CINCINNATI (AP) _ The Cincinnati Reds cut $8.2 million off of next year's payroll by choosing to let pitchers Kent Mercker and Mike Morgan and first baseman Hal Morris become free agents on Wednesday.

The Reds decided not to exercise contract options on the three, whose salaries didn't fit the club's cost reduction plans. Mercker and Morris were set to make $3.5 million each in 1998, while Morgan's option was for $1.2 million.

Morgan had a mutual option in his contract _ either side could have terminated it _ and had told the club he would look elsewhere.

Morris, 32, was coming off an injury-shortened season in which he hit .276 with one homer and 33 RBIs. The Reds bought out the final year on his contract for $500,000.

It was a tougher decision to exercise the $250,000 buyout on Mercker, 29, who was 8-11 but had a 3.92 ERA in 25 starts and three relief appearances. The left-hander recovered from a terrible 1996 season, in which he was 3-6 with a 7.76 ERA for Baltimore and 1-0 with a 3.09 ERA for Cleveland.

``It was just a financial decision,'' general manager Jim Bowden said. ``We don't have $3.5 million in our budget to pay Kent. That doesn't mean we're not going to try to negotiate a contract with him. We're just unable to sign him back at $3.5 million.''

The Reds had an opening day payroll of around $34 million last season and plan to shrink it in 1998. Bowden has talked to Mercker and his agent, Casey Close, about taking less to stay.

Mercker, who made $1.1 million this season, plans to see what he's worth as a free agent in a year when expansion teams will be added in Arizona and Tampa Bay.

``I'm not going to close any doors with anybody,'' Mercker said, in a telephone interview from his home in Dublin, Ohio. ``With free agency and expansion, hopefully there will be some other opportunities for me. I owe it to myself and my family to explore those options. That doesn't mean I won't be back.''

That's not likely. The Reds are rebuilding with a shrinking payroll and aren't in a position to match a big offer from another team.

``I'm not saying the decision will be based solely on money,'' Mercker said. ``I would probably take less money to play there, but to what extent is the question. I know the direction they're headed in and I don't know to what extent it's going to be.''

``It's really going to depend on what the market bears for Kent,'' Bowden said. ``The advantage is having him close to home, but obviously those decisions just come down to money and the opportunity to win and defense and run support and a lot of different factors.''

Morgan, who turned 38 on Wednesday, was 9-12 with a 4.78 ERA. He led the team in starts (30) and innings pitched (162), but wants to try to catch on with one of the expansion clubs.

Jose Rijo also became a free agent because he did not meet any of the criteria that would have automatically added a year to his contract. Rijo has not pitched since 1995 because of reconstructive elbow operations.

The Reds also have a mutual option with Deion Sanders for another season at $2.5 million. They have until Nov. 10 to make that decision.

``I'm not going to comment on that situation at this time,'' Bowden said.