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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : Is He Free or Not? Bagwell Doesn't Know

November 02, 1994|ROSS NEWHAN

As the National League's most valuable player, Jeff Bagwell symbolizes the contract uncertainty confronting players, agents and general managers at a time when no one is sure what rules will apply and most clubs have yet to set budget parameters because of it.

Bagwell, the Houston Astros' first baseman, might be eligible for salary arbitration or he might not.

He might be eligible for free agency or he might not.

He might have a lot of leverage or he might have none.

"How do I approach Jeff's situation? That's a $64-billion question," his attorney, Barry Axelrod, said. "What I'm seeing and reading is that the general managers don't know what to do. They don't know if they're constrained by a $12-million budget or may have twice that.

"In the absence of any rules, I'm trying to proceed as if it's business as usual with my players, but we're all pretty much dead in the water, paralyzed so to speak."

Bagwell ended the 1993 season with three years of major league service, qualifying for arbitration. He filed for that process, then negotiated a one-year, $2.4-million contract with the Astros.

Now, because of the strike that began Aug. 12, Bagwell is without the service time that would give him a fourth full year and make him eligible for restricted free agency--the Astros would have right of first refusal--under the new compensation system proposed by the owners.

Will he get that service time back when an agreement is finally reached? Will a new free agency system be part of it, starting with fourth-year players rather than the current sixth-year men? Will salary arbitration still be an option or will it be eliminated, as the owners have proposed?

No one seems to have the answers, which suggests the owners weren't looking ahead when they began this fight.

Axelrod, of course, wants to see his client prosper and knows the teams have taken a financial beating and have no money coming in from the paralyzed sale of tickets for a season that might not be played.

"I keep hearing that the premier players won't be hurt, that the money will still be there," he said. "We'll see."

*

More than 200 free agents were eligible to begin signing with any team on Monday, but it is difficult to predict what will evolve. No team seems to be caught in more of a quandary than the Angels, who would like to reduce their $23-million payroll of last year--including $3 million to Gary Gaetti--but may actually have to raise it to reach the floor of the owners' proposed salary cap.

Even so, General Manager Bill Bavasi insists he won't wait, that he hopes to be active right away.

"I have to assume that no matter what plan is in effect, free agency will be part of it," he said. "I expect free agents to be signed and that the top players will receive the same money they always have.

"We're going after people. We may not have the money to compete with the big boys, but we're going to make an effort."

The Angels' priorities are a right-handed starting pitcher, a closer and one more power hitter. Among their interests: former Dodger right-hander Kevin Gross, who became a repeat free agent when he was not offered arbitration by the Dodgers, meaning any club that signs him does not owe the Dodgers a draft choice as compensation. That enhances the appeal of a 33-year-old veteran who was 9-7 with a $2.7-million salary last year.

The Angels are free of the Gaetti obligation but have already guaranteed about $16 million to eight players for 1995, and Chili Davis will raise that to more than $20 million for nine.

"We're not going to be able to do it all," Bavasi said of his priorities. "We'll just have to take it a player at a time."

*

A proposal by free-agent third baseman Tim Wallach that he return to the Dodgers with either a two-year contract or one for a year with an option, at $800,000 a year less than his $3.3 million salary of 1994, has been rejected by Vice President Fred Claire.

"Tim recognizes that the Dodgers have suffered significant losses (because of the players' strike) and is willing to absorb some of it to stay with the team, but he also has to keep his options open and investigate the interest of other teams," agent Alan Meersand said.

"Fred's position is that the Dodgers are still interested in Tim but are still evaluating (third base prospect) Ron Coomer. We have to hope they're not stringing Tim along."

*

Angel President Richard Brown said Anaheim is expected to deliver an answer by Dec. 1 regarding a new baseball stadium that would open in 1998.

Brown said he is encouraged by the city's enthusiasm and commitment and expects it to become a reality, regardless of what the Rams do. He also said the Angels are prepared to move--to another prime location in Orange County--if they aren't satisfied with progress of negotiations regarding inequities in the Anaheim Stadium lease and other problems with a facility that no longer fits the requirements of either baseball or football.

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