Baseball's top free agents discover wild-spending era may be ending

Is fiscal sanity finally creeping back into baseball after a decade of free-agent splurging and wildly escalating salaries? If so, is this new trend strictly a result of market factors - or are the owners acting in collusion to hold down their cost of doing business?

These questions have been uppermost in the minds of baseball followers throughout the off-season. Now the answers should begin to emerge as Tim Raines, Lance Parrish, Rich Gedman, and similar big names offer their talents around to the highest bidders.

Who will try to sign these and other premium players like Andre Dawson, Bob Horner, and Ron Guidry? Will there, in fact, be any bidders at all? And even if there are, will any of the players involved wind up doing better than they could have with their old clubs - or even as well?

In the old days, of course, owners like George Steinbrenner, Ted Turner, or Gene Autry would have opened up the bank vaults to get players of this caliber. But things have been different lately.

Slugging outfielder Kirk Gibson, the only big-name free agent a year ago, wound up re-signing with the Tigers after failing to get a nibble when he shopped himself around. Then earlier this winter ace right-hander Jack Morris also agreed to stay in Detroit when he found no interest elsewhere despite being the winningest pitcher of the 1980s.

The players don't think any of this was coincidental. Last year they filed a grievance charging the owners with colluding to restrict free-agent movement and salaries. This case is still being heard by an arbitrator.

Meanwhile, a new season is on the horizon, a lot of outstanding players are out there looking for employers, and everyone is waiting to see what will happen.

These are new waters in the free-agent game. Under baseball's Basic Agreement, the deadline for players to sign with their current teams is Jan. 8, after which they cannot do so until May 1, almost a month into the season. Meanwhile, they can continue negotiating elsewhere.

In previous years, no free agents had ever gone past this deadline - all of them either joining new teams before then or agreeing to stay with their old ones. But now 10 players have opted to take this path of no immediate return - those named above plus Bob Boone, Doyle Alexander, Toby Harrah, and Gary Roenicke.

It is inconceivable, of course, that no other team would be interested in the services of any of these players. But will prospective new employers top the offers made by the players' old clubs? That is the $64,000 question - or in the terms of today's marketplace, the $1 million or even $2 million question.

If they don't, the players will step up their cry of collusion. But the owners will counter that despite their obvious talents, the players in question have just priced themselves out of the market by asking for more than they are worth. And indeed, when one looks at some of the numbers it is difficult to argue with that position.

Raines, for instance, made $1.5 million in Montreal last year and was offered a three-year contract at $1.6 million per season. Even for a speedster who hit .334 and stole 70 bases, it's hard to imagine paying any more than that.

Gedman is an All-Star catcher who hit .258, with 16 homers and 65 RBIs, and was a key man in Boston's drive to the American League pennant. Those are impressive figures, but not exactly in the superstar range, and hardly worth more than the three-year $2.65 million contract he turned down.

Much the same can be said in the other cases. Parrish, Detroit's hard-hitting All-Star receiver, rejected a two-year contract at $1.2 million per. Sluggers Dawson of Montreal and Horner of Atlanta spurned deals that would have given them $1 million or more a season. Guidry, the veteran New York Yankee left-hander who is coming off his worst season at age 36, walked away from nearly as much. And so on, to varying degrees, for Boone, the 39-year-old catcher of the California Angels; Alexander, the well-traveled right-hander who pitched last year for Atlanta; infielder Harrah of Texas; and outfielder Roenicke of the Yankees.

But if the owners now say the players are asking more than the traffic can bear, they have only themselves to blame for creating the climate in which such salaries don't seem out of line.

No reasonable person could think that Gedman, for example, is really worth more than he was offered - and ditto for Parrish. Deep down, they probably don't think so themselves. But extravagent owners in the past have given more than this to other star catchers, as witness Gary Carter's $1.8 millon-a-year contract with the New York Mets. So it is only human nature for Gedman and Parrish to say, in effect: ``If he's worth such-and-such, I can't be worth that much less.''

Similarly, how can big hitters like Dawson and Horner be satisfied with what look like good offers when they know that others with similar or only slightly better statistics - Mike Schmidt, Jim Rice, and Dave Winfield, to name three - all make significantly more?

The only solution anyone has ever come up with for that dilemma is to keep the old salary escalator moving higher and higher into the stratosphere. Now the owners may finally be trying to put on the brakes - either in concert, as the players allege, or individually, as a matter of plain economic good sense. Judging by their past performances, however, it's probably only a matter of time before one of them can't resist any longer, grabs his checkbook, and starts the spiral upward once again.

The 10 who went past the Jan. 8 deadline aren't the only free agents out there, for others had broken off negotiations with their teams earlier. World Series MVP Ray Knight is looking elsewhere after failing to come to terms with the Mets. And Reggie Jackson, let go after five years with the Angels, is returning to his original team, the Oakland Athletics (who were actually still in Kansas City when he first joined them in 1967).

Then there will be the usual uniform changes via trades - some already made and more undoubtedly to come. There've been no blockbuster deals yet this winter, but a couple already that could prove significant in the 1987 pennant races.

The Mets strengthened their already potent lineup with the acquisition of outfielder Kevin McReynolds (.288, 26 homers, 96 RBIs) from San Diego in a multi-player swap in which they gave up key reserve Kevin Mitchell plus top young outfield prospects Stanley Jefferson and 20-year-old Shawn Abner, the latter considered the key to the deal. The Yankees obtained Rick Rhoden from Pittsburgh and Charles Hudson from Philadelphia in a pair of moves aimed at improving their starting pitching. And Kansas City, trying to regain its 1985 World Series-winning form, added power by acquiring Danny Tartabull (25 homers, 96 RBIs) in a five-player trade with Seattle.

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