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SPORTS EXTRA / BASEBALL '99

Risky Business

Spending Big Bucks for a Big-Name Free Agent Is a Necessary Evil, but Lamentably for Teams Like Dodgers and Angels the Payoff Hasn't Always Been Good

April 04, 1999|ROSS NEWHAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the 1999 season opening tonight, owner Jerry McMorris of the Colorado Rockies looked back on another wild winter of free-agent signings and concluded that a new category had been created.

"It's not just the haves and have-nots anymore," he said. "Now it's the haves, the have-nots and the super media teams in places like New York and the Los Angeles area."

Major league teams spent almost $1.1 billion on free agents during the off-season, with the Angels and Dodgers among seven teams-- Arizona, Baltimore, Texas and the New York Yankees and Mets the others--accounting for more than $800 million of that.

Fox's Dodgers set an industry record with the seven-year, $105-million signing of pitcher Kevin Brown, and Disney's Angels set a club record with the six-year, $80-million signing of first baseman Mo Vaughn.

The Dodgers also signed free agents Alan Mills, $6.5 million for three years, and Devon White, $12.4 million for three years. The Angels also signed Tim Belcher, $10.2 million for two years.

All of those contracts include perks--whether award, performance or appearance bonuses, or Brown's package, which includes award bonuses, 12 cross-country flights on a private jet for his family, and eight premium tickets for Dodger home games.

"I never thought I'd see the day when players would be receiving hotel suites on the road and the use of a plane," said Buzzie Bavasi, the former general manager of the Dodgers and Angels.

"Where does it go from here? Two-bedroom suites and the use of a limo to and from the park? It's really kind of amazing."

Among baseball's top 10 salaries, based on average annual value, the top six were all signed last winter, with Brown No. 1 at $15 million a year and Vaughn No. 2 at $13.3 million.

"I don't know where it ends, but it's certainly not something that's going to go down," former Dodger general manager Fred Claire said of the escalation. "Every contract becomes a benchmark for the next contract, and there's never been a time when the value of a contract was so close to the overall value of a franchise, with both established by market standards."

He referred to Brown's $105-million contract being more than one-third of the $311 million Fox paid Peter O'Malley for the team.

It is a treacherous proposition, of course, but in an era of expansion- diluted talent, "You can't win without signing a free agent or two," Claire said.

"I mean, it's nearly impossible to build a contender without filling a void that the farm system can't fill.

"If you say that payroll doesn't matter, that you can still win simply through good scouting, development and trades . . . well, give me an example."

It is a familiar theme now. Of the teams with the 15 lowest payrolls in 1998, only the Toronto Blue Jays had better than a .500 record. The eight that qualified for the playoffs all ranked among the top 12 in payroll.

Claire's Dodgers failed to win with a 1998 payroll of $48 million.

Now Kevin Malone's Dodgers will try with a payroll of more than $80 million.

Behind Mark McGwire's 70 home runs and the New York Yankees' 125 wins and the spectacular performances of 1998, the widening disparity in payroll, revenue and competitive balance led to Commissioner Bud Selig's appointment of a blue-ribbon committee to study baseball's economics. There is a mounting fear that management's renewed demand for salary restraint will produce another work stoppage when the bargaining agreement expires after the 2001 season.

The Dodgers and Angels, in the meantime, have put their hopes and checkbooks on the line. How to measure the payback on contracts of the Brown and Vaughn magnitude?

"The only way is if a player fulfills the terms of the contract and also gets his team to the postseason," Claire said. "If all that falls into place, you can say it was a worthwhile contract."

There are also the ancillary rewards.

Besides a national spotlight and the impact their credibility and tenacity will have on teammates, Brown and Vaughn are expected to significantly boost attendance and broadcasting revenue, as Darryl Strawberry did with the Dodgers and Reggie Jackson with the Angels.

Neither club has ever plunged this deep, but both have experienced the risks and rewards of free agency.

How to rank those previous signings? A difficult proposition.

Many seemed to make sense at the time but simply didn't pan out because of injury or performance.

A few stand out--both good and bad.

For the Dodgers, certainly, their return to the market took an act of courage, given the results of their first foray.

In the winter of 1979, then- general manager Al Campanis, responding to O'Malley's urging, signed Minnesota Twin starting pitcher Dave Goltz to a six-year, $3-million contract and Baltimore Oriole relief ace Don Stanhouse to a five-year, $5.1-million contract.

Measured against Brown's

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