A comparatively attractive group of baseball free agents will be eligible soon to test a market that was closed almost all of last winter.
Will it be reopening now?
Will there be competitive bidding?
Or will the owners maintain their unprecedented solidarity of last winter, effectively destroying the concept of free agency through what the Major League Players Assn. calls conspiracy, collusion and a violation of the collective bargaining agreement?
It is too early for definitive answers, but it seems likely that:
--The owners' approach will not vary much from last winter, when only 5 of 62 free agents changed teams, almost a third were not signed at all and the union ultimately filed a grievance charging that the owners had conspired to restrict free-agent movement.
--The indiscriminate spending that drove the average major league salary from $51,107 in 1976, the first year of free agency, to $431,521 in 1986 will never be repeated--on a wide scale, at least.
Could there be isolated weakening in the owners' new resolve?
The class and depth of the 1986 eligibility list creates that possibility.
Montreal star Tim Raines and his outfield associate, Andre Dawson; Detroit pitcher Jack Morris and his catcher, Lance Parrish; Atlanta first baseman Bob Horner; Toronto pitcher Jim Clancy; Boston catcher Rich Gedman, pitcher Tom Seaver and outfielder Tony Armas; New York Yankees second baseman Willie Randolph and pitcher Ron Guidry; Texas outfielder Gary Ward; Oakland pitchers Moose Haas and Dave Stewart; Baltimore pitcher Mike Flanagan; Dodger pitcher Bob Welch, and a now familiar list of Angels, including outfielders Brian Downing and Reggie Jackson, third baseman Doug DeCinces and catcher Bob Boone.
Last year, by contrast, Angel relief pitcher Donnie Moore and Detroit outfielder Kirk Gibson represented the only real quality.
Neither received even one offer from another team before the Jan. 8 deadline for signing with their previous teams, which they did on the eve of the deadline, fearing the continued frigidity of the once open market. Moore got a three-year, $3-million contract from the Angels. Gibson got a three-year, $4-million contract from the Tigers.
"Name me any other market where a Kirk Gibson is worth $1.3 million a year to one team and zero to 25 others," Don Fehr, executive director of the players' association, said Thursday. "What happened last year wasn't by accident or coincidence. The owners acted in concert to change the rules. When a general manager says, 'I won't talk to a free agent until his own team is through talking with him,' he's making a decision based on the decision of another club.
"Now we're going to see whether the conspiracy continues."
Fehr was reached at a Los Angeles hotel, where he is attending an arbitration hearing on the union's conspiracy grievance.
"We've heard a lot of testimony (from owners and club officials) alleging that last year's free-agent crop wasn't a good one," he said. "No one can say that this year's crop, if that's the right word, isn't outstanding. It would be brazen for any club to say it couldn't use Tim Raines. And if the market returns to normal? The owners will have a tough time explaining last year."
Attorney Tom Reich, whose list of 90 clients includes Raines, Downing, Parrish and Ward, said the current off-season may be the most significant since free agency began. He said his early talks indicate that the clubs are again taking a conservative posture.
"But I don't see a freeze-out happening again, though that's not to say it won't be very difficult and even impossible again for fringe players. The 24-man rosters alone have dealt an excruciating blow to those players. My feeling is that the market will never be what it once was, but I do believe there will be some free-agent movement this winter, including that of some megastars."
Given the new austerity, however, the question is: Who will pay the price for Raines, already making $1.5 million a year; or Horner, making $1.8 million; or Dawson, making just over $1 million; or Morris, making $850,000?
The line heard from virtually every club last year was that it would not negotiate with a player still negotiating with his own team. The line has changed somewhat, but it still resembles an echo.
What you hear from the Yankees is what you hear from the Mets.
What you hear from the Angels is what you hear from the Dodgers.
Asked specifically about Raines, who would fit the Dodgers perfectly, Vice President Al Campanis said: "It's very, very doubtful we would go after any big-money guys, but we may sign somebody with value in the other (financial) direction."
There have been other indications that it will be a cold winter:
--The Atlanta Braves, rather than exercising an option on Ted Simmons and paying him $1 million next year, paid a $50,000 buyout fee and then re-signed him at a reported $400,000.