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BASEBALL / ROSS NEWHAN

Hot Winter in the Forecast for Both Coasts

October 23, 1998|ROSS NEWHAN

SAN DIEGO — A spectacular season capped by the New York Yankees' World Series sweep of the San Diego Padres now yields to what is expected to be a stunning winter of free-agent signings involving some of the game's best players. Veteran agent Tom Reich calls it the most powerful free-agent class since the late '70s, when the players first won their freedom and most of the top stars took advantage.

"There are several franchise-type players who can literally change a team's face and several more who can take a club to a contending level," Reich said.

Both the Yankees and Padres could be affected.

The Yankees, having won their second Series title in three years and beginning their reign as one of the best teams ever, could lose center fielder Bernie Williams, arguably their best player, and third baseman Scott Brosius, the Series most valuable player.

The Padres, hopeful voters will approve funding for a new ballpark on Nov. 3, could lose Kevin Brown, their best pitcher, and third baseman Ken Caminiti, center fielder Steve Finley and first baseman Wally Joyner, among others.

"It's highly improbable you can keep a team together all the time," Yankee General Manager Brian Cashman said. "That's baseball, that's business."

Boston Red Sox pitcher Pedro Martinez holds the record for largest contract--$75 million for six years--and largest average annual salary--$12.5 million--but agent Reich said neither will be the record when this free-agent group is finished signing.

At least five players fit the franchise mold:

Pitchers Brown and Randy Johnson; catcher Mike Piazza; first baseman Mo Vaughn and center fielder Williams.

On a secondary level, the free-agent class includes:

* Pitchers--Al Leiter, Todd Stottlemyre, Mark Gardner, Pete Schourek, Tim Belcher, Orel Hershiser, Terry Mulholland and reliever Jeff Montgomery.

* Infielders--Roberto Alomar, Robin Ventura and Delino DeShields, plus Brosius, Caminiti and Joyner.

* Outfielders--Eric Davis, Jose Canseco, B.J. Surhoff, Devon White, Henry Rodriguez, Brian Jordan, Ellis Burks, Darryl Hamilton and Finley.

The 15-day window in which eligible players can file for free agency began Thursday. Players who file can negotiate only with their current club during the 15 days.

As an example of where the market may be headed, the New York Mets, hoping to retain Piazza, presented a seven-year offer at about $90 million during a meeting between General Manager Steve Phillips and agent Dan Lozano in Los Angeles on Wednesday, sources said. Phillips and Lozano are expected to meet again within a week.

Whether the Baltimore Orioles, Colorado Rockies or Angels, among clubs expected to pursue Piazza, can top that offer seems problematic.

In San Diego, where the Padres do not expect to retain all of their free agents whether the stadium issue passes or not, owner John Moores said Brown is the No. 1 priority and that he recognizes Brown's 1998 salary of $4.8 million will more than double in a multiyear contract.

"All I know is we're going to make a strong effort to sign Kevin," Moores said in the San Diego clubhouse Wednesday night. "We're just going to have to understand where the market is, just as Kevin is going to have to understand where the market is. The question is, do you spend $10 million a year on a pitcher or $5 million on each of two position players? Pitching, pitching, pitching. It seems to be the name of the game right now when you get to the postseason."

The Yankees, of course, are hopeful of re-signing Brosius and Williams, but there is some baggage in Williams' case stemming from messy arbitration hearings and a multiyear offer last year far below agent Scott Boras' reported demand for $11 million a year over seven years, a proposal now likely to have escalated to more than $12 million a year.

Cashman calls Williams, who made $8.25 million this year, a "class act" and their No. 1 priority, but "he's always wanted too much and we've offered too little. It's a deadly combination. Bernie grew up in the Yankee organization, like I did . . . but it's all about business. Loyalty plays a part, but you can't blame players [for seeking the best deal they can make], just like you can't blame owners [for trying to turn a profit]. It's the American dream."

The reality is that the Yankees and Padres might have ended the World Series with several of their key players unlikely to return. The Yankees also returned to New York on Thursday amid speculation that first baseman Tino Martinez could be traded to make room for Vaughn, the Boston Red Sox first baseman who is expected to be widely pursued, with both the Angels and Dodgers among the suitors. Vaughn on Thursday took the first step toward leaving the Red Sox by rejecting his 1999 option of $6.75 million.

Cashman said little to knock down the speculation.

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