A thaw? A trend?
It is too early, and there are too many factors to be sure, but one thing seems certain:
A number of the 26 major league baseball teams are apparently prepared to take a more realistic approach to free agency--at least when the free agent is one of their own and obviously still productive.
The quick and painless re-signings of potential free agents Dale Murphy and Jesse Barfield by the Atlanta Braves and the Toronto Blue Jays provided one barometer.
Another: Early negotiations indicate that it will be no surprise if many of the leading free agents re-sign with their current teams.
Among those considered likely to do that are Jack Morris of the Detroit Tigers, Cal Ripken Jr. of the Baltimore Orioles, Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies, Jack Clark of the St. Louis Cardinals, Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers and Mike Witt of the Angels.
Here's how it has changed:
Morris made a futile attempt to sell his services as a free agent last winter in response to low offers and delayed negotiations with the Tigers. He was ultimately forced back to Detroit through salary arbitration.
Now, according to reports, the Tigers have already made an initial two-year offer of $3.7 million, representing the same $1.85 million he received in arbitration. Morris is believed to be seeking $4.1 million for the two years, which would again enable him to match Fernando Valenzuela as baseball's highest-paid pitcher. Valenzuela's contract with the Dodgers called for $1.85 million in 1987 and $2.05 million in 1988.
In other words, Morris and the Tigers are already closer than at any point last winter and are scheduled to resume negotiations next week, with Morris having said he doesn't want to leave.
The signings of Murphy and Barfield may be similarly representative of a return to reasonableness on management's part.
Murphy will get $2 million for each of the next three years. Of the $2 million annually, $500,000 is to be deferred for 25 years at 10% interest. He can also receive another $400,000 a year through attendance and performance bonuses.
Barfield actually agreed to a two-year extension during the season. He will receive a $300,000 signing bonus, $1.1 million in salary and $200,000 in deferments for 1988, then $1.2 million in 1989. He can make another $250,000 annually in performance bonuses.
There was also a demonstration of generosity in the Houston Astros' recent re-signing of second baseman Billy Doran, who could contractually demand a trade but was not eligible for free agency.
Doran received three years at $833,000 a year and an estimated signing bonus of $300,000. The Astros also renewed the option of Nolan Ryan, who is guaranteed another $1 million in 1988 and a shot at $200,000 in bonuses.
Are the clubs cognizant of a need to head off major penalties in the collusion hearings by reviving a free market? Is this the first step in that direction?
Donald Fehr, executive director of the Major League Players Assn., said it is too early to draw conclusions, that for every positive indication, such as the Doran signing, there has been a negative, such as the Montreal Expos' refusal to pick up the 1988 option on Vance Law.
"They want to re-sign him, but they want to do it at a lesser salary," Fehr said, adding that the true test will be given Tuesday, when teams are eligible to make offers to free agents other than their own.
"The clubs realize they are under the gun (because of potential penalties), but I haven't heard any of them indicate they are going to pursue or are interested in this free agent or that one," Fehr said. "I mean, it would have been hard for the Atlanta Braves to defend a hard-line position with Dale Murphy. I'm anxious to see what happens after Tuesday.
"As of yet, there haven't been a sufficient number of signs pointing to the return of a free market.
"I mean, has anyone heard the Dodgers say they're going to fill one of their holes by attempting to sign a free agent?"
The Dodgers have said publicly that they're not going to sign a free agent, that they're going to remain with their previous policy.
Privately, however, they may be considering a change. Doesn't the availability of Brett Butler dictate that?
Butler is the Cleveland Indians center fielder whom the Dodgers attempted to trade for all of last winter and spring before finally sending Tom Niedenfuer to Baltimore for John Shelby. Butler went on to have another solid season for the Indians. He batted .295, scored 91 runs and stole 33 bases.
Now he is a free agent, and the Dodgers can have him without having to trade a player. Attorney Dick Moss, Butler's agent, said he pointed that out to Vice President Fred Claire the other day and came away with the suspicion that the Dodgers will take a run at Butler.