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Expos' fire sale scrambles
free-agent market

Special to

Dec. 8
Jim Thome, Mike Remlinger, David Bell and -- in the spirit of Strom Thurmond -- Jesse Orosco had signed. Tom Glavine was on his way.

But stuck in a forest of bizarre money-laundering deals, the offseason free agent market was dragging along squeamishly until Expos president Tony Tavares froze the market. He announced that his team's operating expenses, dictated by Major League Baseball, were so tight that Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon, Javier Vazquez, Jose Vidro and all their good players were available in an owners' estate sale.

Omar Minaya and Frank Robinson
Omar Minaya, left, will be a busy general manager at this weekend's winter meetings.

"What this does is effectively take the winter meetings (beginning Thursday amid the plastic Santa ambience of the Opryland Hotel in Nashville) and put the entire focus on the Expos," says one American League general manager. "This was done in a bizarre manner. They announce that MLB is ordering a fire sale, then when everyone calls Thursday and Friday, (GM) Omar Minaya is out of the country in the Dominican. So now most teams are going to Nashville trying to see how to get Colon or Vazquez or Vidro or Guerrero. If you think about it, if they have to get from $55 million, which is what they project keeping the team together would cost, to $42 million, then Omar can get there by tying Fernando Tatis together with Colon in one deal. Or he can move Colon, Michael Barrett and Orlando Cabrera.

"But by throwing all those names out there," says the GM, "they've fixated most of the attention on Montreal and it's hard trying to keep other trade discussions flowing."

Last offseason, the market was freeze-framed by Bud Selig's post-World Series declaration of contraction -- which, of course, involved Montreal. With clubs already in fear and loathing about the labor situation, the market stopped while general managers looked at those Expos' names and a Twins team with so much young talent that it reached the ALCS. They decided to wait to spend on a free agent or trade assets until they knew whether or not they could get a Vazquez or a Torii Hunter for nothing.

This winter, in an already chilly market, here comes the MLB estate sale, which may have a similar impact. Look what's going on at the periphery:

  • The Rangers have acquired Einar Diaz and allowed Pudge Rodriguez to find himself a new home.

  • The Yankees on Friday gave Mike Stanton 15 minutes to either accept a two year, $2.5 million per year deal (the same offer they extended to Mark Guthrie and Chris Hammond), and when he did not, told him thanks for compiling the best World Series and postseason ERAs of any left-handed reliever in baseball history, take your gold watch and don't let the door hit your derriere on the way out.

  • Tom Glavine and Jim Thome left behind their monuments in Atlanta and Cleveland ...

    Oh yes. Weeks before the Dodgers and Cubs exchanged $30 million worth of bench players, the Florida Marlins, who you might remember were bought in a series of bizarre transactions (and you thought Iran-Contra was complicated?) that involved Boston, Florida and the ward of Montreal, agreed to pay $10 million of Mike Hampton's salary to pitch for Atlanta, which prevents the Marlins from improving themselves and being able to make a run at their divisional rival the Braves.

    Lawyers, guns and money
    There are those, particularly agents and union lawyers, who believe that the timing of the Montreal fire-sale announcement was all about the market (and not about the team playing 22 games in San Juan, which was finalized at the same time). They point to the curious juxtaposition of the Phillies and Mets each saying they knew the other team wasn't going to guarantee four years to Glavine. The look at last June's attempt by the Commissioner's Office to rig an artificial bonus slotting of the June amateur draft.

    Whatever the genesis, with the majority of clubs claiming payroll freezes, the effect is so widespread that there are agents digging out their Florida Turnpike maps looking for Homestead. If the Expos' scavenger hunt takes as much time as many think it will (because Minaya will have so many offers and scenarios to sift through), then it could slow down both the trade and free-agent markets for a week past the winter meetings.

    Then, guess what the week after Nashville shows on your Advent calender? Yup, non-tender day, Dec. 20. In all likelihood, there will be well over 100 free agents unsigned, then there will be another 25-40 players thrown into the market with the non-tenders (names like Marlon Anderson, Travis Lee, Carlos Febles, Jeff Suppan, Rolando Arrojo, Brian Daubach, Shane Spencer, Brad Fullmer, Quinton McCracken, Jimmy Anderson, Antonio Alfonseca, John Halama, Todd Ritchie -- and others). That weekend, the club offices close for the holidays, and when they re-open there are 150-something players in flux.

    Oh yes. Then GMs are fixated on Jan. 18, the date teams and players exchange salary arbitration numbers. That, not coincidentally, will be impacted by the bearish free-agent market.

    And before you know it, it's Groundhog Day and players either take what they are given, or they do what they did after the strike in 1995 and assembl in Homestead, Fla., for fun, games and auditions since none of them will be under contract to any team. Looking ahead to far better free-agent classes in 2003 and 2004, there are a lot of players who will think twice before sloughing off management's proposals.

    It may be that this is all the residue of an industry whose spending eclipsed its revenues after the last agreement until the Alex Rodriguez, Hampton and Manny Ramirez signings froze the ATM system. Everyone knew that revenues would be flat in 2002; after all, the contraction winter and months of labor Armageddon talk leading up to the Aug. 31 agreement had to turn off fans and impact postseason television ratings.

    "It's confusing," says one NL GM. "We know that any team with cash is king, and the Phillies and Cubs have cash. Fine. Then we hear that the Rangers, Red Sox, Mets and Dodgers desperately want to avoid paying any luxury tax and that all of them want to get down to or below the $100 million waterline then the Mets sign a 37-year old (Glavine) for $35 million over three years. I just don't know."

    We apparently do know the following:

  • Those four big-market teams in Boston, L.A., Flushing Meadows and The Metroplex do want to flatten payrolls at the very least. Dodgers officials say Fox, the team's owner, does not want to pay the tax. The Mets were willing to spend to make pitching their strength (although their Big Three of Glavine, Al Leiter and Pedro Astacio were a combined 17-23 after June 30).

    They signed Steve Trachsel to give them, with John Thomson, a veteran -- and expensive -- five-man rotation that will cost them nearly $35 million. No wonder they talked Armando Benitez for Shea Hillenbrand while letting Edgardo Alfonzo go and trying to find creative waste stations for Rey Ordonez, Roger Cedeno and Jeromy Burnitz.

  • The Rangers bid Pudge adieu, and the Red Sox, meanwhile, are active in the trade market, willing to take a contract or two to acquire young players. They will be major players in the hunt for Cuban defector Jose Contreras, they are letting most of their free agents walk and are not willing to take another eight-figure contract -- not when Ramirez, Pedro Martinez and Nomar Garciaparra will combine to make more than $50 million in 2004.

  • Atlanta is proceeding cautiously. "We will put a strong, contending team on the field in 2003 and be in the top six in payrolls once again," says general manager John Schuerholz, "but considering where the market is going and where are revenues are going, we have to change. We have sustained substantial losses in the past, and we're not going to continue to do that."

  • Cincinnati's budget hasn't been precisely determined, despite the new stadium, but it is believed to be in the $50-55 million range. With a number of critical arbitration cases on the horizon, GM Jim Bowden is trying to move money in and out of Swiss and Bahamian banks. Half of the Cincinnati payroll is tied up in Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin and Sean Casey, which is why Bowden tried to complete the Griffey-Phil Nevin trade that came undone because Nevin wouldn't leave the West Coast. The Indians likely will not play on Casey now that they have Travis Hafner, and while trying to work a three-way to get Felipe Lopez from Toronto (which entails acquiring Tony Armas or some similar pitcher for the Jays), Bowden may have to move a couple of contracts, which he can do by sending Gabe White and Todd Walker to Boston. However, the Red Sox have backed off White because of his elbow and the fact that if they sign Contreras, they can keep young lefty Casey Fossum in the bullpen.

  • The Gentlemen of Wal-Mart are not spending. The Royals have to slash to $37 million, which means sayonara to Paul Byrd (although they made a two-year offer Friday) and Joe Randa, et al. The Astros are frozen in the mid-$60 million range, with several salary increases, which is why they couldn't play on Woody Williams. They did, however, lock up Shane Reynolds in an incentive-laden contract but will likely have to bottom-fish to fill out the pitching staff. They also hope Lance Berkman and Jason Lane can fill center field again.

    On the one hand, if you're an Indians fan, you've watched the Tribe rise from the ashes of Municipal Stadium to The Jake. Now, you're looking at a $50 million payroll and half the attendance of the salad says. And when Thome left for Philadelphia, it sent a scary message: it was one thing when Albert Belle left, another when Manny Ramirez left for what is one of baseball's most laughable contracts, but when Thome leaves for money, it makes one wonder if one wants to be a fan.

    Fans don't care about the Forty Years War waged by owners and players' lawyers, they don't care that so many of the agencies are now part of multinational conglomerates and are required to take the highest offer. They just don't. Remember after Bud Selig stood at the podium on Aug. 31 and proclaimed Peace in Our Time and promised that he would lead the movement to bring owners and players together to promote the game and help make fans once again like the product -- which happens to be the labor force?

    Enjoy the Rule 5 Draft in Nashville, keep your eyes fixed on the Expos' estate sale and, remember, Homestead is a full tank from South Beach.

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