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Let's make a deal

Privately, the Rangers know they should trade A-Rod, but can it be done?

Posted: Tuesday November 4, 2003 12:46PM; Updated: Tuesday November 4, 2003 5:34PM
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In addition to the players who make up a sterling free-agent class, another name is quietly being talked about as teams plot their offseason strategy, especially in Boston and New York: Alex Rodriguez. Yes, the best player in baseball is available, and two sources have said that the Yankees and Red Sox have already held internal discussions about the 28-year-old shortstop.

The Rangers are on record with the politically correct disclaimer that they are not shopping Rodriguez, but they will listen to all offers. Privately, the club realizes the folly of allocating $21 million of next year's $72 million payroll to one player -- or $35 million to two players, if you throw in the millstone that is Chan Ho Park. Rodriguez wasn't promised that kind of downsizing when Rangers owner Tom Hicks lured him to Texas with that $252 million contract in December of 2000.

Rodriguez has a blanket no-trade clause. He is not going to make a lateral move to the Anaheim Angels, though Anaheim's new owner Arturo Moreno would love to make a splash by getting A-Rod for pitcher Jarrod Washburn and third baseman Troy Glaus. And Rodriguez is not going to the Mets, who insulted him, rather than signing him, three years ago when they portrayed the slugger as selfish and interested in setting himself apart from the team. There is also the matter of the Mets having lost more games than the Rangers last year (95 to 91), and New York having fewer good young players to turn things around.

The Cubs would have an outside chance of appealing to Rodriguez, but the most sensible move for him would be to return to his East Coast roots and join a team that's rich enough to afford him and good enough to compete for the World Series. For now, Rodriguez, already three weeks into his offseason workouts, is saying the right things. "I'm under contract with the Texas Rangers," he said. "I'm staying out of everything and looking forward to the start of a new season."

Could Rodriguez possibly be moved with $98 million due him over the next four years -- or a total of $179 million over seven if he doesn't exercise his option to become a free agent after 2007? No one expected Mike Hampton to be dealt last offseason, yet three teams made it possible. The difference, though, is that Hampton gave up nothing but a no-trade clause. According to one senior baseball official, Rodriguez can be traded only if he agrees to re-work his deal.

"It can happen and people are aware of it," the source said, "but it requires tremendous flexibility from all parties involved, including the player. There's got to be a lot of collaboration."

Rodriguez would likely get tremendous pressure from his agent Scott Boras, and from the players' association, to preserve the integrity of that record-setting contract. Reworking A-Rod's deal could involve deferring more money. The contract now calls for $24 million of the $179 million to be deferred at three percent interest from 2011 to 2020, though one official from a team with interest in Rodriguez found it "scary" to be paying him for the next 17 years, even at those numbers.

Boston would love to dump Manny Ramirez to make room for A-Rod's money, but it also must tip-toe around Nomar Garciaparra, who is headed into the last year of his contract. The Red Sox want to re-sign their shortstop, but negotiations last spring went nowhere. By all indications Garciaparra likes playing for Boston but he has a soft spot for California, his home state. The Red Sox also understand that Garciaparra is marrying Mia Hamm this month, and his future is now a family decision.

Garciaparra is an icon in New England, almost immune from boos at Fenway Park. Cutting ties with him now or next year would not go down easily, not even if the best player in baseball replaced him. The worst-case scenario for Boston is that Garciaparra leaves for a West Coast club next year and Rodriguez goes to the Yankees.

And if you thought George Steinbrenner emptied the checkbook and put on the full-court press to keep Jose Contreras away from Boston, how far would he go if he knew the Red Sox were in the hunt for A-Rod? Going to the Yankees, though, would require a huge concession for Rodriguez: he'd likely have to move to third base, a position he's never even considered playing. Rodriguez is a far superior shortstop than Derek Jeter. A-Rod is about to win his second Gold Glove. But Jeter is the Yankees' captain and has already established a legacy at shortstop for a team that eats, sleeps and breathes tradition. Does anyone believe Jeter would gladly announce he'd shift to third or second to make room for A-Rod?

Texas has interest in Jeff Weaver and Nick Johnson, but that might only be a starting point in negotiations. Then there is that little matter of money. Yes, the Yankees are loaded, but how much can they absorb? Without any contractual givebacks, New York would be paying Jeter, Rodriguez, Jason Giambi and Mike Mussina a combined $79 million in 2006. The following year, Jeter, Rodriguez and Giambi alone would be pulling down $68 million.

There are many obstacles in the way of trading a player with the world's biggest contract. There are few teams that could handle it, fewer still that Rodriguez would consider. The likelihood of a deal remains slim. But when the best player in baseball is available, the possibilities must be explored.

A luxury buy for Philadelphia

Having already eaten $2 million to have Mike Williams and Jose Mesa not pitch for them next year, the ninth inning just got more expensive for Philadelphia. The Phillies are on the hook for $17 million over two seasons for newly acquired closer Billy Wagner ($11 million for one year if they don't pick up the second-year option). That moves Philadelphia, courtesy of New Stadium Spending Syndrome, into the upper class of clubs by means of one of the game's most extravagant luxuries: a pitcher who earns more than $8 million a year for throwing only 60 or 70 innings per season. Even though the Marlins, A's, Giants, Cubs, Red Sox and Twins all proved once again that you can be a postseason team without committing so much money to a closer, the Phillies have the cash so they bought the most pricey insurance policy on the market -- while choosing not to explore Keith Foulke, Tom Gordon, Tim Worrell, Armando Benitez (egads!) or any of the other cheaper options on the market.

The Phillies traded hurler Brandon Duckworth and two right-handed pitching prospects to Houston for all of Wagner's contract. (One prospect, Taylor Buchholz, could join Duckworth on the Houston staff in the second half of next season.) It's a good trade for Philadelphia because it gives manager Larry Bowa endgame certainty -- no small consolation for a guy who tried to win the wild card down the stretch by giving Mesa, Rheal Cormier, Dan Plesac and Turk Wendell day-by-day tryouts to close games as if it were open mic night at the local comedy club.

But Philadelphia will only get a bang for its big bucks on two conditions:

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1. Wagner's contract doesn't prevent the Phillies from obtaining the experienced starting pitcher and two set-up men they need -- and don't expect Kevin Millwood to be back. "We still have some flexibility to do some things we'd like to do," said Philadelphia GM Ed Wade, who admitted the club may fill holes by making trades rather than going the free-agent route.

2. Wagner wasn't burned out by Astros manager Jimy Williams. The 32-year-old left-hander threw a career-high 86 innings in a career-high 78 games in Houston last year. Williams often pitched Wagner in non-save situations. Bowa, quick to point out that he used Mesa as the prototypical pampered ninth-inning modern-day closer, said of Wagner, "He's definitely my closer. I'm not going to bring him into non-save situations."

For a recent case study to give Philadelphia pause, think back to 2002 and remember how then Oakland manager Art Howe overused Billy Koch. He was tremendous for Howe that year, but the White Sox footed the bill for all that work the following season after trading for Koch, who was so ineffective that Chicago had to take him out of the closer's role.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Tom Verducci covers baseball for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.

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