In moves that may signal the rebirth of free agency in major league baseball, two significant players switched teams yesterday.
Center fielder Brett Butler moved from the Cleveland Indians to the San Francisco Giants and center fielder Chili Davis went from the Giants to the California Angels.
The signings mean there already has been more movement of free agents in this offseason than there was in the previous two offseasons combined. They also mark the first time in almost three years there has been competitive bidding for a free-agent player. It was this lack of movement by free agents that led the Major League Baseball Players Association to file two grievances charging the owners with conspiring to destroy free agency.
The players won the first of those two grievances, the one based on events during the 1985-86 offseason, and will have damages set by an arbitrator early next year. The second, filed on the basis of events during 1986-87, has not been decided.
Before yesterday, every free agent who changed teams either took a drastic salary cut or essentially had been released by his previous team.
"I just don't know," said Alan Hendricks, a Houston-based agent, whose firm represents about 60 major league players. "I'd like to think this means there's a return to a free market, and that if management can do deals on its own terms, they'll do them."
However, a prominent agent who asked that his name not be published remained skeptical.
"I just had a general manager tell me he was still under orders not to sign free agents," the agent said. "It doesn't matter the cost or the player."
But if some were wondering if competitive bidding had returned, the Cleveland Indians weren't. Butler, 30, was their leadoff hitter and starting center fielder last season. He batted .295, had a .399 on-base average and scored 91 runs for the last-place Indians.
The Giants had wanted to keep Davis (.250, 24 home runs, 76 runs batted in), but had said publicly for weeks he'd probably leave. He was thought willing to take less money to leave Candlestick Park.
Davis, 27, signed for only 1988 with the Angels. No terms were disclosed, but he made $815,000 in 1987 and probably got a raise of about 10 percent.
The signings of Butler and Davis focus attention on this winter's top free agents -- pitchers Jack Morris, Mike Witt, Charlie Leibrandt and Dave Righetti and outfielders Mike Davis and Dwayne Murphy.