Rattling the Saber
Midway through spring training, as teams came to realize that their pitching wasn't as good as they had thought. Bret Saberhagen of the Mets became the hottest trade commodity in baseball. A two-time Cy Young Award winner with Kansas City in the late 1980s, the right-handed Saberhagen is coming off two miserable years in New York. But he is still only 29, has terrific stuff and "has the eye of the tiger again," according to Met general manager Joe McIlvaine. The Blue Jays, the Tigers and the Yankees have shown the most interest in acquiring him, followed by the Royals.
While McIlvaine says he's not actively shopping Saberhagen, he quickly adds. "I'm in last place. This is a game of pieces. If someone wants to give me three pieces for one, we might have to do it."
Saberhagen would greatly enhance world champion Toronto's chance for a threepeat. He could also make the Yankees the favorites in the American League East and could elevate Detroit and Kansas City into solid contenders in their respective divisions.
That is, of course, if he avoids injury this season. Assorted ailments have limited him to 82 starts the last four years, during which he has gone 28-29. He experienced tightness in his right shoulder and was scratched from an intrasquad game on March 3 but reported no discomfort in his first two exhibition starts and threw well in both outings.
There is also a question about his desire to be a top pitcher again—"a big concern," says one American League general manager. A fun-loving but harmless guy in his eight years with the Royals, Saberhagen found trouble more than once last year. In the clubhouse after a game on July 7, he threw a lighted firecracker near reporters. Three weeks later he used a water gun to spray a few New York writers with bleach. (After the season the Mets suspended him for the first five days of the 1994 season for the attack.)
But now, Saberhagen says, his determination to succeed is greater than ever. "The hunger is always there for me," he says. "It goes back to me being very competitive. If my eight-year-old is going to beat me at something, he's going to have to beat me. I'm looking for the good times in New York, but if the Mets can improve by trading me, they should."
Saberhagen's contract could be a sticking point unless the Mets offer to pay most or all of the deferred money—$250,000 annually from 2004 to 2028—in the three-year, $15.34 million contract extension he signed last spring. If New York did that, Saberhagen's new team would have to pay him approximately $13 million over the next three years. "He comes with a lot of baggage," says another American League general manager. "Three young players is too much."
For the Mets any deal must include what McIlvaine calls a "centerpiece player" (most likely a top prospect) and a player who can help immediately in the major leagues. Toronto has such players to trade (pitcher Todd Stottlemyre and Triple A shortstop Eddie Zosky) and the money to pay Saberhagen. Last Friday about 20 scouts, including four from the Blue Jays, watched Saberhagen give up two runs in four innings against the Expos.
"If Toronto doesn't make a deal this spring," Detroit manager Sparky Anderson says of the Blue Jays' efforts to acquire any proven starter, "I'll be the most surprised guy in the world."