BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Free-Agent Market Faces Difficult Times Ahead

During the four years of baseball's $1.06-billion contract with CBS, the average major league salary rose from $597,537 to more than $1.1 million.

At last year's winter meetings alone, owners signed free agents and others to contracts totaling almost $260 million.

The CBS windfall ends with the playoffs and World Series. The owners estimate that the new "partnership" with ABC and NBC, and the new cable deal with ESPN, will cut their TV revenue in half. So what kind of market can the players eligible for free agency expect? Will the salary escalation continue?

"I think many free agents are going to be in for major surprises, given the shortfall of $8 million per club," Angel owner Jackie Autry said.

Minnesota General Manager Andy MacPhail agreed.

"My philosophy has always been to expect the worst. That way you'll never be disappointed," he said. "But this is the first time I really expect a downturn. Not just a leveling off, but a downturn.

"I say that for a couple reasons. I think a number of clubs have reached the saturation point economically, and the loss of the TV money means ever fewer will be major participants in the free-agent market. I also don't think this free-agent group is as attractive as others have been. I just don't think it bodes well for the players going through the re-entry process."

There are 137 players eligible for free agency, including those whose eligibility hinges on options and repeater rights.

With most clubs desperate for pitching, the potential free-agent market isn't the storehouse it was last year when Greg Maddux, Doug Drabek, Jimmy Key, Chris Bosio, Jose Guzman, Greg Swindell, John Smiley, David Cone, Tom Henke, Randy Myers, Dave Stewart and Mike Moore were among the available pitchers.

This year's list of unrestricted pitchers is headed by Dennis Martinez, Mark Portugal, Lee Smith, Tim Belcher, Sid Fernandez, Bob Walk, John Dopson, Joe Magrane, David Wells and Greg Harris. That alone should help control the escalation.

In addition, only Dave Valle, among the unrestricted catchers, is likely to stir much interest, and a modest outfield list includes Luis Polonia, Ellis Burks, Tim Raines, Harold Baines, Dave Henderson and Dion James.

Infielders are the strength of the 1993 free-agent crop, particularly first basemen. Will Clark, Rafael Palmeiro and Andres Galarraga are among the eligible. Other infielders include Chris Sabo, Robby Thompson, Bip Roberts, Walt Weiss, Jody Reed, Julio Franco, Howard Johnson, Tony Fernandez and the versatile Todd Benzinger.

Of course, it was thought last winter that salaries had reached the saturation point, and then the clubs went on an unparalleled spending spree.

"It's true that there were some people who felt the market would level off last year, but you didn't have to be a Sherlock Holmes to suspect otherwise," MacPhail said.

"The National League clubs each received $12 million from expansion and lost three players. The American League clubs each received $3 million and lost two or three players. There was an attractive market. It was inevitable that the clubs would take that money and go out and replace the players they lost. This time, we're all down $8 million or so to start with, and that can only come out of payroll."

The other reason to expect a leveling off in the '93 market, particularly in regard to free agents, MacPhail said, is that many clubs anticipated the TV shortfall and have already bought out arbitration and free-agent rights of their top players. About 200 are already guaranteed about $520 million in salary next year.

In addition, many clubs who hold options on players who would otherwise be eligible for free agency are attempting to renegotiate the terms of the option. The Dodgers showed class by picking up Brett Butler's $3-million option without such an attempt. The Angels, however, are trying to renegotiate with Chili Davis, despite his 100-plus runs batted in and the commitment they made only a year ago.

The players' union suspects that all the rhetoric in regard to TV shortfall is the owners' latest attempt to prepare the players for hard times and seek their cooperation.

Don Fehr, executive director of the union, said it has long been the players' position that the market will adjust on its own without the need for a collusive action by the owners or the artificial ceiling of a salary cap. The revenue is there, Fehr said, but the owners still can't agree to help their own by sharing it among themselves. They still have to ask the players for help.

Agent Alan Meersand of Manhattan Beach agreed.

"Every winter, there's a new theme," he said. "Last winter, it was the uncertain labor situation. The owners said, 'We're putting this offer out there and you better take it because we don't know what will be there in the future.' Now they go out and make this horrible TV deal without including the players in the negotiations and then they say they want a partnership with the players, they want the players to take reduced offers to make up the shortfall. I think you're going to see some interesting standoffs."

A winter of discontent? Time will tell.

LES EXPOS

The ability of Minnesota and Montreal to consistently rebuild within comparatively strict financial parameters represents a sharp rebuke to the whining of their small-market colleagues.

The resurgence of the Expos is also a tribute to the patience of Manager Felipe Alou and the skill of a scouting staff formerly headed by Gary Hughes, now with the Florida Marlins. The Expos have 10 rookies on their roster and several more at the door.

Two, first baseman Cliff Floyd and center fielder Rondell White, are considered among the top prospects in baseball and are expected to play regularly for the Expos next year. Another, Kurt Rueter, faces the Philadelphia Phillies today with an 8-0 record, and two more, Gabe White and Taos Alvarez, are considered candidates for next year's rotation.

Three others, infielders Wilfredo Cordero, Mike Lansing and Sean Berry, have made impacts in regular and semi-regular roles this year.

"It's been fun to see the team come together and play this well," General Manager Dan Duquette said of the Expos' reappearance in the race. "We expected to win 90 games at the beginning of the season but we didn't anticipate the Phillies getting off to such a great start and (our) being so far behind at the All-Star break. We were able to stabilize our rotation with the addition of Rueter and the insertion of (reliever) Jeff Fassero (11-4), and that's been the key."

The second-half surge has carried financial implications as well. The Expos expected to draw 120,000 for the weekend series against the Phillies and will break even for the season after earlier expecting to lose about $1.5 million.

"We might even turn a small profit," owner Claude Brochu said. "At least, we will be in better shape than we anticipated."

Nevertheless, Duquette is still under orders to cut his $16-million payroll, already among baseball's lowest, by another million. Martinez will be allowed to leave as a free agent, but Duquette has eight players eligible for arbitration--Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Delino DeShields, John Wetteland, Mel Rojas, Moises Alou, Ken Hill and Chris Nabholz. Another two, Fassero and Darrin Fletcher, could be, depending if they rank among the top 17% of two-year-plus players in service time.

One or two will have to go, but what appeared to be a fire sale a couple of months ago now has the Expos in a position to deal from strength.

"We're trying to free up the resources to keep the players we have," Duquette said. "That's been our focus all along. But in the event we have to trade, we have some very capable players coming up through the farm system."

Outfielder Walker, whose salary could jump to $4 million in arbitration, gives the Expos a valuable trading tool. Pitchers Nabholz and Rojas are two others. With the experience of '93 and the new faces of '94, the Expos should be formidable in a realigned East that will include the Atlanta Braves.

"I'm not thrilled about that, but we'll be highly competitive nevertheless," Duquette said.

PIRATES' MOVE

In changing their original stance and agreeing to move to the National League Central next year, leaving the Marlins in the East and the Braves to join the Marlins as natural rivals, the Pittsburgh Pirates considered that they will be grouped with Cincinnati and Houston, two of the same cities that the football Steelers have in their division.

"With the Steelers in the Central, our fans understand where we are geographically," Pirate General Manager Cam Bonifay said. "Also, the size of the markets of St. Louis, Houston and Cincinnati are compatible and in line with what we deal with on a daily and yearly basis."

OH, GEORGE

According to sources close to the eight-man committee charged with finding a revenue-sharing formula, George Steinbrenner remains a major impediment. The owner of the New York Yankees is reluctant to share even a dime, they say, and particularly with a club that doesn't seem to fit the small-market mold--the Angels, Steinbrenner keeps pointing out, being among them.

The owners' Player Relations Committee used several criteria in categorizing the clubs. One of the keys was stadium lease. The Angels' lease, according to the PRC, is one of baseball's three or four worst.

Anaheim and the Angels split parking profits 50-50. The Angels receive 60% of concession profits, with 30% going to the city and 10% to the concessionaire. For rent, the Angels pay 7 1/2% of their gate revenue for the first 2 million admissions, and 10% for the rest.

The Angels receive a small percentage of stadium signage and virtually nothing from the suites except that the Rams are obligated to buy a modest number of tickets.

The lease expires in 2001.

"The city knows we would be interested in renegotiating, but there's not much chance of it," an Angel executive said.

NAMES AND NUMBERS

* ABBOTT'S ACHE: Ripped by the Milwaukee Brewers in a 15-5 defeat Wednesday, Jim Abbott (10-12, 4.34 earned-run average) was also hammered by New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner. Steinbrenner told the Yankee press corps that management had miscalculated the strength of the team's pitching and, in particular, two pitchers--Abbott and Melido Perez--who had been in the top six in ERA last year.

Yankee starters, as of Friday, were 1-5 since Abbott's no-hitter on Sept. 4, and Abbott said he was disappointed in his performance and disappointed to be singled out by Steinbrenner. The former Angel also said one thing will be different next year. He won't live in Manhattan, where "every third person" seems to carry a tabloid and he can't avoid the negative headlines.

* BAD DEAL? The Chicago White Sox dealt pitching prospects Johnny Ruffin and Jeff Pierce to the Cincinnati Reds, thinking Tim Belcher's 16-7 record in September represented pennant insurance.

Belcher faces the Oakland A's today with an 0-3 record for the White Sox in September, a 3-5 record with a club-high 5.66 earned-run average since his acquisition and the likelihood he will not be one of the four starters Manager Gene Lamont plans to use in the playoffs, providing Chicago gets there.

* ADD WHITE SOX: Lamont held a different kind of team meeting before the team left Chicago on Thursday. Instead of advising his players to relax and ignore the pressure, he told them there was nothing wrong in admitting they are feeling it.

"Don't try to act like it doesn't bother you," Lamont said he told the team. " . . . It should bother you. If you're in a pennant race and don't feel it in your stomach, you're not normal. I mean, don't worry about giving the appearance that tough times bother you. Tough times should bother you."

* NO HUSTLE: The Kansas City Royals are close to signing Manager Hal McRae to a one-year extension, believing he has continued to grow in his second year at the helm and will prosper in the long run from his series of clubhouse explosions. Is he using an agent in his contract negotiations?

"For the amount of money I make, I don't need an agent and I don't need a calculator," McRae said.

* DON'T BLAME RIJO: The National League's Cy Young Award will probably go to to Tom Glavine or Greg Maddux. Jose Rijo can only bite his tongue. Rijo leads the league in strikeouts and ERA. He has given up only 13 earned runs in 13 starts since the All-Star break. Yet his record is only 13-7, primarily because the Cincinnati Reds have scored only six runs in his seven losses and the Reds' bullpen has blown four of his leads.

"I don't want to say anything because I love my teammates and I might say something that would hurt someone," Rijo said. "I know they're trying their best for me, but maybe they're trying too hard. All I can say is that with a little luck and some help, I'd be the No. 1 choice (for the Cy Young) by far, but I have to live in reality. I've been injury-free, and that's my main goal anyway."

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