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Clubs tighten belts for start of season

by Tracy Ringolsby
May 3, 2004

DENVER--The impact of teams tightening up their budgets was apparent on Opening Day.

There were 66 non-roster players on active rosters, including a record-setting nine who made the Rockies Opening Day roster.

Non-roster players provide a way for clubs to create roster flexibility and also cut costs in an era in which management has come to grips with ways to slow the spiraling salaries.

The average Opening Day salary fell three percent, according to an Associated Press survey, only the third time since the advent of free agency in 1976 that the average salary has dropped. There also was a decline in 1987, after which owners were found guilty of collusion, and in 1995, which followed a seven and a half month players strike that forced cancellation of the World Series for the first time in 90 years in the fall of 1994.

Way To Save Money

"We are seeing more players non-tendered (when they are arbitration-eligible) and a regression in the free-agent market," said San Diego general manager Kevin Towers. "(Non-roster invites are) a way to get a free look at players. An example, in our situation, we tendered Kevin Walker and he had a salary of $450,000. We watched him all spring and were going to release him, but with injuries, San Francisco decided to put in a claim for him.

"If the Giants hadn't claimed him, he would have received that one-fourth (salary) termination pay that goes with a big league roster spot. If he had been a non-roster player there wouldn't have been termination pay."

There were only two teams that did not have at least one non-roster player make the Opening Day roster--the Devil Rays and the Athletics. And there were some significant players who went to camp on minor league contracts.

Colorado had three non-roster players in its Opening Day lineup--starting pitcher Shawn Estes, shortstop Royce Clayton and left fielder Kit Pellow--plus a second member of its rotation, Scott Elarton.

Jeff D'Amico (Indians), Donovan Osborne (Yankees), Dave Burba (Brewers), Scott Erickson (Mets) and Jose Lima (Dodgers) are big league veterans who parlayed invitations to spring training into spots in the season-opening rotations. Rick Helling was set to be in the Twins rotation, but a line drive broke his leg, forcing him on the disabled list.

Jose Mesa claimed the closer's job with the Pirates, and rookie Joe Mauer wound up Minnesota's Opening Day catcher, although Mauer, a prime prospect, injured his knee and will be out several weeks.

The Rockies went to spring training pretty well set on keeping at least seven non-roster players--Estes, Elarton, Clayton, Pellow, reliever Turk Wendell, infielder Denny Hocking and outfielder Mark Sweeney--and wound up being convinced they should keep relievers Vladimir Nunez and Jeff Fassero, too.

By waiting to put them on the big league roster, however, the Rockies had to risk only minimal losses of prospects, and were given the entire spring to re-evaluate what they had.

First, they had two openings on the 40-man roster, and added a third when they decided to return major league Rule 5 pick Matt White to Cleveland. Then they opened a spot by getting outfield prospect Cory Sullivan through waivers because he needed reconstructive elbow surgery. The Rockies found two more vacancies by placing Denny Neagle and Adam Bernero on the 60-day disabled list.

That left them having to dangle three prospects on waivers, and they lost only one of them--righthander Justin Huisman--in a trade.

ODDS AND ENDS

Twins catcher Joe Mauer was the youngest catcher to start on Opening Day since Pudge Rodriguez. Mauer turned 21 on April 19.

Eight players 40 years of age or older were on Opening Day rosters. Braves first baseman Julio Franco, 45, was the oldest player on an Opening Day roster. Mets reliever John Franco, 43, was the second-oldest, followed by 41-year-olds Roger Clemens, Jamie Moyer, Edgar Martinez, Jeff Fassero and 40-year-olds David Wells and Randy Johnson.

Righthander Jason Szuminski of the San Diego is the first active member of the armed forces to be on an opening day roster. The rookie is a first lieutenant in the Air Force.

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