Major-league players returned to work last week and began changing addresses. With the previous labor agreement back in effect and no new arrangement for revenue sharing in place, low-income teams wasted no time shedding big, burdensome salaries. Financial concerns have fueled fire-sale trades, igniting a bonfire that’s sending many clubs’ pennant hopes up in smoke.
The Montreal Expos, authors of the best record in baseball last season, unloaded their four best players rather than risk salary arbitration with them. Montreal sent center fielder Marquis Grissom to the Atlanta Braves, the team they battled for the National League East title last year. Starting pitcher Ken Hill, the NL leader in wins in 1994, was dealt to the St. Louis Cardinals. The Expos traded closer John Wetteland to the New York Yankees, the American League’s winningest team in 1994, and simply let right fielder Larry Walker stride away as a free agent. In return for these four all-stars, the Expos garnered one bona fide major-league regular (Roberto Kelly), a couple of can-miss prospects, and cash.
The Kansas City Royals unloaded AL Cy Young Award winner David Cone’s $5-million salary on the Toronto Blue Jays for a trio of minor-leaguers, and sent center fielder Brian McRae to the Chicago Cubs for a couple of minor-leaguers. In the McRae deal, the Royals apparently turned down two viable replacements, Glenallen Hill and Derrick May, who are established—and therefore arbitration-eligible—outfielders. Adding them to the roster would have run counter to the Royals’ cost-cutting program. Even the big-dollar teams have called out the bean counters; the Cubs released Hill and May two days after the McRae deal.
Economically motivated personnel decisions are fundamentally changing team identities. The Oakland Athletics wouldn’t go to arbitration with Bobby Witt, their projected opening-day starter. The St. Louis Cardinals weren’t even interested in re-signing last April’s No. 1 starter, Bob Tewksbury. Dodger-blue poster boy Orel Hershiser now wears Cleveland Indians crimson.
At the other end of the spectrum, the Florida Marlins may have spent themselves into contention by signing Witt, John Burkett (the NL’s top winner in 1993), and Terry Pendleton, who led the Atlanta Braves out of the second division. Ditto the Colorado Rockies, who landed Walker and starter Billy Swift.
During the first week back in the camps, no fewer than nine 1994 All-Stars switched teams—or found themselves in free agent limbo. The unemployed union loyalists who gathered at the union-sponsored free agent camp in Homestead, Fla., paid a heavy price for the strike. Chilly labor relations don’t help melt a free agent freeze, and players lucky enough to be signed had to settle for reduced, Fehr-market salaries.
When catcher Pat Borders (’94 salary: $2.5 million) signed with the Royals for $310,000, Homestead camper Lloyd McClendon complained to USA Today Baseball Weekly, “When he does that, it ruins things for a lot of guys here.” Fallen Oriole deity Mike Devereaux took a $2.58-million pay cut when he signed with the White Sox for $800,000. Left- hander Tom Browning, who won 20 games as a rookie, hurled a perfect game in 1988, and has a career win-loss record of 35 games over .500—despite having his last three seasons cut short by bizarre injuries—took one of the biggest outs, from $3.5 million with the Cincinnati Reds last year to $300,000 with the Royals.
In short, the strike-induced, prolonged period of team poor-mouthing has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In their quest to cut payrolls, teams now feel justified in blatantly compromising the quality of their product on the field.
If that shocks you, you haven’t been paying attention. The post-strike climate has accelerated what was already a growing trend of salary numbers becoming as important as any other statistics. That trend was apparent before the strike, as teams began to let veteran bench players go in favor of lower- priced rookies, shun their own free agents, and release arbi-tration winners as overpriced, or release arbitration-eligible players to avoid that salary-inflating process entirely. The art developed to the point of trading players in anticipation of off-season free agency, as in the Mets’ 1992 stretch drive deal that sent Cone to the Blue Jays for a fraction of his actual value.
The end of sportsman ownership and the ascendancy of front-office bean counters (with revenues and expenses exploding during the ’80s, somebody had to starting counting carefully) signals that the bottom line now matters most, not the wins column. This trend has roots that predate interleague trading, let alone free agency and arbitration.
After the 1914 World Series, which was the Philadelphia Athletics’ fourth fall classic in five years, owner Connie Mack broke up his $100,000 infield; the club promptly dove to last place in the name of cutting costs. Three days into the Roaring ’20s, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees for $125,000 and a $300,000 loan to finance his production of No, No, Nanette. Even though Ruth, previously one of the game’s premier left-handed pitchers, had set a new major-league home run record as a part-time outfielder while winning 13 games on the mound, Frazee told fans the Red Sox would be better off without the Bambino.
Few current owners or their front-office lackeys would make such an audacious assertion about their cost-cutting moves. There’s even talk of legitimizing a two-tier system, where “super league,” high-income teams would compete for the best talent, while low-income teams would limit their payrolls and take the leftovers. However, the past decade has also proved that cutting the payroll doesn’t mean a team can’t be exciting and competitive.
The 1988 Orioles, after their 0-21 start, dumped such high-priced talent as Eddie Murray, Mike Boddicker, and Fred Lynn. The 1989 Why Not? Orioles, filled with rookies and rejects, gave local fans their most compelling baseball summer since, coming within 19 innings of a pennant. The mid-’80s Pittsburgh Pirates cut their payroll through savvy trades, abstained from the free agent game and revitalized their farm system under general manager Syd Thrift (now the Orioles’ director of player development), and won three straight NL East titles. The Expos tore apart their high-priced team of the ’80s, jettisoning Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, and Tim Raines, to rebuild a contender that blossomed into last season’s unofficial championship team. And the Minnesota Twins, after building a World Series winner in 1987 through their farm system, shed nearly all of their millionaires, fell to last place in 1990, then came back to win the World Series again in 1991.
Spending money doesn’t guarantee a winner (though it does give a team a greater margin for error), and spending less money doesn’t doom a club to defeat. Once the games begin between the lines, a sharp eye for talent, the right chemistry, and good karma in one-run games matter more than the team payroll. And with opening day less than a week away, fans will be able to concentrate once again on the statistics that are still the game’s true bottom line.