Across the land, shoppers spent Thanksgiving weekend chasing madly after a long-haired critter with a language all his own. The pursuit of free-agent pitcher Randy Johnson was downright Furby-like in the way people were willing to overpay for something in short supply—in this case, an ace pitcher.
The Arizona Diamondbacks took home the package by giving Johnson, 35, a four-year contract (with a club option for a fifth) that guarantees him approximately $53 million. With that, Arizona, which lost 97 games in '98, immediately became a contender...to play .500 ball.
That's the problem with spending $13 million a year for a player, as four teams recently lined up to do. These expensive toys don't come with guarantees. As a consumer service, we rank, in terms of wisdom, the holiday purchases that rewrote baseball's highest-paid list.
1. Mo Vaughn, Anaheim Angels ($13.3 million per year for six years). Think G.I. Joe, an action figure with leadership ability and a proven track record. Now Anaheim can trade centerfielder Jim Edmonds for pitching help and face September, its annual Waterloo, with confidence. Vaughn and the Angels are the only free-agent fit thus far that can turn a contender into a winner.
2. Bernie Williams, New York Yankees ($12.5 million, seven years). Williams doesn't make or break New York; like a Beanie Baby, he's part of a collection. But after the 1998 Florida Marlins' markdown sale, keeping the 125-win Yanks intact is good for the game.
3. Johnson. The problem with being this year's Furby is you're next year's Cabbage Patch Kid. The short term looks great. Arizona gets a premier attraction—a guy with a 62-17 record over the last four seasons—and can now trade either Brian Anderson or Omar Daal for a hitter.
The long-term outlook isn't nearly so appealing. Burdened with stadium cost overruns, Arizona has backloaded several salaries and is deferring, with interest, nearly half of Johnson's money. In a few years, when the Diamondbacks should be ready to win, they will be stuck with players past their prime.
4. Albert Belle, Baltimore Orioles ($13 million, five years). Wind him up, and he'll hit 50 homers and drive in 130 runs. Caution: extremely dangerous when wound too tight. Already-suspect manager Ray Miller would be overwhelmed trying to cope with Belle and a fading Cal Ripken when what the Orioles really need are youth and athleticism. Tempting though he may be, Belle underscores the first rule of holiday shopping: Buyer beware.