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It's all big business

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December 14

Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Mike Hampton were about brands. For Rangers owner Tom Hicks, the $252 million signing of Rodriguez was about making the Texas Rangers' brand name like the Yankees, Mets or Dodgers. He also signed A-Rod because of what that brand could do to billions of dollars worth of real-estate development around The Ballpark at Arlington and the battle for the top name in the J.R. Ewing/Cliff Barnes battle for Dallas between Hicks, Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones.

For Red Sox owner John Harrington, Ramirez was the vehicle to convince prospective buyers and ticket holders that for the prices he's asking, they're getting a team that can play against the Yankees and Mets and the New York money. And for GM Dan Duquette, who was criticized for his pursuit of Mike Mussina, his dogged chase of the great hitter re-established his public credentials that had slipped since the Pedro Martinez deal, just as Duquette starts the last year of his contract.

"It's unbelievable how Dan will throw the money around at the end," says one Indians official who concedes that in present market value the Boston offer was more than $145 million and Cleveland's was less than $120 million, while praising agent Jeff Moorad for doing everything possible to make it possible to return Ramirez to Cleveland. "The same thing happened when we were both trying to get (Rolando) Arrojo last July. We had a better deal in terms of players, but Duquette agreed to swallow Mike Lansing's contract, and the Rockies had no choice. Between Arrojo's arbitration and the $7.2 million Lansing has left on his contract, Arrojo is a $10 million pitcher."

For Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, Hampton and Denny Neagle sold that team's brand. "You can't win without pitching, and we have to change the mindset that no one can pitch in Denver," says O'Dowd. "We have two good pitchers who aren't afraid, who don't care about their earned run averages. It's something we have to do."

Sandy Alderson worries about the industry impact of these three deals. "It's like no one cares about anyone but themselves," says Alderson, which has always been at the heart of the matter of how the players fly the Lear jet. Baseball owners run 30 different businesses, not 30 divisions of a single industry. A-Rod is a real-estate deal, Pudge Rodriguez is a baseball player. "Moorad is going to raise hell on Rodriguez's deal," says one GM. "Wait and see. They have a problem on their hands."

Manny is a sales perk that to some prospective buyer might seem like a bad business decision, but enhances the irrational appeal of a franchise which, like the Cubs, has as much of an irrational appeal as the Buckner ball. Long after Harrington has sold the club and made off with the millions the piece of the team given to him by Jean Yawkey brings, the next ownership two years from now must start dealing with keeping the two franchise players -- Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez -- on the team with Ramirez.

It may be that Manny gets Harrington a couple of extra million and Duquette gets a five-year extension, but while Manny is a perk, Jason Giambi is just a baseball player to the Oakland Athletics and is a free agent next fall. If Oakland's payroll is still $30-35 million and Giambi gets close to his market value, they cannot retain him.

"Jason is a personal favorite and a great player," says A's GM Billy Beane. "But if one player takes up half of the payroll of your franchise, you're not a franchise, you're a road show." Seattle, which had offered Rodriguez $105 million for seven years last winter, never got beyond a guaranteed $54M for three years this fall, because they saw Texas coming and they said they can't tie up a third of their payroll in one man, no matter how great a player or person.

The Yankees, on the other hand, can and will re-sign Derek Jeter, but not close to the $17 million limit George Steinbrenner had in place last spring, only to have Juan Gonzalez back off his $140 million deal with the Tigers, forcing Steinbrenner to back off rather than to set new limits. Jeter likely will take less money and less years than A-Rod because he wants to win and wants to stay in New York, but Jeter is also one of baseball's three most marketable players and his off-field earnings are at least $4.5 million a year. (Only Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa do more, and that could change soon).

Between the Hampton and Darren Dreifort signings, Scott Boras has the Dodgers set up for negotiations with Chan Ho Park, a free agent next season, in the $13-14 million per year range. And what are Sammy Sosa, Johnny Damon, Tim Salmon, John Smoltz and other 2001 free agents thinking?

Not only do the Red Sox and Rangers have to eventually figure out how to balance their payrolls and keep Pedro, Garciaparra and Pudge Rodriguez, but the 17 teams that have not played the market this winter have to wonder what's going to happen next winter when the collective bargaining agreement expires.

"You certainly can't blame the players, because there's been very little squeeze on them as yet," says Seattle general manager Pat Gillick.

"I hear people complaining about the agents and the money," says Cubs GM Andy MacPhail, "but how can we blame any of them? The agents are just doing their jobs, and doing them well in most cases." (The fact that the Diamondbacks fired nine employees and the Yankees fired five or six scouts to satisfy ownership egos is another issue that led to one exec asking, "Did Steinbrenner have Joe Torre call the families of the fired scouts?")

As Bud Selig, Alderson and others cry out for some re-alignment of the system, agents and players obviously aren't listening. "Higher revenues, higher attendance, higher dollars," says agent Scott Boras.

"The rates that are being paid indicate that the business is healthy and there's no reason to change anything," says Jeff Boris of the Beverly Hills Sports Council. It's not their job to worry about Montreal, Minnesota or Kansas City. "The problem is that teams like the Dodgers and Red Sox don't have to worry about bad business," says a small-market GM. "The Red Sox will pay four guys who probably won't play next year (John Valentin, Bret Saberhagen, Lansing, Sang Lee) as much as the Twins will pay their entire team."

"We don't have the luxury of sitting around worrying about the Minnesota Twins," says one Red Sox official. "There's a lot at stake here for us. We needed to win last year, and thought Arrojo could get us into the playoffs. We needed Manny very badly. There was a lot of pressure on us to get him done."

To his credit, when Duquette was criticized for the impersonal way he pursued Mussina, he accepted the criticism and went after Ramirez the way the Yankees pursued Mussina. On Dec. 2, Duquette had Lee Thomas call Moorad to ask if it were too late to jump in to the bidding on Ramirez. Moorad assured him it wasn't too late, and the following Tuesday Duquette and Thomas went to visit Ramirez and Moorad in Florida; he tried to get Pedro and Nomar to fly in, but they called instead, the way Yankee players recruited Mussina.

As the Dallas winter meetings opened, Duquette flew to Orange County (Calif.) to negotiate and virtually went all night two straight nights in Dallas to get it done. When on Monday night it appeared that Manny was returning to Cleveland, Duquette appeared in the lobby looking as if he'd walked from Boston to Newport Beach to Dallas without sleeping and said, "I don't think it's going to happen." But he went back at Moorad again and never let go. He signed the first major free agent in Red Sox history and altered the entire winter for New England fans who otherwise are stuck with little more than the promise of Kenny Anderson to kick around at $9 million a year for the entire Bush Administration. On Thursday morning, he was back in his office, on the phone. "We have to get pitching," he said.

If a Red Sox-Yankee ALCS were to open tomorrow, yes, the Yankees would be the favorites because of their Fab Four starters and with Mike Stanton able to get to Mariano Rivera at the end. But it won't be played before Christmas, and Duquette, like Rangers general manager Doug Melvin, has time. He wants to deal for another starter, then hope that during the season he can get another one. Look, the Red Sox have led the AL in ERA the last two years with Pedro Martinez being their only starter to win 11 games. And they were the first team ever to lead the league in ERA and have their starters compile the fewest innings. That's how good their bullpen was.

"Our bullpen is going to be a lot more important when we're scoring more runs," says Duquette. In front of Derek Lowe, the Red Sox have Rich Garces, Hipolito Pichardo and Rod Beck (whom pitching coach Joe Kerrigan believes will be a major contributor). They need a lefty, although Kerrigan is quick to point out that lefties hit .202 off Garces and "in today's game, the groundball/flyball matchups are far more important than the left-right." They have re-signed Tim Wakefield, but need someone like a Pat Mahomes to fill that early role, at least until Sunny Kim is ready. "In today's game, you'd better be able to prepare at least 16 pitchers in spring training," says Kerrigan. With that in mind, they will continue to stockpile pitchers.

Ohka and Paxton Crawford will get an opportunity, and they hope Arrojo pitches more consistently with a spring training behind him. Viewing the Orlando Hernandez lapses of concentration in the regular season and knowing that Arrojo was the better pitcher in the Cuban playoffs, the Red Sox think Arrojo might be a very effective October pitcher. Duquette tried to make deals for Dustin Hermanson -- but felt that Tomo Ohka, Crawford and Trot Nixon was far, far too steep a price -- and when he couldn't signed Hideo Nomo, after earlier signing Frank Castillo.

Phil Garner appreciated that the Tigers couldn't afford Nomo's $5.5 million option, but says, "He had only three bad starts all year. With any support or luck, he could and should have won 15 games. He kept us in games, his stuff (his 8.67 strikeouts per nine innings pitched was third in the league) is still very good and most of his starts were good (17 of 31 were quality starts)." Duquette thinks the higher strike zone will help him increase the batters' field of vision. As for Castillo, half of his starts were quality, so Nomo and Castillo threw 53 percent quality starts compared to the league average of 42 percent and the Red Sox' non-Pedro record of 42-for-133, 31 percent. Castillo, who had a remarkable season in Toronto with a 2.09 second-half ERA and the ninth lowest full-season OPS against of any American League pitcher, will be one of those Jimy Williams every-sixth-days guys. "That is not enough," says Duquette. "But we'll do what we can, and keep working at it during the season."

Last year, the Red Sox scored only 792 runs and hit 167 homers. In the American League, you have to score, and in case you didn't remember, the Yankees were 12th in runs until David Justice arrived.

"I'm not sure that any American League team has a 3-4-5 comparable to Nomar, Manny and Carl Everett," says an AL scout. "I've said for two years that Ramirez is the best hitter in the league. He hits .350, he had the highest OPS in the league, he goes deep into counts (4.27 pitches per at-bat). He changes that entire lineup, and if Jose Offerman's knee is healthy and he's back on base 40 percent of the time, they have one of the best offensive teams in either league. If they can keep Nixon and bat him second, he, Offerman and Ramirez will get so many pitches that the rest of the lineup will follow suit and they will be getting starters in bigger pitch-count problems, which they did not do last season. Get behind 4-1 last year and they all swung at the first pitch. Look at Chris Stynes' leadoff on-base percentage last year (.400). We've really addressed a major problem."

Duquette says Ted Williams called him and said, "Manny could help Nomar hit .400 because Nomar won't feel obligated to swing at first pitches out of the strike zone in clutch situations because he has Manny and Everett behind him. Nomar isn't likely to lead the league in intentional walks again."

While Duquette was pulling his five-day sleepless marathon, Thomas and agent Larry Reynolds arranged a meeting between Everett and Jimy Williams that was one of the most important strides of this offseason. "It was really good," says Reynolds. "They reasoned things together. Carl is very happy."

Williams was more than relieved; he seemed to have a weight off his shoulders. "I feel really good about this," said Everett, who was relaxed, hung out with and joked with club officials and brought his friend, Torii Hunter, in to meet the Red Sox delegation. "Everything now is in the past. I can't tell you how good this was."

Then behind Everett, where last year the bottom of the Boston lineup was dreadful, now Dante Bichette, Brian Daubach, Jason Varitek and Stynes sit in the final four spots.

Five years from now, Steve Karp and David Mugar or whoever owns the Red Sox may be cursing the Ramirez contract. But right now, they're thinking about how much fun June nights at Fenway will be.

They're not thinking about the industry or the inherent problems that come with one $252 million player, a $123 million pitcher or a $160 million DH. Back when Bill Campbell became the first free agent to sign in November 1976 for slightly more than today's minimum ($1,075,000 over five years), we heard that the economics of the game could never make sense. We heard it again in 1980, and they shut the game down in 1981, and again in 1985, when it stopped, and 1990, when it was locked out and, of course, 1994.

Are there solutions? Any such solutions begin with contraction of franchises. They may have to ask the players to trade off arbitration for earlier free agency. To get meaningful revenue sharing, the small-market teams may have to strike the big markets and not allow them to broadcast out of their ballparks until they get a bigger share of the local revenues (what are the Yankees going to do -- televise 162 intrasquad games?).

When the Yankees signed Mussina, Red Sox fans called WEEI radio to bemoan the system. Today, they'd just as soon let the A's eat rice cakes. Ramirez, Rodriguez and Hampton are too many things, too many people on too many levels of the game to make sense or fairness.

Insuring A-Rod will get pricey
The Rangers can only get $96 million of the $252 million in Rodriguez's contract insured, and that is only for the first five years. So if A-Rod were to suffer a serious injury in the first five years, the Rangers would only get part of the money back. After five years, they have to get more insurance and A-Rod has to take a physical every year. Incidentally, it costs Texas $8 million to get that $92 million worth of insurance. "They have to get new insurance after five years," says one baseball official. "So it's going to cost them at least $14-15 million to insure the contract."

Seattle, meanwhile, passed on Texas' offer of Royce Clayton and Ricky Ledee for Brett Tomko and passed on signing Mike Bordick, who right now has nowhere to go. The Mariners are looking for more pop at shortstop (Montreal's Orlando Cabrera, for one) as well as trying to use Tomko in a deal with San Diego to get Phil Nevin. The M's offered Tomko and Mike Cameron for Nevin, while the Pads were turned down by the Indians on a Nevin-Russell Branyan deal.

Incidently, now that the White Sox have Clayton they can move Jose Valentin to second base and Ray Durham to center.

Oh, yes. As the Rangers scramble for pitching, one AL scout says that "a Rangers-Angels game is a guaranteed five hours. Can you imagine the concession games? They'll be the first games where they offer dinner and breakfast."

Hampton loves the Rocky Mountains
Some were cynical at the Mike Hampton press conference for his talk about family and schools, etc. But it was real. Mike and his wife Cautia both fell in love with the Colorado area, but just as important, both their parents agreed to move to that area. "The hardest thing we ever had to do was say no to Tony La Russa," says Cautia. "I think if it had just been our decision, we would have gone to St. Louis. But our families wouldn't move there, and that's very important to us."

The Cardinals' reaction to losing Hampton was to make the Fernando Tatis deal. Dustin Hermanson gives the Cardinals a starter and Steve Kline is one of the best left-handed relievers in the game. And the Cards will need another starter, even if Matt Morris moves into the rotation and becomes the 1-2 guy most feel he will.

But there are a lot of people who think that La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan are in denial when they discount Rick Ankiel's problems as "mechanical," and there is a lot of ground to be covered with Ankiel before spring training. The Cards thought Tatis got a little soft after signing his contract, but one GM says, "you're still looking at a 26-year-old who has hit 30 homers and knocked in 100 runs. Get him up there with Felipe Alou and watch what he does. That's a tough position to find offense right now."

Tatis's .880 OPS was bettered by only three other NL third basemen -- Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen and Phil Nevin.

Montreal now might turn around and deal center fielder Milton Bradley to L.A. for Eric Gagne, a trade that would give the Dodgers a young outfield prospect and the Expos a local hero and a pretty good young pitcher. The Expos also expect Donnie Bridges, who blew all the way through to Double-A -- where he was 11-7 -- last year after maturing, to be on the club by midseason.

Edge goes to Astros
Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker made one significant deal, acquiring catcher Brad Ausmus and middle reliever Doug Brocail in a six-player swap involving outfielder Roger Cedeno, catcher/DH Mitch Meluskey and right-hander Chris Holt. "That is a great deal for Houston," says another GM. "It will be interesting to see what it does for the Tigers, because Ausmus and Brocail are big clubhouse leaders."

Houston catchers threw out 22 percent of opposing baserunners last season; Ausmus' percentage was .420, and Brocail is one of the toughest setup men around. They also have good news on Billy Wagner. "The trainers had to go get a catcher," says Hampton. "He's throwing so hard that they couldn't catch him." While the Astros turned down one request after another to talk about Daryle Ward, they will talk Moises Alou.

The Tigers tried to bolster their offense, which was second-worst in the American League. "We need to improve our on-base and production and get more hitters who run up counts," says GM Randy Smith. Meluskey, who will hold the catching fort until prize receiver Brandon Inge is ready (probably by the All-Star break), had a .401 on-base percentage and his power projects to 30 homers given 500 at-bats. What this means to Robert Fick -- who can hit -- isn't clear. Cedeno gives them a .383 on-base guy and speed for the top of the order. It also now appears that Juan Gonzalez isn't getting any intriguing offers, and may accept salary arbitration from the Tigers, try to have a make-good year and hit the market next season. David Segui similarly doesn't have a market, but rather than take arbitration, Scott Boras indicates he's willing to take a three-year deal, as suggested by Indians GM John Hart a month ago.

What happens with Sammy Sosa now is purely speculation. The Rodrigiez/Ramirez contracts raise the bar for Sammy. The Cubs apparently would like to do some deal, but the problem is that the two teams that had shown the greatest interest -- Texas and Boston -- are now out of the picture. This will be something to watch.

News and notes

  • Fernando Valenzuela is 6-2 with a 2.10 ERA this winter in Mexico. Can a two-year, $5 million deal be far off for him?

  • How bad is the money crunch in Cincinnati? GM Jim Bowden couldn't re-sign Mark Wohlers, even though Wohlers wanted to return. Bowden told one club to whom he was trying to deal Pete Harnisch, "I'm trying to give you a 15-game winner." Curiously, though, Cincinnati's Scott Williamson is what the Royals would like to get for Johnny Damon. Presumably, Bowden would then move him in another deal.

  • The best Tommy Lasorda story on Brewer phenom Ben Sheets, the day he was supposed to pitch against Cuba in the gold-medal game. "I told him, 'This is going to be the most important game you'll ever pitch the rest of your life,'" says Lasorda. "He looked at me and said, 'Who are we facing?'"

  • One of the theories on Jose Lima's dreadful year is that last winter was the first one he didn't pitch winter ball. He will this winter. Same goes for Omar Daal.

  • Rick White remains a bigger bargaining tool than some Mets fans realize. The Astros almost took him for Cedeno when Detroit's ownership held up the six-player deal. Meanwhile, the Royals and Blue Jays are interested in deals for Damon and David Wells. It may be more than money in the Wells talks. A 5-6 record with a 4.92 ERA after the All-Star break and 266 hits in 229.1 innings? Seventeen of 33 starts were quality? Incidentally, the Mets could have had Damon or Matt Lawton had they been willing to deal Jay Payton.

  • The Giants are limited to bottom-fishing for a right fielder and bullpen help. But they think 24-year-old rookie Pedro Feliz, who hit 33 homers in the PCL last year, will give them some sock at that corner. "He was always a kid we thought would hit, but line drives," says one personnel director. "All of a sudden, he learned to loft the ball. And he has one hell of an arm."

  • Several teams are talking to the Padres about Matt Clement, and a lot more would like to discuss Woody Williams. "We just can't trade Woody right now," says GM Kevin Towers. "He's too good and too important to our younger pitchers."

  • One scout who had watched Tom Gordon throw every other day for a month: "His arm speed is as good as new. I realize they were just side sessions, but he looks great. He could really help the Cubs. The Red Sox may rue the day they chose to pick up Rod Beck's ($4.5 million) option and not Gordon's."

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  • Gammons: 2000 column archive

     Peter Gammons breaks down the state of baseball after the flurry of big-money deals.
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