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baseball

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Inside Baseball

Click here for more on this story

Posted: Tuesday November 17, 1998 05:03 PM

This week's topics:
Mating Dance | The Difference A Year Makes 
Hot Stove Report


Mating Dance  

Elite free agents and rich teams approach each other warily

By Tom Verducci

Sports Illustrated
  Nobody's sure where Vaughn will land, but it wont't be back in Boston Damian Strohmeyer
The general manager of one American League club, who asked not to be identified, said last week that he wants to sign free-agent centerfielder Bernie Williams but has yet to contact Scott Boras, the player's agent. "I don't want to give Scott any more bullets than he has," the G.M. says. "We'll wait until the market shrinks and see where we're at. We don't want to be used."

The gamesmanship between this winter's premier free agents and the clubs who can afford to sign them has only just started. The Yankees, for instance, don't expect Williams to decide on a team until next month. Teams also have noticed that righthander Kevin Brown, another Boras client, is in no hurry to sign. Boras scared off the Rockies when he said that Brown, who'll be 34 in March, won't settle for anything less than a six-year contract. Boras compares Brown to Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Steve Carlton, who were durable and reliable pitchers into their late 30s. "I guarantee you he'll get at least five," one National League general manager says of Brown, "and probably six, if one team thinks it has to step up to get him."

When Tom Reich, the agent for first baseman Mo Vaughn, tried to slow down negotiations with the Red Sox—sources say he was waiting for the Dodgers to make a play—Boston G.M. Dan Duquette accelerated them with a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $63 million over five years. The Angels had already made Vaughn an offer worth $72 million over six years, so Duquette seized upon Vaughn's public statements that he would take five years and less money to stay in Boston.

"Once he said that, he gave Duquette an easy way out," one agent says. Vaughn decided he wasn't done listening to offers and turned down Duquette's, ending a 10-year association with the Red Sox in which he became the most popular athlete in Boston since Larry Bird. Within 48 hours Duquette happily signed infielder Jose Offerman (four years, $26 million), who had a .403 on-base percentage last year and is the sort of contact hitter Duquette prefers over sluggers such as Vaughn.

The elite free agent who will sign first figures to be lefthander Randy Johnson, who was considering Arizona, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Texas, the Yankees and Houston. After a meeting with the Diamondbacks, one Arizona official says, "He told us he wants to play for us. He just had questions about what other moves are coming."

The Diamondbacks told Johnson they intend to make a full-bore run at the switch-hitting Williams and add a lefthanded-hitting outfielder, perhaps Todd Hollandsworth or Cliff Floyd, both of whom are arbitration eligible. Johnson's chances of signing with Arizona are so good that one of his agents, Barry Meister, called off a pending deal with Arizona for another client—a lefthander who is a fringe major leaguer—because of the probability that the team's rotation will be stocked with lefthanders.

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The Difference A Year Makes  

The annual retooling of the Braves began last week with the acquisition of a second baseman who hit .223 in 1997, such a poor showing that his club was chagrined not to have lost him in the expansion draft after the season. But Bret Boone spent six weeks that winter working in a batting cage with his father, former big league catcher Bob Boone, who adjusted Bret's feet in the batter's box and worked on improving his stride and balance.

"Sometimes you just need someone who knows you very well to look at you," Bob says. "I didn't change him. I helped get him back to where he was."

Boone rebounded in '98 with an All-Star season in which he hit .266, drove in 95 runs and won a Gold Glove for fourth-place Cincinnati. "Once in a while during the season I'd get a call and come in to work with him," says Bob, a Reds scout. Bret improved his value so dramatically that Atlanta was willing to send a 16-game winner, lefthander Denny Neagle, to Cincinnati in order to get him. The Reds also included lefthander Mike Remlinger in the deal and received outfielder Michael Tucker.

Within an hour after getting Neagle, Cincinnati G.M. Jim Bowden received trade inquiries from 11 teams about him. Bowden told all suitors he wasn't available—yet. Meister, Neagle's agent, told the Reds he will exercise his right to demand a trade after next season. Bowden is likely to trade Neagle near the July 31 deadline. In the meantime Bowden hopes a rotation that includes Neagle, Pete Harnisch and Brett Tomko will give his team some credibility with the Cincinnati fans.

After getting Boone, the Braves presented a four-year offer to free-agent outfielder Brian Jordan. The Mets, Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees are also courting Jordan, though he has told friends he prefers to play rightfield, where the Braves would play him, rather than center, where the Yankees would use him. "Bret is a great start," Braves G.M. John Schuerholz says. "If we have to, we won't hesitate to call his dad in."

"I work for Jim Bowden now," Bob said with a laugh. "John's going to have to go through proper channels."

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Hot Stove Report  

The Pirates have entertained several offers for second baseman Tony Womack, including one from the Indians. Cleveland also would get lefthanded reliever Ricardo Rincon in a deal that would send outfielder Brian Giles and others to Pittsburgh.... The Indians had made the signing of free-agent second baseman Roberto Alomar their No. 1 off-season priority but have been turned off by Alomar's lack of eagerness to get a deal done—even with the intervention of his brother, Sandy, the Cleveland catcher. Roberto could wind up in St. Louis in what has been a lukewarm market for an All-Star whose drive is questioned by scouts.... Phillies ace Curt Schilling has agreed not to demand that his contract be renegotiated if he's traded to one of two teams: Cleveland or Atlanta.... The Blue Jays are shopping righthander Roger Clemens, who has veto power over a trade. "For the first time they've come to us telling us he's available," says one G.M. Toronto's asking price, though, is likely to preclude a deal. The Blue Jays opened talks with the Indians by asking for rightfielder Manny Ramirez, whom Cleveland is trying to sign to an extension, and asked the Astros for outfielders Derek Bell and Richard Hidalgo and righthander Shane Reynolds....

As if the May trade in which the Dodgers got Bobby Bonilla, Jim Eisenreich, Charles Johnson and Gary Sheffield from the Marlins for Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile wasn't disaster enough for Los Angeles, Johnson, who batted just .217 after moving west, opted not to go to the Arizona Fall League to work on his hitting as the Dodgers had requested. "We wanted him there," says L.A. senior vice president Tommy Lasorda . "Charles should be a much better hitter. He's got power out the ears, but he doesn't walk nearly enough, and he takes too many strikes." In three years as a major league regular, Johnson's strikeouts have climbed from 91 to 109 to 129.... The Blue Jays would like to bring back 34-year-old free-agent DH Jose Canseco (46 homers, 107 RBIs, .237 average) but only if Canseco reduces his asking price. "Jose has to realistically look at his value," says new Blue Jays assistant general manager Dave Stewart , who was a teammate of Canseco's with the A's from 1987 through '92. "Sometimes a player puts himself in a market where he doesn't belong." Canseco, whose '98 salary was $650,000, reportedly wants a four-year, $28 million deal. Plus, he wants to play in the field. "Somehow," Stewart said of Canseco's desire to don a glove again, "I don't think that'll happen." ... The A's have begun discussions with soon-to-be-40 outfielder Rickey Henderson (.236, major-league-high 66 stolen bases) about re-upping for one more season, but Henderson is seeking a multiyear contract. "You can probably make the argument that he deserves it," says Oakland general manager Billy Beane . "But with us, it comes down to economics. We want Rickey in Oakland. But can we afford him?" The Rangers have also expressed interest.

—Tom Verducci and Jeff Pearlman

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Issue date: November 23, 1998  

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