Joe Carter, Kent Hrbek, Jeff Reardon and John Franco were among the headliners at the annual baseball winter meetings in Nashville last week, but they weren't the real stars of the show. That distinction belonged to Ron Simon, Jim Turner, Larry Yount and the Hendricks brothers, Alan and Randy. They're agents, and the entire week was played according to their script. "They had a lot of fun down here," said Indians general manager Hank Peters.
In six days at the monstrous Opryland Hotel, 19 free agents signed for a total of approximately $60 million. And that doesn't include the five-year, $16 million contract given earlier to pitcher Mark Langston by the Angels; the Padres' $9.2 million deal for Carter; or the combined $35-or-so million that was yet to be dropped on two premier free agents, American League MVP Robin Yount and National League Cy Young winner Mark Davis. Clearly, baseball's salaries were spiraling right through Opryland's glass roof. "I stopped thinking about it so I wouldn't regurgitate all over myself," said Royals general manager John Schuerholz.
Only two significant trades were made during the meetings, and both were linked to free agency. Carter was sent packing by the Indians because he had vowed to become a free agent after the 1990 season. And before the deal with San Diego could be finalized, Turner, Carter's agent, and the Padres had to hammer out a new contract. The other key trade sent Franco, one of the game's top late-inning relievers, from the Reds to the Mets for a less accomplished closer, Randy Myers. Franco can be a free agent after next season; Myers won't be eligible for the big free-agent bucks until after the 1992 season.
Meanwhile, the Hendricks brothers were on a mission to make reliever Davis the game's highest-paid player, and Larry Yount, Robin's brother and agent, was deep in discussion with the Angels about a contract that would make Larry a rich man even if he were to get only the usual 5% agent's fee. Incidentally, no reigning Cy Young or MVP recipient has ever switched teams before the beginning of the next season.
If there was an MVA (most valuable agent) for the meetings, it was probably Simon, the agent for Hrbek, the Twins first baseman. Last February, Simon was rebuffed when he proposed that Minnesota sign Hrbek to a two-year, $4 million deal. Two days into last week's meetings, the Twins' best offer had grown to three years, $7 million. Thirty-six hours later, the Tigers threw a five-year, $15.5 million package at Hrbek. But Hrbek, a Minneapolis native, decided to re-sign with the Twins for four years and $14 million—which is just $253,000 short of Minnesota's entire 1989 player payroll. Twins general manager Andy MacPhail thanked Hrbek for not taking the extra $1.5 million. Simon smiled and assured everyone that his client "will get by."
The five trades at Nashville were the fewest in the last 10 years of meetings, prompting Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog to say that the meetings are now ill-timed and should be held after most of the free agents have signed, so that more trades could be made. "We're wasting a lot of time and money down here," said Herzog. "The meetings should be held after the Super Bowl."
Padres manager Jack McKeon used the meetings to enhance his reputation as baseball's premier wheeler-dealer. McKeon, elevated to vice-president for baseball operations, took charge of things after Padres owner Joan Kroc learned on the second night of the meetings that VP for player personnel Tony Siegle had blown a chance in October to get Langston cheap in a trade with the Expos. Ever-present cigar in hand, McKeon quickly traded for Carter, sealing the deal by signing him in 36 hours. The Padres still appeared to be short an outfielder. "Will I go after one?" said McKeon at the announcement of the Carter signing. "Why stop at one? I might go get two."
A few hours later, at 10 p.m., McKeon, dressed in a warmup suit, returned to the pressroom to announce the signing of free-agent outfielder Fred Lynn to a one-year deal, which Lynn accepted after McKeon gave him a take-it-or-leave-it-now proposition. McKeon told the news-starved media that he might be back later in the night with another move. Many writers laughed. McKeon didn't. "I'm serious," he said.
Sure enough, at 2:45 in the morning he rumbled into the pressroom to find only eight writers still on hand. McKeon announced he had signed reliever Craig Lefferts to a three-year contract worth $5.35 million, then stuck a note to the podium to prove to the sleeping press that he had indeed returned.
The biggest winter winners thus far are the Royals, who, with a double-Davis coup, have closed the talent gap on the world champion A's in the American League West. The Royals first bolstered their starting pitching by signing Storm Davis (three years, $6 million) and then, on Monday, grabbed Mark Davis (four years, $13 million). K.C.'s already formidable staff now looks downright scary. McKeon's Padres have been busy, but they may find that Lefferts is no Mark Davis in short relief and that Carter is below average in centerfield. One American League manager said Carter "is way overrated." Still, teamed with Tony Gwynn and Jack Clark in the middle of the San Diego order, Carter could have a big season.
The losers are the Expos and the A's. Oakland lost Storm Davis (19 wins), Dave Parker (97 RBIs) and infielder Tony Phillips to free agency. Though manager Tony La Russa said the Athletics have team leaders other than Parker, remember what Jose Canseco said of Parker in August: "The clubhouse picks up every day when he comes in."
The only move by the Expos to make up for their free-agency loss of starting pitchers Langston, Bryn Smith and Pascual Perez was to sign Oil Can Boyd to a one-year contract. Boyd won 13 games over the past three years. "It doesn't look good right now," Montreal manager Buck Rodgers said of his team. How bad does it look? Said Phillie general manager Lee Thomas, whose pitching staff last season was last in the National League in ERA, complete games and saves, "I never thought I'd see the day that the Expos would be asking us for pitching."
The Indians went back to the future in the Carter trade by acquiring catcher Sandy Alomar Jr., 23, and third baseman Carlos Baerga, 21, who general manager Peters says may be ready this season. How much Alomar Jr. will hit remains to be seen, but Cleveland catchers batted .229 with four homers and 30 RBIs in 512 at bats in 1989. Sandy Alomar Sr. could do better than that....
To help with the kids, Cleveland signed 36-year-old first baseman Keith Hernandez to a two-year, $3.5 million contract. "It's a fact of life," said Peters. "To get free agents to come to Cleveland, you have to overpay."
...Lefthander Franco lessens the Mets' need for a righthanded closer, because even righties don't hit him when he's on, which is often. Franco, 29, has 148 career saves, 92 more than Myers, 27, who isn't as dependable. But the Reds seem thrilled with their dual closers, Myers and righthander Rob Dibble. "We have the two hardest-throwing pitchers in baseball," said Reds manager Lou Piniella....
The most interesting player in the deal that sent righthanded pitcher Jeff Robinson from the Pirates to the Yankees for catcher Don Slaught was righthander Willie Smith, 22, who went to New York. Smith has been clocked in the mid-90's and, in a start this year for the Bucs' Class A team in Salem, Va., pitched three innings and allowed no hits, seven runs and nine walks. He's also the guy who, when asked how big his high school was, replied, "Three stories."
MICHAEL PONZINI/FOCUS ON SPORTS
Carter may be poor afield, but for his bat, McKeon (right) made him rich.
KIRK SCHLEA/ALLSPORT USA
[See caption above.]
Franco (left) has better stats, but Myers delivers at a lower cost.
FOCUS ON SPORTS
[See caption above.]