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Winter Games

Baseball's High Stakes Move Off the field as New and Future Classes of Free Agents Threaten to Raise Salaries Even Higher

October 28, 2000|ROSS NEWHAN

NEW YORK — As the New York Yankees prepare for their annual parade through Manhattan's Canyon of Heroes, it will be business as usual for the contenders and pretenders during the misnomer that is the baseball OFF-season.

In fact, it will be big business. Very big. The biggest yet, perhaps, as a premier class of eligible players began filing for free agency Friday, and another group of players who can become free agents after the 2001 season goes on the trade block--a process now known as advance free agency.

The Yankees produced history by winning their third consecutive World Series and fourth in five years.

Now, does anyone doubt that Alex Rodriguez, arguably the game's best all-around player, won't send the salary scale spinning and spiraling? Or that Manny Ramirez, arguably the best hitter, won't be close behind?

After all, Carlos Delgado, in recently signing a four-year extension with the Toronto Blue Jays, has already raised the average value record from Kevin Brown's $15 million a year to $17 million.

Now come Rodriguez and Ramirez, heading a free-agent class that includes pitchers Mike Hampton, Mike Mussina and Darren Dreifort, outfielder Juan Gonzalez, catcher Charles Johnson and first baseman Will Clark.

Onward and upward.

"Any time you have a higher class of free agents, such as this class is, it accelerates the escalation even more, but in reality it's happening every year no matter what the class looks like," Atlanta Brave General Manager John Schuerholz said.

"We've been on this march for 20 years with salaries reaching unbelievable levels every year. There's no reason for it not to happen this year."

Rodriguez, of course, is almost in a class by himself, with the Braves, Dodgers and New York Mets seen as the most serious and well-heeled suitors vying for the Seattle Mariner shortstop. He could also return to his current club, although that would be considered an upset.

Rodriguez is believed to covet a bigger stage, the spotlight that close friend Derek Jeter enjoys, and was told by Reggie Jackson at Shea Stadium on Wednesday night that the Big Apple is the biggest and best of all.

Rey Ordonez, the Met shortstop who was lost with an injury in midseason, is under contract for three more years, but he is also a Gold Glove-caliber trade commodity at a comparatively modest salary. Mike Bordick, acquired in a trade to replace Ordonez, filed for free agency and likely will return to the Baltimore Orioles.

"I won't discuss Rodriguez because he is still Seattle property," Met General Manager Steve Phillips said, "but I'm confident that if we opened next season with Ordonez as our shortstop he could take us deep into the postseason."

Rodriguez is expected to command at least five years at an average of $20 million or more. The Dodgers, committed to the re-signing of Dreifort, a free agent, and Chan Ho Park, a free agent after the 2001 season, are already looking at a $100-million payroll.

However, in buying the entire postseason TV package for $2.5 billion over the next six years, Fox may be willing to pay any price for the type of player who can almost assure the Dodgers of being seen in the postseason.

The annual meeting of general managers next week in Florida serves as the opening ceremony for baseball's winter Olympics, with much of the action taking place at the industry convention in Dallas in early December.

While Rodriguez and Ramirez are the hot properties among position players, Hampton and Mussina will produce statistics that show they should match or exceed Brown's $15 million per--and, of course, they have the limited pitching market working for them.

Free agency may hog the spotlight, but there is plenty else:

* Sammy Sosa of the Chicago Cubs heads a group of players with at least five years of big league service who are eligible to become free agents after the 2001 season and could be traded in advance--as Gonzalez and Shawn Green were last winter--because their current clubs deem them too expensive and want to avoid being left with only draft choices as compensation if they walk a year from now. Among players who fit the category and criteria are Kansas City's Johnny Damon, Pittsburgh's Jason Kendall and Milwaukee's Jeromy Burnitz.

* The Angels are believed willing to trade Mo Vaughn, and Vaughn is believed willing to return to the East Coast. Yankee owner George Steinbrenner has long been infatuated with the expanding first baseman, but Vaughn is owed $51 million over the next four years and whether the Boss would buy out Tino Martinez's option year while also picking up the Vaughn salary or whether he would weigh a Martinez-for-Vaughn trade that the Angels might find attractive is uncertain.

* Five teams are still without managers, including the Dodgers, who are expected to announce Rick Down's hiring next week. Arizona, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Toronto continue to conduct interviews, and there is still the possibility that Lou Piniella could leave Seattle and Bobby Valentine could leave the Mets.

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