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Free-agent market thins out

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October 8

There is Alex Rodriguez, destination Cooperstown. And Manny Ramirez, probably ditto, who one general manager says "is the best hitter I've ever seen." There are two No. 1 star pitchers in Mike Mussina and Mike Hampton. On the next level there are Darren Dreifort and Juan Gonzalez.

"Last spring there was a lot of talk about how great this free-agent market was going to be," says a general manager. "But once you get by the biggest names, it's not what it appeared to be because Chipper Jones, Jim Edmonds, Robb Nen and players like that got signed."

Rodriguez, Ramirez, Mussina and Hampton will all benefit by the fact that there won't be that many stars on the market. So will David Segui, Charles Johnson, Alex Gonzalez, Denny Neagle, Ellis Burks, Mark Grace and Mike Bordick.

"There is a feeling that there are seven to 10 contracts to be dumped for every team willing to be a waste dump site," says another GM. "But as we call around, those players aren't so great, either. The Astros say they're not going to move Moises Alou, at least until they know what's happening with (Jeff) Bagwell. Milwaukee isn't prone to dealing Jeromy Burnitz. Arizona might deal Curt Schilling, but it's not likely. The Sammy Sosa situation is unclear. But otherwise the list of players teams would like to move to clear salary isn't that great -- Tino Martinez, Chuck Knoblauch, Troy O'Leary, Ray Lankford, Woody Williams, Brian Jordan and Greg Vaughn. The Reds want to move Ron Villone and Steve Parris, and maybe an arbitration-eligible guy like Alex Ochoa. That's not a lot of quality. Otherwise, it's a bunch of guys like Jay Bell, Devon White and Mike Lansing that no one's going to take.

"If you're looking for an impact player, you have to really step up with some serious cash. We know the Yankees and Mets are going to go hard after at least two of the Ramirez, A-Rod, Mussina and Hampton group. The Braves probably will. Cleveland. The impact of the off years for the Indians, Yankees and Braves may be that they take the middle markets out of the bidding equation."

M's bullpen boosted by home park
Lou Piniella's brilliant use of his bullpen that dominated the White Sox series showed off the power arms and the different looks that Kazuhiro Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes, Jose Mesa and Jose Paniagua present to hitters. But Piniella's confidence in this bullpen is a reflection of the impact of Safeco Field vs. that HO-scaled garage known as the Kingdome. Even if Rodriguez leaves, the Mariners are going to be able to retool with their talented pitchers -- plus Gil Meche and Ryan Anderson, both legitimate No. 1 guys of the future -- because they have a real ballpark to play in.

It's a lot easier to build a championship team in a pitching-friendly ballpark than places like Enron Field, Coors Field or Camden Yards, which TV-highlight parks with all their home runs. All the playoff teams play in a park that either favor pitchers, or, like Pac Bell and Yankee Stadium, have huge areas where pitchers can get hitters out (as does Fenway Park). One of the reasons so many Tiger players resented some non-baseball management type saying he might give in to Juan Gonzalez's whining about the fences in Comerica Park was that they know the field is fair -- and that the Tigers can win there -- which translates to Juan being more interested in his own stats than winning.

Sasaki is now one of the best relievers in the game, as his velocity has increased nearly three miles per hour in the last three months and his command has sharpened, which allows him to consistently get ahead with his fastball and bury hitters with his splitter. "Remember, he's not long off surgery," says one former Japanese League player. "Next near he'll be throwing 95 again and be in the class of Mariano Rivera."

Red Sox have busy winter ahead
John Harrington's announcement that the 53 percent share of the Red Sox owned by the Yawkey Foundation is now for sale was a surprise only in its timing. For more than six weeks, with the new Fenway project he agonized over in limbo, there were whispers that the Jack Clark Business School approach to the team's budget and the degeneration of the conditions in Fenway reflected the philosophy that someone else could pay off the Lansing and Jose Offerman contracts.

Harrington worked hard to make the inevitable sale far more profitable for the foundation, and he likely has succeeded, although the costs of financing the necessary building of the stadium are monumental -- and, understand, the Red Sox are worth a great deal less in the outdated, collapsing ballpark that some people deem romantic. He is selling a franchise that is in far, far better shape than it was in 1992 when he took over, in terms of local radio/TV revenues, concessions and two young, marquee stars in Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez. Tickets prices are far and away the highest in the game, so expensive that the Hispanics that made every Pedro start such a fiesta two years ago were no longer around in 2000 -- not that the management in their suites or the media behind their closed glass press box care about paying customers.

No one knows who will buy the club, although in the best interests of the team and the community, many pray that a group with developer Steve Karp, his partner and concessions magnate Joe O'Donnell and philanthropist David Mugar win out. All three are pillars of the New England community, respected and so well wired into the area that not only would they get the stadium built, but they could do any number of development levels and perhaps even get the waterfront location that Harrington could not.

But who knows if there is a 23-year-old MIT dropout who's got a $500 million in his pocket? Perhaps Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone can think of some way to use the club in some horizontal media monopoly. Or Staples chairman Thomas Stemberg, Charles Dolan (his brother Larry owns the Indians), WWF owner Vince McMahon or even Disney, for whom the Red Sox and a regional network make a lot more sense than the Angels. A few years back, Warren Buffett was approached about buying the Angels, and indicated that the only team in which he's interested is the Boston Red Sox. Karp, O'Donnell and Mugar make sense, but this sale may be like the Buckner Ball.

Meanwhile, there is business to be transacted about the team on the field, and while the Red Sox have already contacted Mussina's agent, Arn Tellum, and indicated they want to be players for the star pitcher, the odds are long on getting him. More likely, they will switch Derek Lowe into the rotation and find another closer. The market is thin, but if Montreal's Ugueth Urbina is available, he would be their first choice as long as medical reports on his arm are good. They have had a rocky two seasons with Tom Gordon and his agents, so Gordon's return is questionable, at best. They have discussed bringing Gordon and Rod Beck back.

Any new owner will come in, find Dan Duquette smart and competent, but ask: Why do Harrington and Duquette get themselves into these impersonal struggles with players and personnel? For instance, when Garciaparra flew to the West Coast to have the plantar wart on his foot -- which was killing him for months -- attended, the Red Sox threatened not to pick up the medical expenses. That sort of aggravation causes a constant form of employee unrest. When contract talks with Rheal Cormier stalled, a nasty letter sent to Cormier's agent was put on his chair at his locker for him to read when he got to the park. "The only way they attract players is to pay top dollar," says an agent considered one of the most reasonable in the business. "They create negative personal feelings, and don't you think that agents and other players aren't aware of the atmosphere? It's an organization void of personal skills."

Duquette wants to sign a high-profile impact free agent, something the Red Sox have never done. He must realize that the club's impersonal, confrontational reputation as well as the rundown, outdated facility will mean signing Mussina, Hampton or Ramirez will necessitate overpaying the way he did for Offerman. Gonzalez is a possibility, but while Gonzalez is a friend of the Brothers Martinez, he has back problems and made it clear in Detroit that his offensive numbers were far more important that the team's won-lost record.

Then there's the Carl Everett situation, Duquette wanted to meet with Everett and his agent, Larry Reynolds, when the Red Sox finished the season in Tampa Bay. Reynolds flew in from California. Duquette didn't meet them, and now the whole question of whether or not Everett thinks it best to be traded -- as he definitely does if Jimy Williams stays as manager (which he may because of the feelings expressed by several players) -- now gets delayed.

This is part of the contradictory persona of Everett. He had a party for teammates at an area restaurant the last Saturday night of the season. Some teammates, traveling secretary Jack McCormick, a couple of coaches and friends attended. Everett picked up the check and, according to the restaurant employees, not only left a huge tip on his credit card, but as he left went to each of the three waiters and further tipped them with hundred dollar bills.

The Everett situation has to be addressed, and after Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter sign, the Sox have a tacit agreement that they will revisit Garciaparra's contract. With no responsibilities after this winter, Harrington can do whatever he wants for Nomar, who is a phenomenally popular player in New England, whether the media gets it or not. Garciaparra makes more than $1 million a year off the field, and approximately 80 percent of that comes locally. "That is incredible considering the size of the Boston market," says one analyst. "He's in the top five or six in off-field endorsement money, and most of it comes in Boston. That's unheard of."

Managerial go round

  • The Red Sox sale may allow Jimy Williams more freedom in talking to other clubs about escaping Duquette and getting another job. Most people think Lou Piniella now will remain in Seattle, but Williams could be a candidate in Philadelphia (don't discount his relationship with Ed Wade's assistant, Gordon Lakey), Los Angeles, Pittsburgh (where Buck Showalter is the early favorite even though the Pirates have asked permission to talk to A's coach Ken Macha) or even Cincinnati.

    Many believe hitting coach Rick Down would be Kevin Malone's choice in L.A., but CEO Bob Daly may want a bigger name, a Williams or, if he listens to Tommy Lasorda, even Bobby Valentine. It seems hard to believe that Mets owner Fred Wilpon would let Valentine go after four strong, winning seasons that followed six losing years before he arrived, but then Wilpon has let Valentine and Steve Phillips drift this far. If Valentine were to leave the Mets, Williams and Showalter would be candidates, as well as Dodgers coach Glenn Hoffman.

  • Duquette has always liked Showalter, but the instability of ownership might scare Buck off. It's interesting that Matt Williams andTodd Stottlemyre have come out strongly in defense of Showalter, who has been buried by the people who thought a 15 percent raise in ticket prices during Fan Appreciation Week was a bright idea. While the Diamondbacks try to figure out what to do with Jay Bell's contract and worry about Williams' arthritis, Steve Finley's back and Erubiel Durazo's wrist, they are looking at Bob Brenly and Terry Francona, while offering an interview to bench coach Carlos Tosca, who deserves a chance somewhere but isn't a self-promoter.

    How bitter is the situation in Arizona? When coach Brian Butterfield went in to get the books on defensive charts and tendencies he's kept for three seasons, he found the coaches' room locked and was told that his work was the property of the Diamondbacks. "Traditionally," says one GM, "the most bitter part of the divorce between a team and a manager is over scouting reports and such books."

  • Several Phillies players have let it be known they do not want John Vukovich to get the managing job, and a couple suggested the reason he is the only coach to get an interview -- as opposed to Hal McRae, who is eminently qualified for another shot and is being interviewed by the Reds -- is that he is owner Dave Montgomery's man. ... Credit Tampa Bay's Chuck LaMar with dignity. He was leaning toward firing Larry Rothschild, but changed his mind. "There are a lot of reasons that we had a disappointing season," says LaMar, "and I share in the responsibility." Rothschild did a terrific job developing the careers of pitchers like Albie Lopez and Paul Wilson, and if Ryan Rupe, Dan Wheeler, Travis Harper and others come along and LaMar can make prospect deals for three or four veterans before the midseason trading deadline, then Rothschild may have the opportunity to develop the franchise at its critical point, which will begin next August.

  • Credit Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy and GM Cam Bonifay for allowing Gene Lamont to leave with his dignity. They noted the negative comments John Hart made about Mike Hargrove at the time Grover was fired as Indians manager, and said nothing negative. On the final day Lamont got a standing ovation from the Pirates fans. ... One reminder if Piniella does leave Seattle and return to Cincinnati: Jim Bowden says that it was Piniella who got Bowden to Cincinnati in the first place. ... Davey Johnson has told friends that he felt that Daly, Malone and Lasorda essentially buried him with non-support.

    News and notes

  • Several teams have already let it be known they will be in the Mussina bidding, and it appears that there is no chance that he would return and pitch for Peter Angelos. The Indians and Mets appear to be the early leaders with the Red Sox behind them, as Mussina would like to pitch on the East Coast or within a few hours of his Montoursville, Pa., home. But others will come along. If Schilling decides to push the issue and demand a trade from Arizona -- which is a possibility -- the Indians could get into that game as well

  • There is confusion in the Astros camp as to what to do about Jeff Bagwell, who has one year left on his contract. Owner Drayton McLane wants to sign Bagwell and Bagwell would prefer staying, but he is waiting to see how the market goes and the market may be waiting for him. Bagwell has 10/5 rights, which leaves the 'Stros with all the bargaining power the Mariners had with Ken Griffey Jr. Look for Houston to see what pitching can be had for Roger Cedeno and/or Daryle Ward -- who could be a .300/40-HR player in the American League -- as they wait on Bagwell. One question they're pondering is whether or not to put Adam Everett at shortstop. "He's about 250 at-bats from being a pretty good hitter," says one Houston official. "But where should he get those at-bats is what has to be decided."

  • Albert Belle is not happy with Angelos. Does he have degenerative arthritis in his hip? Yes. Is it very serious? Yes, so much so that he has been to three specialists and talked it out with Bo Jackson. But Belle understood that Angelos would not discuss it publicly. Hey, it's all about money. Belle wants to keep playing as long as he can because, for all his quirks, he loves to play. Angelos wants Belle to have to retire so he can have the insurance company pay off the contract. ... The Yankees already have officials calling around seeing if someone is interested in taking Knoblauch and Tino Martinez for next season. But the Yankees will not specify Knoblauch's contract, although everyone knows that George Steinbrenner and Randy Hendricks have an agreement on a two-year extension at $9 million per season.

  • The Padres expect that they can reach a new deal with Tony Gwynn. After he played just 36 games, Gwynn knew he wasn't going to get his $6 million option picked up. ... John Wetteland will wait to see how therapy for his ailing back takes before he decides whether or not to keep pitching. ... Armando Benitez already held the record for most postseason home runs allowed by a reliever, six, before the J.T. Snow shot. OK, now it's seven.

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  • Gammons: 2000 column archive
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