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A winter's worth of non-action

Special to

January 6

One of the camp moments of last month's winter meetings came when Dave Dombrowski, John Boles and a well-meaning entourage of Florida Marlins officials went to the press room podium to announce the big Julio Ramirez-Jeff Abbott blockbuster.

"Any questions?" asked Dombrowski.

Dead silence. Notta.

In retrospect, at least it was a trade. Gary Glover for Scott Eyre, Jayson Werth for John Bale and Miguel Olivo for Chad Bradford were real trades, and we should enjoy them for what they are. Because this is the winter major league baseball turned into the NFL. "You'd think," says one NL GM, "everyone has salary-cap problems."

Who said it?
"These signings have sent shockwaves through the industry. This club is no longer a doormat in the free-agent field."

(Answer at bottom.)

There have been two real, traditional trades this entire offseason. The Astros sent Roger Cedeno, Chris Holt and Mitch Meluskey to Detroit for Brad Ausmus, Doug Brocail and Nelson Cruz. Then, the Cardinals dealt Fernando Tatis and Britt Reames to Montreal for Dustin Hermanson and Steve Kline.


The Brewers and Padres swapped Jeromy Burnitz for Phil Nevin, but it fell through because Burnitz wouldn't sign an extension at the dollars San Diego was offering.

The deals in which the Reds traded Ron Villone, Chris Stynes, Steve Parris and Eddie Taubensee were salary dumps; if Colorado, Boston and Toronto hadn't given them something for Villone and Stynes, each would have been non-tendered, a la Ron Coomer by Minnesota. Matt Stairs, meanwhile, was a salary dump as was Bill Mueller, Royce Clayton and Randy Velarde. The Red Sox, by the way, are still trying to get someone to pay Troy O'Leary's salary and someone else to pay even $1 million of the $7.2M they eventually will owe Mike Lansing.

With Padres GM Kevin Towers taking Nevin off the market Wednesday, even the deals that are left hanging are essentially economic swaps unless the Mariners could muster enough relievers to trade to Toronto for Jose Cruz, Jr. The Royals still have two and maybe three teams still in play for Johnny Damon, while the Angels have interest from Arizona, the Mets and others in Tim Salmon, who will be a free agent after theb 2001 season. David Wells, meanwhile, is trying to get out of Toronto and the obligation the Jays made to him when he thought his back was bad.

"Because pitching is so thin, few teams had it to trade, the attention turned to the free-agent market and that tied everyone up for most of the offseason," says Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd. Everyone in the industry knows that war horses like O'Dowd, Steve Phillips, Dean Taylor, Brian Cashman, Jim Bowden and several other general managers worked the phones every day trying, in vain, to find trades. "It got so that the only way a lot of deals have seemed plausible is to involve three and sometimes even four clubs," says Kansas City's Allard Baird. "But those get so complicated someone loses what he's looking for."

"It really has come down to economics," says Cashman. "A lot of teams are stretched out so far on their payrolls, they're unable to take on salaries, or arbitration-eligible players (like Stynes or Villone). Last winter, St. Louis was able to make a very good trade for pitching (Darryl Kile) because of a high salary in a situation that didn't work." Nevin, Matt Clement, Scott Williamson and Roy Halladay, on the other hand, have been heavily sought because of low contracts or service time.

The Royals aknowledge that because Damon is a year away from free agency and is a fifth-year arbitration case, his trade value is far less than that of, say, Mike Sweeney or Mark Quinn. Baird would like to get a semi-closer with experience, then something for the future -- a pitcher, catcher or shortstop. The Mets have been juggling back and forth between Damon, Wells and Salmon ideas, and without acquiring Ben Davis from the Padres or involving other teams, can't do more than one.

"If we have Damon on Opening Day, we'd might as well play it out the rest of the season," says Baird. That could change come June, especially if owner David Glass is getting worried about the labor forecasts, but for now that's Baird's thinking.

The attempt to railroad Wells to the Mets is a crude form of tampering. It is also contemptible. Wells wanted his current contract extension, which at the time was a terrific deal for the pitcher, during the '99 season because he was very worried about his back. Now he wants out and wants the attention he would get in New York? It stinks. He doesn't like the Toronto fans? Well, how should the Toronto fans feel about a guy who had to be ordered to pitch the last day of the season and threw as if he were on death row and was gone when the game was over. In fact, if Oakland or Seattle had lost that final day and missed the playoffs because of Wells' lack of effort, he would have been the subject of nationwide outrage.

Wells is not in New York because the Yankees -- especially Joe Torre -- got sick and tired of his high maintenance and their perception that he is a selfish player. "Why do you think he's bounced from Toronto to Detroit to Cincinnati to Baltimore to New York back to Toronto?" asks one GM.

He's been a good pitcher -- what it means to lead the league in wins and hits allowed is hard to measure -- but he was 5-6 with a 4.97 ERA after the All-Star break, including that final game debacle. He's also got the contract he asked for, and at a time when new manager Buck Martinez and the Blue Jays are asking for some veteran responsibility to help get a young staff on the road to success, Wells is playing the Back Page card in New York. You better believe the Jays miss Roger Clemens and Pat Hentgen a lot more than they ever realized they would.

With Gonzo, Indians look real good
In the end, Juan Gonzalez is going to get what his agents value at a one year, $10 million deal from the Cleveland Indians. It's a far cry from the $148M, seven-year contract his former agent, Jim Bronner, negotiated for him last spring with the Tigers or the one year, $12.5M extension the Yankees offered during last year, but given all the issues surrounding the two-time MVP, this is a pretty fair contract for him to play where he wants to.

Juan Gonzalez
Juan Gonzalez hit just 22 home runs last year, his lowest total since the strike-shortened 1994 season.

If Gonzalez is healthy and happy in Cleveland -- and all indications are that the answer to both those questions is positive -- then the Indians are very, very dangerous.

Sure, they lost Manny Ramirez, but they've added Ellis Burks and Gonzalez, and still have Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel and Robby Alomar in front of them and Jim Thome, Travis Fryman and a bunch of complimentary bats in Wilfredo Cordero, Russell Branyan and Jacob Cruz around them. Sure, Sandy Alomar is gone, but they planned to use Einer Diaz as a regular anyway and they now have added Eddie Taubensee's power.

The bullpen theoretically should be deep with Bob Wickman, Steve Karsay, Paul Shuey, Ricardo Rincon (opposing lefties' OPS against him was down to .600 last season), Sean DePaula and Danys Baez.

Steve Woodard also gives them a workable starter behind Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley and Dave Burba, especially if Jaret Wright and Charles Nagy don't come back.

"If the Indians had made it into the postseason, everyone thought they were the team to beat in the American League," says one GM. "They missed by a game, because they messed around for four months, then had that brutal schedule in September. But they may have learned a lesson from what happened last year. If Burks and Gonzalez are healthy, watch out."

"How about some of those American League lineups -- Boston, Cleveland, Texas, Chicago, Oakland, New York?" asks another GM. "A lot of second-line pitchers are going to have some miserable days." And skyrocketing earned run averages, as well.

Ironically, Gonzalez' refusal to sign the deal in Detroit hurt the Yankees. They had a deal set with Derek Jeter, but George Steinbrenner wouldn't OK it until Gonzalez was in higher, because Steinbrenner didn't want to have the highest contract in the game. Gonzalez didn't sign, Steinbrenner backed off, and after the big money signings of Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez this offseason, Jeter's value has risen again.

Red Sox need better quality
Dan Duquette started the offseason stating that his priority was a No. 2 starter. When he could not sign Mike Mussina, he did sign Manny Ramirez, then when the price for Dustin Hermanson got too high, he signed Hideo Nomo with little fanfare. But check the (below) raw numbers on post-Mussina comparables.

1999-2000 records
Pitcher IP ERA K/9 IP QS/GS QS Pct.
Appier 404.1 4.85 5.8 34/59 53.8%
Dreifort 379.1 4.42 7.7 26/61 42.6%
Nomo 366.1 4.64 8.4 34/59 57.6%

"It is amazing what our bullpen accomplished last season," says Duquette, who did not blind himself to his staff leading the league in ERA; even with Pedro Marrinez, Boston's starters combined for the fewest innings of any AL starting staff. And in non-Pedro starts they had 42 quality starts in 133 games. Yich. Ramon Martinez was 7-for-27, Brian Rose 3-for-12, Pete Schourek 7-for-21, Jeff Fassero 7-for-23 and Tim Wakefield 2-for-17.

"We need more innings and more quality starts from our starters," says Duquette. "With our offense upgraded, those quality starts are important. Nomo, Frank Castillo, Paxton Crawford and Tomo Ohka had good quality-start records, and that means something."

Combined, the foursome was 37-for-71 (52 percent). For reference, the AL average was 43 percent. Since Pedro was a mere 25 for 29, if the rest of the starters are close to .500 then they can top last year's AL leader, Oakland, which had 83 quality starts in 161 games.

The Red Sox, Indians, Rangers, White Sox, Athletics and Blue Jays may be in the market for pitchers come June. The potential free agent list is thin -- Jason Schmidt, John Smoltz, Chan Ho Park, Jose Mercedes, Aaron Sele, Franciso Cordova, Pete Harnisch, Albie Lopez, Gil Heredia, James Baldwin, with Pedro Astacio, Wells, Tom Glavine and Jamie Moyer all having options for 2002. If arbitration cases for pitchers like Eric Milton, LaTroy Hawkins, Javier Vasquez, Carl Pavano and Jesus Sanchez make them expensive, a couple of them could become available by midseason.

Eight factoids from winter ball
1. Jeremy Powell. The former Expos prospect (0-3, 7.96 this season) always had good stuff, but never got it together. San Diego signed him as a minor-league free agent, and is 7-2, 1.92 in Puerto Rico and is a big sleeper. Another Pads minor-league FA signing, Matt Miller, is second in that league in saves.

2. Felix Jose leads the Dominican in batting (.377) and RBI (33) and is second in homers with eight.

3. Fernando Valenzuela is 7-4 with a 3.69 ERA in Mexico.

4. Brewer prospect Allen Levrault is 4-1, 2.63 with a 48-12 K-BB ratio in Venezuela.

5. Dodger shortstop Alex Cora still leads Puerto Rico in homers with nine.

6. Expos center fielder Peter Bergeron has a .431 on-base percentage in Puerto Rico.

7. Giants third baseman Pedro Felix is hitting .304 in the Dominican.

8. Red Sox outfield prospect Virgil (The Chief) Chevalier is hitting .303 with seven homers and has a 24-21 BB/K ratio in Mexico. Chevalier and Shea Hillenbrand are intriguing bats if needed.

Around the majors

  • The Mets are worried about the swells of public opinion that could build around the Armando Benitez domestic abuse case, stemming from charges brought against him by his former girlfriend Stacey O'Neill. While no one can underestimate the horrors of such abuse, just because someone says something happened doesn't mean it actually did. In Benitez's case, his relationship with the former dancer has been turbulent. The Mets believe that when he tried to get out of it, she threatened to charge him with abuse, which she, in fact, did so in Baltimore, only to have a judge threaten to dismiss the case after she said she'd settle for something like $200,000 and a new Mercedes (in fact, in the New York Times story on Saturday she stated that he had promised her that if they broke up).

    Now O'Neill has filed charges against Benitez in New York, knowing that this could become a tabloid issue that -- guilty or not guilty -- Benitez may have a difficult time getting around, especially if it gets ugly enough so that immigration gets involved. These cases are not simple. Wil Cordero has custody of his children, and his former wife is in prison. Pedro Astacio's case was extremely blurred. But then, for every case where the alleged abuser may be wrongly charged, there are thousands of cases where abusers go uncharged and unchallenged. It's just that athletes make so much money and sometimes use so little judgement in women that they get what they ask for. She was a stripper? And didn't turn out to be Kathleen Kennedy Townsend? What a surprise!

  • Kevin Malone insists that with more than $8M invested this season in Tom Goodwin and Devon White that he isn't a player in the Johnny Damon sweepstakes, and Baird this week told Damon that the Dodgers were not involved. But the signing of Ramon Martinez to the $1.5M deal (plus incentives) makes a lot of people wonder if Malone won't put Eric Gagne in a package for Damon, which after arbitration would give L.A. nearly $18M worth of center fielders, only one of which -- Goodwin -- is signed after 2001. Malone, by the way, turned down a Gagne for Milton Bradley offer from Montreal.

  • Speaking of the Dodgers, after signing Darren (39-45) Darren Dreifort to that $11M a year deal, Chan Ho Park is looking at $12-14M in arbitration.

  • Ken Hill has 15 to 18 teams lined up to watch his audition in California in two weeks. He says he's healthy, so he's a sleeper.

  • Red Sox CEO John Harrington this week started talking to GM Dan Duquette about a contract extension. Duquette is a free agent at the end of the season. Once Derek Jeter gets his deal done with the Yankees, Duquette says he will begin talking to Nomar Garciaparra and his agent, Arn Tellum.

    "They may want to wait until after the new collective bargaining agreement is signed," says Duquette. "We'll see."

    As for Pedro Martinez, Duquette says, "all Pedro said was that we might be better off signing him to an extension now rather than in three years. What's the big deal? He's right, as usual."

  • Oakland plans to use Mark Guthrie as a starter, something he did 12 times for the '91 Twins. "He'd give us a third left-handed starter, and if you look at his OPS (.731, league average .780) it's pretty good," says A's GM Billy Beane. "Lefties have a higher average than right-handers against him, but they don't do much damage (.341 slugging). If it doesn't work, the worst we have is a second left-hander in the middle, but I think he can start." So does Guthrie, who first thought he would get such an opportunity in Los Angeles.

    This and that

  • White Sox GM Ken Williams says that manager Jerry Manuel will look at Jose Valentin and Ray Durham in center field in spring training, then make a decision as to how he will align his club. Incidently, Williams says the medical prognosis on both Cal Eldred and James Baldwin are very good.

  • Speaking of medical cases, Bret Saberhagen began throwing this week, and will go to Fort Myers on the first of February in hopes of making another comeback attempt.

  • Braves reliever Kevin McGlinchy, also mentioned in Damon rumors, has recovered from some arm problems and is trying to get a job pitching in the Venezuelan playoffs.

  • Darren Bragg has his deal with the Mets done, and can earn $800,000 if he stays healthy. After a strong performance in the Dominican, all indications are that he should be fine.

  • Journalism will really miss "George." Rich kids' toys have tremendous social value.

  • The Padres pulled the plug on the Nevin deal to Seattle because they couldn't get the entire Griffey deal -- Mike Camerron, Brett Tomko and Antonio Perez -- and Cameron and Tomko alone weren't going to get it done.

  • This is how petty it gets in arbitration hearings: The last thing the Reds said to Steve Parris in his hearing last Feburary was, "oh yes -- you lost our biggest game of the year."

  • "Alex Rodriguez did set a record, upon further review," says one baseball official. "He had the greatest difference between the highest offer and the second highest offer -- $252M to $122M. The Braves' offer was for $122M." So, what's a mere $130M to a Texan? Sorry, Mr. President.

    Answer to, who said it?
    Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon, on the signings of Derek Bell and Terry Mulholland.

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