Hold 'Em or Deal?
Teams are facing agonizing decisions about big-name free-agents-to-be
Two weeks ago Brewers general manager Dean Taylor agreed to a trade with the Padres that would send rightfielder Jeromy Burnitz to San Diego for third baseman Phil Nevin and veteran reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. However, the deal was contingent on San Diego's being able to sign Burnitz, who will be eligible for free agency after next season, to a contract extension. Had the Padres not blanched at the request by Burnitz (who will earn $5.3 million in 2001) for $9 million to $10 million per season, the trade would have gone through and the 31-year-old slugger might have spent Thanksgiving week preparing to move back to his native state. As of Monday, though, Burnitz was still a Brewer. "We have said since the season ended that Jeromy was in our plans for 2001," says Taylor, who hopes to re-sign Burnitz himself. "I still feel that way."
Such is the roller coaster ridden by a star the season before he can become a free agent. As the usual big-market sharks circle this winter's prize free agents-shortstop Alex Rodriguez, rightfielder Manny Ramirez, righthander Mike Mussina and lefthander Mike Hampton-several teams are racking their brains for a way to keep their big fish from jumping into the pool next year. Burnitz, Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, Royals outfielder Johnny Damon, A's first baseman and American League MVP Jason Giambi, and Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa are among the stars entering their walk years. The conundrum facing their teams: Should they sign their headliner to a break-the-bank extension this winter, deal him before trade leverage evaporates or sit tight and hope the player doesn't bolt a year from now, when the team would get nothing in return?
Kansas City G.M. Allard Baird says he wants to extend the contract of Damon, who hit .327 and led the American League in steals (46) and runs (136) in 2000, but agent Scott Boras insists that his client will test the market next year. It's doubtful that the small-market Royals can come up with the cash to convince Damon otherwise; their recent offer of $32 million for five years is at least $18 million short of what it will most likely take. Baird has been bombarded this off-season by inquiries from teams interested in Damon, but K.C.'s steep asking price—a package of players that includes a top reliever-has turned off suitors. Still, if the right deal presents itself at next week's winter meetings, Damon won't be a Royal next season. "We do have some depth in the outfield, and to get quality you have to move quality," says Baird.
The same logic was behind the nixed Burnitz trade. "This was a deal that the Padres brought to us," says Taylor. "We felt it was an opportunity to improve our club." The Brewers' contract offers have been snubbed by Burnitz, and talks have been at a standstill since July; the rightfielder (.232,31 home runs, 98 RBIs last season) has made it clear he won't negotiate with Milwaukee once spring training starts.
Talks between the Astros and Bagwell are on hold because the first baseman, who also says he won't negotiate after the start of spring training, doesn't want to re-sign until the team indicates it will spend money on other players who will make the club competitive again. "Our goal is to sign Jeff to an extension" says Houston G.M. Gerry Hunsicker. "I don't see a scenario developing where we'd trade him, unless that was his desire."
The same goes for As G.M. Billy Beane, who has had informal talks about an extension with Giambi but puts no timetable on getting a pact done. "It depends on what you view as a good return," says Beane. "For us that might be getting another MVP year from Jason and a chance to go to the World Series."
Tony the Tiger?
Gwynn Looks Past San Diego
The specter of Padres icon Tony Gwynn in another team's uniform was looming larger at week's end. In October the Padres refused to pick up the 40-year-old right-fielder's $6 million option for 2001, and they have only until Dec. 7 to re-sign Gwynn or offer him salary arbitration. Otherwise San Diego loses negotiating rights until May 1, which would all but ensure that he'd play elsewhere for the first time in his 19-year career. The team offered Gwynn a one-year contract with a base salary of $1 million and a $250,000 bonus for every 100 plate appearances; it had received no counteroffer. Gwynn would prefer to stay in San Diego, but in addition to a more lucrative deal, he wants to sign with a team that would use him as more than a role player. Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City are among the teams Gwynn has talked to. The Indians, who anticipate needing two bats to replace likely-to-depart rightfielder Manny Ramirez, have talked to Gwynn about platooning with the newly signed Ellis Burks. Gwynn has also spoken with Tigers general manager Randy Smith, a close friend who was San Diego's G.M. from 1993 through '95.
Gwynn—who had surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left knee last June and finished the season with a .323 average in only 127 at bats—and his agent, John Boggs, met on Nov. 18 with Padres owner John Moores, CEO Larry Lucchino, general manager Kevin Towers and manager Bruce Bochy at Moores's home near San Diego. "It was a meeting that should have taken place a few months ago," says Boggs. "That's the most positive pin I can put on it."