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BASEBALL EXTRA | AROUND THE NL

Dodgers' Task: Settling on a Winter Crop

September 28, 1997|ROSS NEWHAN

It doesn't get any easier for the Dodgers, who may have had trouble breathing in September and now face a winter of breathtaking decisions.

At the heart of many is the touted Paul Konerko, who will continue switching between first and third base in the Dominican Winter League.

Do the Dodgers protect Eric Karros and/or Todd Zeile in the November expansion draft, or is Konerko ready to play either of their positions?

Do the Dodgers consider trading for Mo Vaughn, a left-handed power threat and a clubhouse leader unafraid to take on teammates or issues?

Vaughn, of course, is a first baseman whose long-term presence would force Konerko to third, where the Dodgers have another acclaimed prospect in Adrian Beltre, who is considered a year or two behind Konerko.

"He's made enough progress that I believe he can play either first base or third base at the major league level," Fred Claire, executive vice president, said of Konerko, Baseball America's minor league player of the year.

Can he do it next year?

"We'll determine that after we see what he does this winter and next spring," Claire said.

Too late, perhaps.

The Dodgers have to make critical decisions soon. The expansion draft is first and foremost, but Konerko is only one factor.

Claire needs to know his '98 budget (does Peter O'Malley or Rupert Murdoch set it?) and needs to know how the free-agent market shapes up.

Does he protect Roger Cedeno, for instance, or pursue Kenny Lofton as a free agent?

Can he afford to let Greg Gagne retire or not protect him, thinking he can sign a short-term shortstop such as Kevin Elster, Jeff Blauser or Jay Bell?

Can he package a pitcher with Karros in a deal for Vaughn or another left-handed power hitter, thinking he can make a run at free agent Darryl Kile?

The Dodgers initially can protect 15 players, a list that may start with eight pitchers: Ramon Martinez, Hideo Nomo, Chan Ho Park, Ismael Valdes, Darren Dreifort, Antonio Osuna, Scott Radinsky and Dennis Reyes.

Add Mike Piazza, Raul Mondesi, Eric Young and Konerko, and that makes 12, which is where it gets difficult. Someone is going to be lost. Todd Hollandsworth? Karim Garcia? Wilton Guerrero? Cedeno?

How about Karros, who is owed $15 million over the next three years, and Zeile, who is guaranteed $6.4 million over the next two?

Can they be left unprotected with the thought that neither the Arizona Diamondbacks nor Tampa Bay Devil Rays will pay those prices?

Is there a market for either?

"We have a pleasant problem in that we have two very productive players [Karros and Zeile] at positions where we also have two of the top prospects in baseball," Claire said. Beltre does not have to be protected.

How the problem plays out isn't clear. Nor is it certain that the Red Sox will deal Vaughn, but he continues to hammer management on several fronts and recently complained that the club was painting him as a villain in extension negotiations.

Vaughn can be a free agent after next season, and it is unlikely the Red Sox will wait that long before trying to get something in return. He makes $6.6 million next year, a heavy tab, but he represents the kind of player the Dodgers seem to need: a left-handed hitter with a passionate heart.

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