Reggie Jackson is only one of 30 players who, if they remain unsigned, will be eligible for the unprecedented free-agent draft to be held the first week of November. In preparation, front-office men in both leagues are studying the technicalities of the new system, deploying scouts, shaking their piggy banks and debating whether the draft is the best hope for a failing franchise or a prime example of a system gone mad.
One thing everyone agrees on is that there will be plenty of talent to be had. The potential selectees (16 American Leaguers, 10 National Leaguers and four minor-leaguers) include some of the biggest names in baseball. Consider this dream lineup: 1B Dick Allen, 2B Bobby Grich (above), SS Bert Campaneris, 3B Sal Bando, LF Joe Rudi, CF Garry Maddox, RF Jackson, C Gene Tenace and P Wayne Garland—with Rollie Fingers working in relief.
For any team that can afford it, the addition of only one of these stars would improve its prospects for next season. "We'll go for broke," San Diego Owner Ray Kroc has promised Padre fans. Others are hoping their owners will do the same. "It's the only way to save this team," says Montreal Coach Ozzie Virgil. And San Francisco Infielder Chris Speier is urging Manager Bill Rigney to tell the Giants' front office to buy some badly needed power hitting. Obviously, Jackson would fit in nicely on the Giants—or on any other team. But some clubs may pass him up to concentrate on a special need. Boston, for example, wants a second baseman and reportedly is already eyeing Grich and Philadelphia's Dave Cash.
Less enthusiastic are teams with an abundance of talent or a shortage of money. Well-heeled Cincinnati is talking about plowing its greenbacks into its productive farm system. And Minnesota's tight-fisted Calvin Griffith says any owner who signs a free agent is "a stupid damn fool and scared of his own shadow." Maybe so, but Milwaukee's director of operations, Jim Baumer, argues, "You have to keep up with the other clubs." And Cub Owner Phil Wrigley, who refused to bid for Catfish Hunter and Andy Messersmith, is loosening his purse strings.
"A team which does not get involved can only hurt itself with its fans," says agent Jerry Kapstein, who represents half of the unsigned major-leaguers. "This can be the greatest gate hype in history."
As of now, the draft will work this way: alternating from league to league, teams will select in the inverse order of their 1976 winning percentages. Each franchise is limited to one pick per round. A player may not be chosen after his negotiating rights have been drafted by 12 teams. Following this will be an inflationary free-for-all as the drafting clubs and the player's current team barter for his services.
The number of players a franchise may sign depends on two factors. If there are at least 15 free agents in the initial pool, a team may sign two of them. Or it may sign as many players as it loses in the draft. That means Oakland will probably have the right to sign six and Baltimore as many as five. Further stipulations cover the unlikely chance that there will be undrafted or unsigned players.
Some free agents, like Starter Garland of Baltimore (15-3) and Reliever Bill Campbell of Minnesota (13-3 with 16 saves), could not have picked a better year to appear on the open market. But for others, the timing could not be worse. Pitcher Don Gullett's ailing shoulder, Richie Hebner's .229 average, Allen's temperament and Campaneris' age—34—will adversely affect their negotiating power. Some of them may end up making less as free agents than they would by signing with their current teams right now.
Jackson, Grich, Rudi and Fingers have none of these drawbacks and will probably get the largest contracts—between $200,000 and $300,000 a year. "I've been playing for Triple A money since I got here," Fingers says. "After this season, I won't have to play for peanuts."
Nor, for that matter, will very many other players.