back, that the offer wasn’t a bluff, that it was made in good faith. We’re happy he accepted, happy he’ll be pitching for us again. He’s a good man, an excellent member of the team.”
Added Claire: “We wouldn’t have made the offer if we didn’t feel Fernando could help the club and we wanted him back. We’ve made additions since then, but that thought still prevails. And even before we made the arbitration offer (Dec. 7), we invited Tony in to assure him it was sincere, but he didn’t feel that was the right time for a meeting. We extended the invitation again this week.
“The key part of all this is that Fernando has a long, historic and meaningful relationship with the Dodgers and that goes beyond a lot of other areas. He’s almost one of a kind--if not one of a kind.”
Though Claire went on to say that Valenzuela will still have to compete in spring training, the conclusion seems obvious:
O’Malley, cognizant of Valenzuela’s place in club lore, was unwilling to risk negative publicity without, at least, the offer of arbitration, and it was accepted by Valenzuela despite offers from other teams.
Now? O’Malley said depth is essential, that the days “when a handful of guys can carry a team from start to finish” are gone.
The immediate speculation is that a strong spring performance by Valenzuela might influence the Dodgers to make Ojeda the left-handed closer.
Of the competition his client faces, DeMarco said: “I don’t know what to say about that except that the team is very strong in that area. I don’t know what to say except Fernando is not worried about that or anything else.”
* ANGELS: Club offers new-look free agent Gaetti a four-year contract estimated at $10 million. C9.