If baseball owners want to get back into the free agent business again, they couldn't pick a better time than this winter.
Dale Murphy, Jesse Barfield, Mike Schmidt, Paul Molitor, Jack Clark, Cal Ripken and pitchers Jack Morris and Dave Righetti are among 100 major league players eligible for free agency.
Another 21--including Tim Wallach, Hubie Brooks, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Jeff Reardon and Bob Ojeda--could become free if their clubs do not exercise their options for 1988.
Only two top players--Lance Parrish to Philadelphia and Andre Dawson to the Chicago Cubs--changed teams in the last two years following the rapid player movement of the early 1980s.
But players are waiting to see if opportunities will reopen as the result of an arbitrator's ruling last month that owners had conspired to limit free agency in 1985.
"I would hope very much that clubs do in fact re-enter the free agent market," players union head Donald Fehr said. "We will find out very soon when we see how clubs approach the negotiations to retain their own free agents."
Other free agents include Mike Witt and Greg Minton of the Angels, Brett Butler of the Cleveland Indians, Charlie Leibrandt of the Kansas City Royals, Gary Gaetti of the Minnesota Twins, Dave Smith of the Houston Astros and Chili Davis of the San Francisco Giants.
Many players say they haven't considered their course of action during the off-season because free agents have been ignored by other teams the last two winters.
"I'm not sure how much of a market there is out there anymore," said Murphy, who hit 44 homers this year. "Free agency is an option I've tried to leave open. I still feel we can work things out with the Braves."
"I haven't given it much thought," Ripken said. "I'll have to sit down and do that. I told my agent to do what you have to do."
"All I can do is wait," Butler said. "They have not offered me a contract, and that may be forcing me to go ahead with free agency. I've never talked about leaving Cleveland before. I've signed six one-year contracts in my career, and at one point a player looks for security. I would welcome that, if they can."
At least six clubs already have said that they are not interested in signing major free agents--Boston, Kansas City, Minnesota, the New York Mets, Pittsburgh and Texas.
George Steinbrenner of the Yankees and Ted Turner of the Braves, formerly big forces in the market, have remained silent on their intentions.
Former Commissioner Bowie Kuhn said last spring that he always had thought "when George Steinbrenner stopped, the rest of them would stop."
Between the end of the World Series and Jan. 8, the last day to re-sign with former clubs and not miss the first month of the season, the 1987 free agents will learn if their fate is any different from free agents in 1985 and 1986.
"I would hope that in future negotiations, players would not have to go through what I went through," said Dawson, who took a million-dollar pay cut when he left the Montreal Expos and moved to Chicago.
Commissioner Peter Ueberroth last week directed clubs to comply with arbitrator Thomas Roberts' collusion ruling, but he still urged fiscal responsibility.