Like true post-up centers, Picassos and two seats on the aisle halfway back at the multiplex, genuine No. 1 starters are one of life's treasures, and the supply never meets the demand. How then do you explain the availability last week of three such starters, all of them ERA-title winners and two of them Cy Young Awardees? Not surprisingly, this plenitude of pitching turned the general managers' meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., into a high-stakes flea market. Baseball in November has never been more volatile—or more interesting.
The Mariners, the Expos and the Marlins welcomed bids for, respectively, lefthander Randy Johnson, righthander Pedro Martinez and righthander Kevin Brown—a troika that had a combined record of 53-20 last season. All of them are one year from free agency, the status already enjoyed by another star righty up for grabs at the meetings, Darryl Kile.
Moreover, the Indians listened to offers for third baseman Matt Williams, and the Yankees held internal discussions about moving centerfielder Bernie Williams, both of whom are also potential free agents after the 1998 season. And the champagne had barely dried on the clubhouse carpet before world champion Florida jettisoned its leading run producer, leftfielder Moises Alou, and eagerly began taking bids on its 29-year-old former batting champion, rightfielder Gary Sheffield.
A weak free-agent field seemed irrelevant against the backdrop of the most intense shopping this side of Loehmann's. Consider it a sign of the times. What seemed a bold move eight months ago, when Cleveland stunned baseball observers by trading star centerfielder Kenny Lofton to the Braves as a preemptive strike against his impending free agency, has become accepted business practice. "In many cases the guys who are one year from free agency are treated [by clubs other than their own) almost the same as free agents," says Rangers general manager Doug Melvin.
Says Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski, "Other than for a handful of high-revenue] teams, it's like the game changes on a year-to-year basis now. One year you might be trying to win, and the next year you might be trying to move contracts."
The star-studded market is humming partly because the number of players who think they're worth $10 million is greater than the number of teams willing to pay them that much. With players like Chicago outfielder Sammy Sosa, who signed a four-year, $42 million extension in June, lowering the bar for admission, Johnson, Martinez, Bernie Williams, Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn and Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza—all of whom could be free agents after the '98 season—are looking to join the most elite company.
Seattle, for instance, didn't hesitate to announce that the 34-year-old Johnson was on the block when his agents, Barry Mesiter and Alan Nero, tried to compare Johnson, who won the American League's Cy Young Award in 1995, with Atlanta's four-time winner, Greg Maddux ($11.5 million a year). One source says several Mariners volunteered to defer some of their salary as a way to keep the Big Unit. Still, the front office didn't even bother negotiating with the man who literally threw out his back carrying the team to the 1995 American League Championship Series and saving baseball in Seattle.
In one of the more blunt pronouncements of the meetings, Montreal general manager Jim Beattie said, "We're not trying to win next year." Beattie also announced that in exchange for the 26-year-old Martinez, this year's National League Cy Young winner, he wants three players "no closer than two years away from arbitration." That didn't stop him from asking the Yankees—to their amusement—for a package that included righthanded closer Mariano Rivera, who is one year from arbitration eligibility. "[Unless it's a player] we intend to keep," Beattie said in clarification of his one-day-old pronouncement.
Brown, 32, figured to be the first ace discarded. Among the 15 clubs to ask Dombrowski about Brown was Cleveland. The Indians, who also expressed interest in Johnson and Martinez, appreciate the rarity of a No. 1 starter. For all of their maneuverings and success over the past four years, they have never been able to give the ball to such a pitcher in his prime. "Of course, we would have to be interested," Indians general manager John Hart said of acquiring one of those aces. "I can't recall when there's been this kind of trade talk. It has everyone talking baseball."
From Champs to...