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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN : There's a New Trend in Town for Teams Tendering Contracts

December 17, 1995|Ross Newhan

The holiday mail traditionally brings special greetings to major league baseball players.

Except for free agents and those players already signed for the next season, all contracts for that season must be postmarked by Dec. 20.

In recent years, however, the process of tendering contracts has not been that simple or automatic.

The 28 clubs have begun to turn a system they are trying to overhaul to their advantage.

An increasing number of veteran players--particularly those eligible for salary arbitration--have been forced into the free-agent pool when their clubs simply fail to offer a contract for the next season.

The non-tender does not necessarily sever a player's relationship with his former club.

A non-tendered player can still be re-signed by that club, but it is a way for the clubs to circumvent the 20% pay cut that is maximum in contracts tendered before Dec. 20. It's also a way for the clubs to avoid the uncertain and expensive process of arbitration.

"It's one of the few ways we have to control some costs and cuts," General Manager Lee Thomas of the Philadelphia Phillies said. "It's one way for us to use the system to our advantage."

Combined with an infusion of younger players and the willingness of clubs to part with their own free agents by not offering arbitration, the non-tender process has helped diminish the middle class, compounding what is now known as the "Hollywoodization" of baseball.

In other words: The marquee players are still receiving major salaries, but an increasing percentage of the supporting cast is playing for scale.

Last season, according to figures compiled by management's Player Relations Committee, the median salary dropped 39% to $275,000.

There were 238 players with less than one year of major league experience on Aug. 31 rosters, an increase of 100.

In 1991, only 17 players were not tendered contracts for the next season. That number jumped to 39 the next year, fell slightly to 35 in '93 and jumped again to a record 45 before the 1995 season.

Of those 45 players not tendered contracts, 39 were eligible for salary arbitration.

The arbitration process began in 1974. Only eight players, a record low, went to hearings last year and ultimately had their 1995 salary determined by an impartial arbitrator.

Said Angel General Manager Bill Bavasi: "It's taken a long time for the clubs to learn how to exist with arbitration."

Added Dodger Vice President Fred Claire: "Arbitration remains the unknown. We all have players we'd like to keep, but we're all reluctant to put their contracts in somebody else's hands."

The Dodgers, having signed free agent Tom Candiotti and arbitration-eligible Delino DeShields, Dave Hansen and Mark Guthrie in the last week, are left with five players eligible for arbitration: Mike Blowers, Jose Offerman, Carlos Hernandez, Kevin Tapani and Pedro Astacio.

It is likely only Blowers and Astacio will be tendered 1995 contracts, exposing the club to the possibility of arbitration. Tapani will not be offered a contract, Offerman is expected to be traded to Kansas City and Hernandez's situation remains unclear.

The Angels have four players eligible for arbitration--infielder Damion Easley and pitchers Shawn Boskie, Mike Harkey and Rich Monteleone--and are not expected to tender any of the four, providing agreements are not reached by Wednesday.

Management's course over the last few years has resulted in a larger free-agent pool, affecting supply and demand.

There will be bargains available to the patient shopper.

"It looks to me like the big boys are still going to get their money, but there are going to be a lot of other players who are not tendered," said Thomas, the Phillies' general manager.

"There's going to be some pretty good players drawing interest from a lot of clubs, but that doesn't mean those players won't eventually return to their old clubs."

Trades and signings could affect several scenarios before Wednesday, but among the familiar names who may not be tendered are Ben McDonald, Bret Barberie, Scott Erickson, Todd Zeile, Cal Eldred, Paul Sorrento, Juan Guzman, Kent Mercker, Darryl Kile, Mark Whiten, Curt Schilling, Jeff Kent, Rod Beck, Craig Grebeck, Scott Radinsky, Mike Stanton, Andujar Cedeno and Scott Cooper, all eligible for arbitration.

McDonald represents a good example of the non-tender process. The Baltimore Oriole pitcher won only three games last season while hampered because of shoulder problems and earning $4.5 million. The Orioles want to re-sign him, figuring he will bounce back, but they would be forced to offer him $3.6 million through a tender, limited to the 20% cut. By not tendering, they would hope to re-sign him at about $2 million, with incentives compensating McDonald for some of the substantial cut.

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