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Through last weekend, the 76 baseball players who would be free agents had been open to offers for nearly a month, and Joaquin Andujar had received infinitely more inquiries—two, from Philadelphia and Houston—than Dave Smith and Jack Morris. That's all you really need to know about this winter's free-agent market. Oakland's Andujar hasn't pitched at the same level as he did before he lost control of his behavior in 1985; Smith of Houston and Morris of Detroit are arguably the best reliever and starter in baseball, respectively.
Since early November, Dave Righetti's agent, Bill Goodstein, has been planting newspaper stories about teams other than the Yankees—for whom Righetti has pitched the last eight years—making big offers for the left-handed reliever. But the odds of even San Francisco, which has expressed the most interest in Righetti, outbidding the Yankees for him are slim. Righetti could take less money to go to the Giants, but most likely next week he will accede to salary arbitration—and, perforce, stay with New York. A club has until Dec. 7 to offer salary arbitration to a free agent or else it loses the right to sign him until May 1; a player has until Dec. 18 to decide whether to accept or reject arbitration. Players who reject it must sign with their old clubs by Jan. 8 or not until May 1.
Morris is the winningest pitcher of the 1980s, but last week he was well into his second consecutive off-season without so much as a nibble from a club other than his present one, Detroit. He was so frustrated that he said, "If there's a girls' softball team interested in a coach, I'll listen." Only if Donald Trump buys a women's softball team can Morris expect an alternative to the Tigers' offer of $3.9 million for two years.
Yes, arbitrator Tom Roberts decided in September that the owners were guilty of collusion in 1985 free-agent cases, and though the result of the testimony on the '86 cases—involving such stars as Morris, Tim Raines, Rich Gedman and Lance Parrish—has yet to be decided, there's little doubt that the owners will be found guilty again. They may soon be directed to pay at least $25 million in reparations to settle two years of grievances. But there's not about to be a return to the old days of free agency.
When outfielder Brett Butler, late of Cleveland, signed with San Francisco and outfielder Chili Davis, a free agent formerly with the Giants, joined the Angels last week, headlines suggested the market was about to burst open. Sorry, but not so. The Giants did pursue Butler, but more important, he had let his former team know that he would sooner not play at all than stay in Cleveland. The $1.8 million he'll get from San Francisco is no more than he had been offered by the Indians. As for Davis, the Giants had long ago declared that all parties would be better off if Chili played elsewhere in '88. Meanwhile, Smith and Morris sat unwanted—except by their current clubs, of course. Even as reliable a pitcher as the Yankees' Bill Gullickson had gotten no offers as of last weekend, and while California ace Mike Witt had talked to a few teams—Oakland most substantively—there were doubts that anyone would get into a bidding war with Angels owner Gene Autry.
That the players probably have won substantial damages from collusive owners is testament to two things: 1) the superior legal and debating skills of the Players Association leaders and 2) the owners' attempts to accomplish too much too soon. It was dumb of San Diego not to sign Raines last year and of Oakland not to sign Gedman. Each would have accepted less money than the Expos ( Raines) and Red Sox ( Gedman) offered. It was also dumb that Philadelphia owner Bill Giles took heat from his fellow owners for signing Parrish at a discounted price. The owners could have pursued a course of financial restraint without scheming, browbeating, or clear-cut collusion. Example: When Gedman's agent, Jack Sands, offered Oakland a blank contract and invited the A's to fill in the numbers, he was told there would still be no offer.
But all that is missing the most important point. An owner doesn't have to be colluding to see that none of the last three world champions has ever signed a major free agent. Or that three of the nine highest-paid teams played less than .500 ball in 1987 (one finished last), while the only division winners from the top third of the payroll rankings were the Tigers (fourth) and Twins (eighth). Or that the drop in average salary last year, from $424,000 to $412,000, came mainly because of management's victory in the 1985 collective bargaining agreement, which increased the service requirement from two to three years before a player can qualify for arbitration.
Owners will still take good care of their own—for the short term. Atlanta gave Dale Murphy $6 million for three years. Philadelphia gave Mike Schmidt $2.5 million for one year. Baltimore gave Cal Ripken $1.75 million for a year, and the Yankees, Boston and Milwaukee will each soon sign a top player—Don Mattingly, Dwight Evans and Paul Molitor, respectively—to lucrative deals.
If you were running the Red Sox, who already have five players who will make more than $1 million in 1988, would you risk payroll turmoil and give Smith or Righetti more than $1 million a year? Before you answer, consider Atlanta's sad experience with the chronically injured Bruce Sutter (the Braves have paid him $4.125 million over the last three years and have gotten nine wins and 26 saves from him). Now think of other things you could do with the club's money. "In the late '70s, teams like Texas, Atlanta and San Diego took money out of scouting and development and put it into free agents, and those teams are still paying the price," says Rangers general manager Tom Grieve. Baltimore owner Edward Bennett Williams reorganized the Orioles' front office because, he says, "Its failure to develop young talent forced me to spend millions in the free-agent market." Now Atlanta keeps adding farm clubs, and Montreal is pouring millions into a total renovation of its scouting department and farm system.
Take a look at the free-agent crops of 1982, '83 and '84. In retrospect, Steve Garvey, Don Baylor, Darrell Evans, Rich Gossage and Dave Parker were worth their signing prices. Kemp, Sutter, Floyd Bannister, Bob Shirley, Ed Whitson, Cliff Johnson, Lee Lacy, Don Aase and Fred Lynn were bad buys. One of the reasons Dallas Green was dumped as the Cubs' general manager after last season was that he re-signed free agents Rick Sutcliffe, Steve Trout and Dennis Eckersley for what amounted to $2.7 million a year.