Yankees may have reached limit

So far, the Carlos Beltran negotiations are only business for George Steinbrenner. And unless it gets personal, the Yankees will not compete with the Mets for a player who would fit their long-term needs as well as any free agent that has hit the market in recent years.

There's still time for Steinbrenner's impetuosity to come into play. He could scan the back pages and the front pages today and over the next three days and see the Mets -- a team the Yankees have mostly lorded over in his 32 years as owner -- dominating the headlines.

Then the Boss could change his mind. Get Scott Boras on the phone, he could bark, and Steinbrenner could immediately reverse the course of the negotiations. That's what this writer has long assumed -- wrongly, it appears -- that he would do, because this is how Steinbrenner has always operated. He has not only been devoted to the Yankees' success, but also to blotting out the Mets and Red Sox as if they stood helplessly in the shadows of a total eclipse.

When the Yankees' effort to sign Albert Belle collapsed after the '98 season, Steinbrenner needed only 20 minutes to increase his offer to Bernie Williams from $60 million to $87.5 million, and retain the center fielder; otherwise, Williams would have been off to Boston.

But as of Tuesday morning, the Yankees seem to be suffering from a strain of post-Christmas buyers' remorse. Except their spending spree really began after the 2001 season when they signed first baseman Jason Giambi to a seven-year, $120 million deal. Since then, they have made lavish investments in Alex Rodriguez, the now-departed Javier Vazquez and Jeff Weaver, catcher Jorge Posada and relievers Steve Karsay and Tom Gordon. They took on Kevin Brown's huge contract to get rid of Weaver, and are kicking in $9 million to unload Vazquez. Sometime in the next 72 hours, they are expected to make a deal that will pay Randy Johnson $16 million a year in 2007, in a summer he turns 44.

Yankees' executives are examining the bills rolling in and they are queasy. Their payroll for 2005 will be over $200 million for the first time -- probably 50 percent higher than Boston's payroll, and 300 percent greater than most teams. In 2006 and 2007, four Yankees are slated to make $174 million: A-Rod, Derek Jeter, Giambi and Johnson (assuming that his deal gets completed). They could pay around $100 million in revenue sharing and luxury tax in '05.

So like a kid whose birthday is just a week after the Christmas gluttony, Beltran may not see the splurge otherwise expected. The timing is bad. Unless it gets personal for Steinbrenner.

In all respects, Beltran makes sense for a Yankees' splurge. At a time when they're trying to get younger, he's only 27. At a time when they're picking around for a possible replacement for Williams, Beltran is a superlative center fielder. The Yankees love left-handed hitters; Beltran is -- all the better -- a switch-hitter. He runs well, he steals bases, he hits for power, he seems to be getting better, and everybody talks about what a great guy he is. Beltran would slot perfectly into the Yankees' lineup, an impact No. 2 hitter behind Jeter, just ahead of A-Rod and Gary Sheffield. Imagine it: 19 All-Stars, seven Hall of Fame candidates. Maybe eight, if Beltran blossomed in the Bronx.

But right now, Yankees' officials are feeling a little bloated. The club is a money-making machine but, as one executive said Monday, "we are not a bottomless pit of cash."

Across town, the Mets are highly motivated. Omar Minaya has taken over the Mets and "done something that nobody else was able to do," said one major-league executive. "He's convinced Fred Wilpon to spend money."

Beltran would fit the Mets, as well. A centerpiece star for their forthcoming television network. Somebody who could assume the burden of the offense, which has for too long fallen on the aching body of Mike Piazza. A strong outfielder for the pitcher's park that is Shea Stadium.

There are also reasons why overbidding on Beltran wouldn't make sense for the Mets. Even if the Mets land Beltran, following the overbid on Pedro Martinez, the Mets still will have major holes in their bullpen, at first base, at second, doubts about whether Piazza can be the everyday catcher. It's possible that the Mets could invest some $30 million in Martinez and Beltran for 2005 and finish under .500.

But Minaya is operating the Mets with the same sort of bright-eyed vision that Steinbrenner had when he took over the Yankees in 1973. Steinbrenner, who had some experience in producing theatre, wanted stars. He wanted the marquee to be bright, the names jumping off. He wanted Reggie and Goose. He wanted the Yankees to own the town. That's what Minaya wants for the Mets.

It's an expensive gamble, but hey, right now Minaya has the cache, he's got the owner's ear, he's got some momentum. If he outbids the competition, Minaya could announce the signing of Beltran.

But only if Steinbrenner continues to look at this as business. Just business.

If it gets personal ... Well, then all bets are off, and get Boras on the phone.

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," is a New York Times best seller and can be ordered through HarperCollins.com.