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Tigers general manager Randy Smith admitted last Friday that it was hard to surrender six young players to get a slugger who might turn out to be a one-year rental. "But it was even harder to say no when [the long-ball hitter] was a two-time MVP and future Hall of Famer," Smith said of rightfielder Juan Gonzalez, whom Detroit acquired from the Rangers on Nov. 2.
Smith decided that the chance to get Gonzalez was too rare an opportunity to pass up. Was it? Five days later another slugger, Shawn Green, was traded when the Blue Jays sent him to the Dodgers in a four-player deal that shipped Raul Modesi to Toronto. (The trade was officially completed on Monday when L.A. signed Green to a six-year contract extension worth $84 million.) With the likes of the Mariners' Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez, the Indians' Manny Ramirez and the Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado still drawing trade inquiries, the bazaar had only just opened.
The middle-of-the-lineup slugger used to be one of those commodities teams held on to like family heirlooms. So why has the trade market for big boppers gone as nuts as the one for Pok�mon cards? In a word, money.
Until 1992 only eight players in baseball history had been traded one season or less after hitting 40 home runs. Now there have been six such swaps in just over seven years: Jose Canseco ('92), Mark McGwire ('97), Mike Piazza and Greg Vaughn ('98), and Gonzalez and Green. All save Canseco were traded because they were in the last year of their contracts, with free agency looming.
Texas general manager Doug Melvin admitted that he worked quickly to move Gonzalez because of the flood of other 40-homer free-agents-to-be coming onto the trade market. "I told Randy, 'Let's get it done before [this week's] G.M. meetings, because once we get there, we'll get all kinds of rumors and frenzy,' " Melvin said.
Melvin is generally regarded as having gotten the better end of the deal. His key acquisitions are lefthanded pitcher Justin Thompson, 26, an All-Star when healthy, which he is expected to be by next season; emerging outfielder Gabe Kapler, 24; and righthanded reliever Francisco Cordero, 22, whom one executive called "a young Mariano Rivera."
The Tigers were desperate for a star to help sell seats in their new stadium, Comerica Park, which opens in April. The deal works for Smith only if he gets Detroit into the postseason next year or Gonzalez's signature on a contract extension. The Tigers may have a shot at keeping Gonzalez, given that he had a clause in his Texas contract precluding trades to, among others, the Braves, Mets, Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees.
Detroit's effort to keep Gonzalez has unofficially begun. Suddenly, the depth of the leftfield power alley at Comerica Park, slated for a hefty 398 feet, is being considered for a reduction. After finding decent pitching so hard to come by, Smith said, "We'll try to outscore people. Our 3-4-5 hitters stand up to anybody's."
Gonzalez, Tony Clark and Dean Palmer did mash 108 home runs last season, but they also whiffed 391 times. Rumors quickly spread that Detroit would trade Clark to the Padres for righthander Andy Ashby to improve a rotation of Dave Mlicki, Jeff Weaver, Brian Moehler and Seth Greisinger.