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Dark clouds on the horizon
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
As these winter tales spin, from Jose Mesa's two-year, $6.8 million contract with the Phillies to Mike Mussina's $88.5 million deal with the Yankees to every day's new entrants -- for instance, a call from Red Sox assistant general manager Lee Thomas to agent Jeff Moorad on Friday, asking if his club could get in on the Manny Ramirez sweepstakes -- the cries of poverty are drowned out by the dollar figures that keep running from a whisper to a scream.
Yes, Texas is willing to pay Alex Rodriguez per year about what David Boies has made in the last month. Yes, Mike Hampton is going to get pretty close to Mussina money, from the Cardinals, Cubs, Braves or Mets. But against that backdrop, Bud Selig turned up Thursday morning on C-Span 2, the only demi-news channel not following the rental truck up the Florida Turnpike, preaching the revenue-sharing gospel at a speech in Washington, D.C.
As middle relievers now make what Kirby Puckett made a decade ago, there is an undercurrent of concern among agents about this time next year. "If I can possibly avoid having a client of mine out on the market next winter, I will do so," says one prominent agent. "We all know what's coming, and while it may not interrupt the season or greatly impact the star free agents, it could savage the middle and lower classes, the Mesas and Cormiers, Nelsons and Burkses who are doing so well this winter. I'm afraid there's going to be another Homestead a year from this March."
In April 1995, very good players, from B.J. Surhoff to Mike Macfarlane, had to drive their rental vehicles south from Palm Beach and Dade Counties to barren Homestead, after a New York judge ordered baseball back to work following a 6½ month shutdown.
While Derek Jeter or Nomar Garciaparra hadn't played a day in the big leagues at that point, what happened that spring is fresh in many players' and agents' minds, when established free agents were forced to go work and try out as if they were looking for a day's work in the cranberry bogs.
Unless Selig can miraculously talk his owners into a meaningful revenue-sharing system or Paul Beeston and Sandy Alderson can talk Donald Fehr and Gene Orza into having the players solve the owners' problems -- yeah, right, and then they'll bring the Age of Aquarius to the Middle East -- then almost everyone expects that when the labor agreement ends on Nov. 1, 2001, the owners will shut the industry down.
"What they'll institute is a freeze," says an agent. "There will be no signings until there's an agreement. It worked in the NBA, so they'll try it here and hope that the rank and file get nervous and put a lot of pressure on the union."
Another agent who was in on the NBA lockout scoffs at the notion that the baseball union will ever cave in to I-me-my negotiations and give the owners a cheesecake deal, which hoops owners like Jerry Reinsdorf, Stan Kasten, Jerry Colangelo and George Steinbrenner have in the NBA. There are owners who don't believe that the freeze/lockout will extend longer than mid-March 2002 because of new parks and television agreements. But at that point, if there are 75 unsigned free agents and some unsold season ticket plans, there will be scrambling and another likely Homestead scenario. "You can understand why Juan Gonzalez doesn't want a one year make-good contact," says a GM.
"It's not going to affect the big free agents," says an agent, referring to players like Jeff Bagwell, Jason Giambi, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire (although he says he'll retire if a work stoppage goes into the regular season), Sammy Sosa, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. "But it's still something for a Bagwell to think about as he starts to negotiate with Drayton McLane. Does he want to take a chance that he ends up in the freeze at this time next year? Does Giambi want to take that chance as he starts talking to the A's, especially since he wants to stay there? For the others, it is unnerving. I think you're going to see a lot of players try to get extensions done between now and June 1, based on this winter's signings."
Here is a list of next winter's potential free agents, with asterisks indicating that the club or player holds an option on 2002 -- as if the Giants would even think about not picking up the option on Jeff Kent.
On the free agent front
"If the Dodgers want to play, they may get him," says one involved GM. But an agent negotiating with the Dodgers says they keep telling him that while Boras insists the club should get into this, Dodger officials point to Alex Cora leading the Puerto Rican League in homers. The Dodgers are also concentrating on signing two starting pitchers from the Andy Ashby/Darren Dreifort/Kevin Appier/Rick Reed delegation, a catcher like Sandy Alomar and a lefty or two, like Jeff Fassero. They had Denny Neagle in their sights, but he agreed to terms Sunday on a five-year, $51 million deal with the Rockies.
"What happens with A-Rod impacts Ramirez and Sosa," says a GM. "If Texas loses out on Rodriguez, they have been in touch on Sosa and could go there, or they could go for Manny. Colorado could then go for Manny or Sosa. If the Mets don't get Hampton, they could go after Ramirez, and if Boston loses out on Neagle and Ashby, they might go for Manny. There are a lot of interlocking scenarios here."
The Dodgers, Red Sox and Cardinals have been the hardest on Ashby, who has to decide whether or not to wait and see what St. Louis does in the Hampton race. Rick Reed's agent Phil Tannenbaum was calling around Friday trying to get more interest to push the Mets upwards, as the Mets still believe they can and will resign the veteran right-hander.
The starters' market spins against the backdrop of the wild inflation with middle relievers. Mesa got two years and $6.8M without saving a game last season. "I was thinking he'd be a nice one-year, non-guaranteed guy," says one club executive. "Then ... wow!."
Rheal Cormer got $8.5M for three. Jeff Nelson got $11.5M for three, Turk Wendell $9,999,999.99 for three from the Mets once the Orioles and Cubs got in and pushed up the price. John Franco, at 40, got three years. It appears Dan Plesac has a deal with Toronto, to be announced after the Dec. 7 date to offer arbitration to avoid losing a draft pick, which is why the Arizona signing of Mark Grace hasn't been announced.
Fassero, who threw very well in his 9 2/3 innings of relief work down the stretch, has more than 10 teams in the bidding and could get done before Monday, with the Cubs, Dodgers, Red Sox, Diamondbacks, Indians and Cardinals involved; all things being equal, he was a Cubs fan as a kid and could sign there. The Rangers have a deal with Mark Petkovsek. Tom Gordon still has 10 teams in the mix, and seems inclined to go somewhere like the Cubs, Royals or Orioles where he can close.
Still, there are some interesting veteran pitchers in the submarket. Frank Castillo was in the top 10 in lowest OPS among starters. If you crunch numbers with wins, losses, IP, ERA, opposition batting average, BB/K ratio and winning percentage, Mark Gardner comes out third in the non-Mussina/Hampton market after Reed and Neagle. Ken Hill was throwing 93 mph in Chicago and thinks time and rehab has him on the way back. Steve Trachsel is a 200-inning guy. Remember when everyone loved Ismael Valdes?
In the midst of all this, Boras is trying to find a market for Charles Johnson and mentions the Cubs. The Tigers, Giants, Dodgers and Cubs are in on Todd Hundley. Why the Giants? If Bonds leave at the end of next year, they need left-handed power, and the only player other than Bonds to reach McCovey Cove during the regular season was Hundley.
On the trade front
Hermanson has been sought by a number of teams, from Toronto (offering Jose Cruz, but unwilling to add Roy Halladay) to Boston (Troy O'Leary). Oakland thought it had a Ben Grieve-Williamson deal at the GM meetings last month, only to have it nixed by Reds ownership. The A's could revive that deal and have ongoing discussions about a deal that would send Grieve to Montreal for RHP Tony Armas and OF Brad Wilkerson. The Reds offered Williamson to Cleveland for 3B-OF Russell Branyan, but the Indians can't trade away any more thunder if Ramirez walks, and the Reds won't discuss trading Sean Casey despite his arbitration eligibility.
Johnny Damon will be one of the most sought-after players at the meetings as the Royals look to acquire a reliever and either a young shortstop or catcher. But his trade value is blunted by the fact that Boras thinks Damon is a premium star player who should get in the seven-figure range to avoid the free-agent market next year. Damon and Jeromy Burnitz are two interesting cases given next winter's potential Third Avenue Freezeout.
The Astros will continue to take inquiries on Roger Cedeno and Daryle Ward, but thus far haven't been offered the kind of bullpen help they want. A lot of teams keep calling on Ward -- the Yankees, Indians (who discussed Steve Karsay, but both sides backed off), Red Sox (who threw out C Steve Lomasney, but don't have the reliever) and Orioles. The Mets, Giants and Brewers have tried for Cedeno, but the Brewers offer of Juan Acevedo and Valerio de los Santos didn't do it. The 'Stros want a Felix Rodriguez type.
There are also contracts teams would like to move: Brian Jordan, Ray Lankford, Olivares, O'Leary, Roberto Hernandez, Vinny Castilla.
News and notes
"The big thing is that we need our young pitchers to come through in a couple of spots," says Bowden. After Pete Harnisch, Williamson, Elmer Dessens and Osvaldo Fernandez, they will take a look at Rob Bell, Chris Reitsma (from Boston in the Dante Bichette deal, brilliant in the Arizona Fall League ), Brian Reith (Neagle deal), Eddie Yarnall and others.
The Red Sox signed another Dominguez client, 1B Juan Diaz, whose wedding Dominguez attended in the Dominican Republic this week. Diaz is a slugger whose contract with the Dodgers was voided by the commissioner's office, and would have gotten a look in Boston last September except he broke his leg sliding into second. "It would be something to have Andy and Juan on the corners of the Red Sox infield," says Dominguez, with Rolando Arrojo pitching. ... The Sox think between Rick Down's work with Brian Daubach, Diaz, Morgan Burkhart and a turnaround for prospect Dernell Stenson, they are covered at first base. "Somehow Stenson got into bad habits at Pawtucket the last two years and hasn't gotten out of them," says one Red Sox official. "But the talent is there." After a slow start for Navajoa in the Mexican League, Stenson is up to .255 with seven homers.
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