Money for Muscle
The New York Mets are through making very rich men of big, strong, slow boppers who bash from both sides of the plate. Too bad. A couple more free-agent signings like their recent blockbusters and the Amazins could have fielded an all-switch-hitting lineup that earned about $3 million per man annually and scored about 11 runs a game. It would have been wild. The Mets would have won 97 games despite a 4.50 team ERA, the fans would have forgiven them for letting Darryl Strawberry walk as a free agent last year, a World Series flag would have flown again over Shea Stadium, and the starting nine would have celebrated by buying the Seattle Mariners.
But alas, Al Harazin, the Mets' new general manager, ended his switch-hitting spending salvo and arrived last Saturday at the baseball winter meetings in Miami Beach looking instead for much-needed pitching and to improve the team's clanging defense. He had no concerns about his offense after a six-day negotiating frenzy between Nov. 27 and Dec. 2, during which he signed outfielder Bobby Bonilla, late of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and first baseman Eddie Murray ( Los Angeles Dodgers) to free-agent contracts totaling $36.5 million. Harazin thus began his regime with a bang, by not only shoving the game's salary structure into new frontiers but also by reviving the Mets as contenders in the weak National League East.
"The way they fell last year, for all the blows they took, Al felt he had to do something the fastest way possible," says San Diego Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine, the former vice-president of baseball operations for the Mets. "It was like an electric jolt."
The jolt was felt throughout baseball. Murray, 35, was given a two-year deal for $7.5 million even though no other team competed strongly for his services. But the five-year, $29 million contract for the 28-year-old Bonilla—the largest ever for a professional athlete in team sports—will have a more profound effect. It set a precedent for the members of the bountiful free-agent class of 1992, which includes Barry Bonds, Eric Davis, Barry Larkin, Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg and Ruben Sierra. Moreover, the Bonilla payout will carry deep into baseball's next, yet-to-be-negotiated television contract, which will go into effect in '94 and isn't expected to yield anything close to the $1.5 billion being paid by CBS and ESPN under the current four-year deal.
But Harazin wasn't daunted in the least by financial forecasts, and the Mets weren't the only big-market, big-money team to open its wallet to free agents last week: The Chicago Cubs gave former Dodger pitcher Mike Morgan (one winning year out of 11 in the big leagues) $12.5 million for four years; L.A. signed pitcher Tom Candiotti ( Toronto Blue Jays) and re-signed Orel Hershiser for a combined $25.5 million.
These teams, especially the Mets, have the money, and nobody can stop them from spending it. Harazin became G.M. in September, and the Mets brass, abandoning their tradition of building from within, gave him the freedom and tons of dough to rescue a depressed team, one that in 1991 went 77-84 and finished fifth, 20� games out. Harazin wasted little time, but has he wasted money?
"I know people say we overpaid," he says. "But look at Eddie's track record, and don't tell me he's overpaid. O.K., maybe I could have saved a couple hundred thousand a year with him. but I couldn't take that chance. With Bobby, six teams were after him. I would have gotten more blame if I hadn't got him."
Are the Mets much improved? "Sure they are," says McIlvaine. "What did they give up? Nothing but money."
Harazin's revamped lineup will be a powerful and extremely versatile one that could include six switch-hitters: Bonilla, Murray, Howard Johnson, Gregg Jefferies, Vince Coleman and Todd Hundley. Bonilla has been one of the better players in the National League the past four years, but as good as Bonilla is, he's not in the same class as Bonds, Larkin, Sierra, Will Clark, Jose Canseco or a number of others. Bonilla hit only 18 homers last year. "He's no Darryl Strawberry," says a former Pittsburgh teammate. "He won't hit 35 homers and carry a team. Bobby's a good player; he's probably in the top 20 in baseball. But he's not close to Bonds."