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Baseball Widens Gap on Salary Structure : Money: Average declined 5% in 1995, as teams filled out rosters with younger, less-expensive players.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While major league baseball owners continue to push for a new labor contract that would curtail salary growth through a payroll cap or tax, there is some evidence that they have found ways of coping with the system as it is.

According to figures compiled by the Major League Players Assn. and released to its executive board during annual meetings in Aventura, Fla., on Tuesday, the average salary declined 5% in 1995 and the median salary--the point at which half the players make more and half make less--dropped 39%--from $450,000 to $275,000.

That decline, in particular, seems reflective of a pattern in which the clubs have begun to replace high-salaried fringe players with younger players from their systems.

Based on Aug. 31 rosters, the date of the accounting, there were 238 players with less than a year of major league service, an increase of 100 players.

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Said Dodger Vice President Fred Claire, “I wouldn’t say the clubs have learned to live with the system, but the widespread use of younger players is an acknowledgment of what’s going on in the market.

“I mean, you have to ask yourself, ‘Are you going to pay $300,000 for a backup infielder or do you feel a young player out of your system can do as well?’ The marquee players will still get major salaries, but how do you pay the rest of your players and stay within a budget?

“The likelihood is that you’ll see even fewer players in the $400,000-$900,000 range.”

In conjunction with the use of younger players in the aftermath of a strike that was said to have cost management more than $600 million, fewer clubs tried to retain their free agents by offering arbitration and many of those mid-level veterans were simply not offered contracts, affecting supply and demand by swelling the free-agent pool.

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The average salary, according to the union’s computations, dropped from $1,168,263 to $1,110,766.

Although that’s the first substantial decline in 30 years, the figures are somewhat misleading. The clubs actually spent more money on players in 1995--an increase of about $15 million to about $924 million--but the average went down because there were far more players on the Aug. 31 rosters--824 compared to 762 in 1994--because more players were on the disabled list.

In addition, the New York Yankees became the first team with an average of more than $2 million per player--$2,000,271--and the World Series champion Atlanta Braves almost reached that level--$1,917,599.

The eight teams that advanced to the playoffs all had average salaries among the top 13. However, the Dodgers won the National League West title with an average of $1,223,168, compared to almost $1.4 million in 1994. The Angels had a big increase--from $784,801 to $1,164,610.

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Agent Barry Axelrod, who represents Craig Biggio and Mark Grace, two of the most coveted free agents among the more than 135 in the current pool, said the premier players will do well again but that a glut of released or non-tendered veterans will be scuffling for jobs after the Dec. 20 tender deadline--a bonanza for clubs seeking bargains. He referred to the median of $275,000 and said:

“If that’s accurate, I find it astounding. The gulf is widening. You have 20% of the work force making 80% of the money. Someone referred to it a few years ago as the Hollywoodization of baseball, with the leading actors getting the premier salaries and the rest working for scale.

“In a baseball clubhouse, you may now have four or five players making $4 million each and the rest at minimum. I don’t know how great that is for the game or team chemistry, and I don’t know how one union represents both ends of the spectrum.”


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