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LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLA. -- The bidding is getting frantic on star free-agent pitcher Barry Zito, and if he so desires, he can become baseball's third new $100 million man his winter. And someone familiar with the negotiations says there is more than one team signaling a willingness to pay Zito nine figures.
Texas and Seattle are among teams targeting Zito and expected to be aggressive, but none of their top executives will cop to the $100 million figure.
In any case, Mets people privately concede they don't expect to be the high bidder and appear to be hoping that reports suggesting Zito would prefer New York or Los Angeles over Texas or Seattle or anywhere else are accurate.
Mets people see his decision coming down to two things: comfort (as in New York or L.A.) or cash (elsewhere).
Don't rule them out. A couple people close to Zito said they actually believe Zito may be the first this winter to leave a little money on the table (though not too much). While Zito has said he'll consider any locale, people close to him say they still don't see him leaving the Bay Area to go to Seattle or Texas. They say he loves big cities and culture and craves to be part of the scene.
"I don't see him going to Arlington, Texas, over one year and a few measly million,'' one hopeful Mets person said.
However, the Mets aren't completely unrealistic. "People don't leave $15-to-20 million on the table,'' another Mets source said.
The Mets wisely got Moises Alou on a very reasonable one-year deal when Texas and Oakland were offering two, and it didn't hurt that they believed Alou wanted to stay in the National League and go to a winner. There was a time when players would avoid the Mets, but since New York signed Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran and created a winning attitude and cohesive clubhouse, the team is a more popular destination. The Mets hope that works in their favor.
Teams have changed their minds over millions before (some might say lost their minds), and an executive with another team vying for Zito said, "The Mets are more interested than they let on.''
They should be interested, considering 1) Martinez can't be counted on to be fully recovered in 2007, 2) the free-agent market is stocked with mediocrity but with very few stars like Zito, 3) the trade market is thin and fairly inactive (and they may not have a match with the White Sox, who figure to trade one of their pitchers), 4) they missed out on Daisuke Matsuzaka after what they figured was a winning bid of $39.2 million and 5) they thrive with top left-handers (their last World Series appearance came with Al Leiter and Mike Hampton at the top of the rotation)
Even so, one high-ranking Mets person said, "We like this pitcher very much, but we're not going to go crazy.''
Another high-ranking Mets person said they came into the negotiation Monday night debating whether even to go to five years for Zito, which seems awfully conservative since Roy Oswalt was a year and a half from free agency when he got a five-year, $73 million deal. Not only that but the market has exploded since then.
White Sox will wait to trade
The White Sox's strategy regarding their top-flight available starting pitching is to wait until all the free-agent pitching is gone, and that includes the top two guys, Zito and Jason Schmidt, and also the throng of No. 3 starters -- Jeff Suppan, Ted Lilly, Gil Meche, Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver, Tomo Ohka, etc. -- before trading one of their big guns.
The South Siders' most likely bait will be Freddy Garcia, a consistent winner who looks like an incredible bargain at $9 million for 2007, since he can become a free agent in a year and would bring back a haul in return. Garcia's velocity was down at times last year after he wore himself out between the 2005 World Series and 2006 World Baseball Classic, but there aren't too many pitchers who are better in a big game.
White Sox GM Ken Williams has top prospect Brandon McCarthy ready to go (though Williams points out that McCarthy still has options) and wants help for now and later. Considering the overpriced pitching market, the guess is that someone eventually overwhelms him.
The Mets like Garcia but have been unwilling thus far to consider trading right-handers Mike Pelfrey, Phil Humber or Aaron Heilman, and one White Sox person said he doubted they could have a match with the Mets considering their reticence to trade young pitching.