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IS IT DAFT—OR DEFT—TO DRAFT?
Larry Keith
November 07, 1977
On the eve of the second free-agent draft, it's time to assess the performances of last year's selectees. Cleveland, for one, got mixed results
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November 07, 1977

Is It Daft—or Deft—to Draft?

On the eve of the second free-agent draft, it's time to assess the performances of last year's selectees. Cleveland, for one, got mixed results

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WHAT PRICE GLORY?
So you want to hire a free agent? Based on the records of the 1977 free agents, who are ranked here according to the per annum value of their contracts, this is what you may have to pay for each hit, win or save.

THE HITTERS

Ave.

HR

RBI

$ per hit

Jackson, Yankees

.286

32

110

3,867

Rudi, Cal.

.264

13

53

6,531

Matthews, Atl.

.283

17

64

2,389

Cash, Mont.

.289

0

43

1,660

Grich, Cal.

.243

7

23

7,045

Bando, Milw.

.250

17

82

1,939

Baylor, Cal.

.251

25

75

1,891

Tenace, S.D.

.233

15

61

2,598

Campaneris, Tex.

.254

5

46

1,443

Hebner, Phil.

.285

18

62

1,475

Fuentes, Det.

.309

5

51

474

McCovey, S.F.

.280

28

86

672

Allen, Oak.

.240

5

31

1,463

Soderholm, W. Sox

.280

25

67

465

Smith, Balt.

.215

5

29

633

Dade, Clev.

.291

3

45

347

Nordbrook, W. Sox- Toronto

.193

0

2

1,875

Stillman, W.Sox

.210

3

13

1,200

THE STARTERS

W

L

ERA

$ per win

Gullett, Yankees

14

4

3.58

22,619

Garland, Clev.

13

19

3.60

16,808

Alexander, Tex.

17

11

3.65

9,363

Stone, W. Sox

15

12

4.51

4,000

THE RELIEVERS

G

W

L

$ per save

Fingers, S.D.

78

8

9

9,486

Campbell, Bos.

69

13

9

6,774

All right, everyone, take your places. Baseball is holding its second reentry draft this week, and we want a graduation picture of the first class of free agents. Taller players, stand in the back; you shorter guys, stand in the front. No, Reggie, you can't stand on your wallet. Always causing trouble. Hey, somebody wheel Rudi and Grich into place. Poor guys. Tenace, you showed a lot of guts coming here after the season you had. We appreciate it. C'mon, Fuentes, take the hot dog out of your mouth. Incidentally, fellows, Dick Allen hasn't come out of the shower yet, so he won't be joining us. Look this way now, and everybody say, 'Greenbacks.' " Click.

And what a handsome photograph they would make, those 24 men who signed with 15 teams for $24.57 million in long-term contracts and bonuses. When representatives of the 26 major league clubs gather at the Plaza Hotel in New York on Friday, they will closely examine a mental picture of this group and consider well the lessons it represents. Only then will they venture into the reentry market again, where about 85 more free agents are anxiously waiting to be drafted, courted and signed.

If the owners chase after them with less enthusiasm than they showed last year, it will be understandable. While, as a group, the first free agents played quite well, most of them did not bring the instant success and box-office riches that some club executives naively expected. National League champion Los Angeles and American League West winner Kansas City did well without any free agents. NL East leader Philadelphia had a free agent in First Baseman Richie Hebner, but he was not essential to the club's success. On the other hand, the New York Yankees won the American League pennant and the World Series with major contributions from Reggie Jackson and Don Gullett. Among the free agents, Jackson was the most obstreperous personality and the most productive hitter (.286, 32 home runs, 110 RBIs), and Gullett was the most successful pitcher (14-4).

There were some other fine performers. The Fireman of the Year in both of the leagues—Bill Campbell of Boston and Rollie Fingers of San Diego—came out of the reentry draft. So did the two Comeback Players of the Year, Chicago's Eric Soderholm, who did not play at all in 1976, and San Francisco's Willie McCovey, who did not play at all well. Meanwhile, hot-dogger Tito Fuentes batted .309 for Detroit, newcomer Paul Dade hit .291 for Cleveland, and Doyle Alexander was 17-11 for Texas. Others, like Montreal's Dave Cash, Milwaukee's Sal Bando, Texas' Campy Campaneris and Atlanta's Gary Matthews, played pretty much to form. In fact, only a few of the free agents fell far short of expectations, notably Gene Tenace of San Diego, who had a .233 batting average and was a disappointment behind the plate; Pitcher Wayne Garland of Cleveland, who was 13-19; and Designated Hitter Don Baylor of California, who did not start to produce until the Angels were so far out of the race that it didn't matter anymore. California also lost Joe Rudi and Bobby Grich in June to season-ending injuries. Oakland's Dick Allen departed in June, too. He was permanently suspended by owner Charlie Finley after Finley discovered Allen taking a mid-game shower.

Critics of the reentry draft invariably cite fifth-place California as proof that the system does not work. "The draft is not the answer," says Minnesota owner Calvin Griffith, whose team mounted a serious challenge without making use of it. "Look at [Angel owner] Gene Autry. He got taken." Baltimore General Manager Hank Peters says, "I don't like to name clubs, but California signed good players it didn't particularly need." Angel GM Harry Dalton counters, "If you exercise good judgment, the draft can help, and I think we exercised good judgment. Before they got hurt, Grich and Rudi were doing a fine job, and Baylor finished close to his best performance in several categories."

Still, despite the success of New York and the improvement of Boston and Texas, which finished second in the two American League divisions, the free agents did not provide the overall competitive lift that teams were seeking. Clubs like the White Sox and the Orioles made unexpected pennant bids with economy-model free agents whom nobody else particularly wanted. And free-agent-laden teams like Cleveland, Texas, California and San Diego got off to such bad starts that their managers were fired. According to Milwaukee President Bud Selig, "It is clear that you can't build a team through the free-agent draft. You can add to a team, you can fill in, but if your club is lousy to begin with, it's not going to make it great."

No team understands the lessons of the system better than Cleveland, whose experiences with Garland and Dade provide the year's most interesting case study. Last fall, following their first winning season in eight years, the Indians decided they were only a player or two away from being a contender in the Eastern Division of the American League. Even though Cleveland had not won the pennant since 1954 and was saddled with a $5.5 million debt, President Ted Bonda jumped into the free-agent pool. The Indians signed Garland, a 27-year-old righthander who had just won 20 games for Baltimore, and then added Dade, a 25-year-old infielder-outfielder who had been the Pacific Coast League's batting champion with a .363 average. Cleveland gave Garland an unprecedented (some said foolish) 10-year, $2.3 million contract and Dade a two-year deal for $93,000. Early in the '76 season the Orioles had rebuffed Garland's request for a $30,000 salary—he was then making $23,000—while all Dade had wanted from the California organization was the $19,000 big league minimum. They held out, and it paid off.

Bonda admits that Cleveland was "shooting craps," but he insists, "We had to make it this year to be economically viable. The fans were getting disgruntled and discouraged, and we wanted to tell them we were doing everything we possibly could to make us a winner. So we had to make a business judgment aimed at a short-term gain. I thought we already had the nucleus of a good team and that Garland and Dade would be the frosting we needed. We figured that if we stayed in the race we would draw 1.4 to 1.5 million spectators, and we would make money."

It did not work out that way. The Indians got off to a slow start, fired Manager Frank Robinson and did not improve under his replacement, Jeff Torborg. They finished fifth, 28� games behind the Yankees, and their attendance fell from 948,776 to 900,365, the lowest in Cleveland since 1973 and among the worst in baseball. The dice had come up snake eyes.

Much of the blame for the team's failure has been directed at Garland. He had been the Indians' first selection in the reentry draft, and the contract they gave him was second in total value only to the $2.9 million for which George Steinbrenner signed Jackson. Cleveland General Manager Phil Seghi considered Garland a "career pitcher" who, with Dennis Eckersley, would give the Indians the nucleus of a strong staff for perhaps a decade to come.

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