PHOENIX — The Oakland Athletics, hoping to rebound from the injury-racked termination of their three-year pennant streak, would seem to have 12 of their players right where they want them.
In the last year of their contracts and eligible for free agency after the 1992 season.
The nature of baseball in the era of free agency suggests that players perform best when confronted with insecurity and uncertain employment, the make-or-break shot at another multiyear contract.
"That's the conventional wisdom," A's General Manager Sandy Alderson said. "On the other hand, some players seem to go the other way when they don't have the security in place.
"We're prepared to find out."
The 12 are Dave Stewart, Dennis Eckersley, Mark McGwire, Harold Baines, Terry Steinbach, Carney Lansford, Ron Darling, Rick Honeycutt, Gene Nelson, Willie Wilson, Randy Ready and Jamie Quirk.
Alderson said he would not extend or renegotiate contracts--at least not during the spring or early season. "It would be stupid to negotiate new multiyear contracts when there is the possibility of a reopening (during the collective bargaining talks) at the end of the year," he said.
This indicates what Alderson thought of the Chicago Cubs' decision to meet Ryne Sandberg's meaningless deadline with a four-year extension at $7.1 million a year.
Said A's Manager Tony La Russa: "I think we have a lot of people interested in having good years. The attitude I've tried to cultivate is that the more games the team wins, the better your own numbers look."
And if selfishness prevails? "I still have the power of the (lineup) card, and that's a big edge," La Russa said.
In the aftermath of their fourth-place finish in the American League West last season, it has become difficult to measure the ability and attitude of the once-dominant A's.
This spring alone:
--The normally peaceable Stewart has complained about the A's refusal to address his contract by saying: "Maybe I ought to do what Jose (Canseco) did. Call the organization racist."
--Lansford, the blue-collar third baseman, ripped Rickey Henderson, sauntering through his second spring of feeling underpaid at $3 million a year, as a potential "cancer on the team," a comment La Russa labeled as irresponsible.
--Eric Show was cut from the roster when he arrived with cuts on his hands and refused to provide an explanation, prompting Alderson to say he would gladly trade Show for Joaquin Andujar, another pitcher who was never considered a portrait of stability.
--Canseco and Henderson, asked to report early, showed up at the last possible minute. Henderson is not speaking to the media. Canseco is, but he would prefer to be driving his new red Lamborghini.
"What distractions?" asked a straight-faced La Russa, as he watched batting practice the other day. "I'm pleased with the way everybody is going about it. Contrary to what seems to make sense, this is a good team to be around. There's a lot of talent and a lot of guys who like to play."
In their futile pursuit of a fourth consecutive American League pennant, the A's had to use 46 players, including a club-record 23 pitchers, nine of them rookies.
The instability of the pitching staff is reflected in the following statistics: The A's gave up 206 more runs last season than in 1990, and 19 pitchers won games. In the three previous seasons combined, only 18 A's pitchers won games.
There are questions that go beyond issues of morale:
--Can Lansford, 35, rebound from a season during which he played only five games after suffering a knee injury in a winter snowmobile accident?
--Can the A's find a reliable second base replacement for departed free agent Mike Gallego?
--Can Stewart, 11-11 last season, and Bob Welch, 12-13, regain their form as the bellwethers of the rotation? Stewart is coming off knee surgery. Welch, in favoring a tender knee, has developed bursitis in his shoulder.
"We didn't pitch well or play well last year, but I don't put much emphasis on the injuries (as the reason)," La Russa said. "I mean, we coped pretty well. We were still in contention late--only three games behind the Minnesota Twins in early August--but just couldn't finish it off. I didn't like our focus or concentration."
Appearing vulnerable again and with most of the American League West attention on the Twins, the Chicago White Sox and the Texas Rangers, La Russa said of the A's:
"We're not a first-division club and we're not a second-division club. It's all out in front of us. If we can keep our lineup intact, I'll put it out there with anybody's."
Buc Fever: The unrest among the A's is modest compared to the turmoil in the camp of the Pittsburgh Pirates, where the salary dumping is so flagrant that Commissioner Fay Vincent should invoke his "best interest of baseball" authority, rather than simply moan about the need for change in the economic system.