Elite free agents and rich teams approach each other warily
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 horns 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.
Bret Boone's Going Places
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."