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Baseball at the Winter Meetings

Money for Muscle

The New York Mets are through making very rich men of big, strong, slow boppers who bash from both sides of the plate. Too bad. A couple more free-agent signings like their recent blockbusters and the Amazins could have fielded an all-switch-hitting lineup that earned about $3 million per man annually and scored about 11 runs a game. It would have been wild. The Mets would have won 97 games despite a 4.50 team ERA, the fans would have forgiven them for letting Darryl Strawberry walk as a free agent last year, a World Series flag would have flown again over Shea Stadium, and the starting nine would have celebrated by buying the Seattle Mariners.

But alas, Al Harazin, the Mets' new general manager, ended his switch-hitting spending salvo and arrived last Saturday at the baseball winter meetings in Miami Beach looking instead for much-needed pitching and to improve the team's clanging defense. He had no concerns about his offense after a six-day negotiating frenzy between Nov. 27 and Dec. 2, during which he signed outfielder Bobby Bonilla, late of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and first baseman Eddie Murray (Los Angeles Dodgers) to free-agent contracts totaling $36.5 million. Harazin thus began his regime with a bang, by not only shoving the game's salary structure into new frontiers but also by reviving the Mets as contenders in the weak National League East.

"The way they fell last year, for all the blows they took, Al felt he had to do something the fastest way possible," says San Diego Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine, the former vice-president of baseball operations for the Mets. "It was like an electric jolt."

The jolt was felt throughout baseball. Murray, 35, was given a two-year deal for $7.5 million even though no other team competed strongly for his services. But the five-year, $29 million contract for the 28-year-old Bonilla—the largest ever for a professional athlete in team sports—will have a more profound effect. It set a precedent for the members of the bountiful free-agent class of 1992, which includes Barry Bonds, Eric Davis, Barry Larkin, Kirby Puckett, Cal Ripken, Ryne Sandberg and Ruben Sierra. Moreover, the Bonilla payout will carry deep into baseball's next, yet-to-be-negotiated television contract, which will go into effect in '94 and isn't expected to yield anything close to the $1.5 billion being paid by CBS and ESPN under the current four-year deal.

But Harazin wasn't daunted in the least by financial forecasts, and the Mets weren't the only big-market, big-money team to open its wallet to free agents last week: The Chicago Cubs gave former Dodger pitcher Mike Morgan (one winning year out of 11 in the big leagues) $12.5 million for four years; L.A. signed pitcher Tom Candiotti (Toronto Blue Jays) and re-signed Orel Hershiser for a combined $25.5 million.

These teams, especially the Mets, have the money, and nobody can stop them from spending it. Harazin became G.M. in September, and the Mets brass, abandoning their tradition of building from within, gave him the freedom and tons of dough to rescue a depressed team, one that in 1991 went 77-84 and finished fifth, 20½ games out. Harazin wasted little time, but has he wasted money?

"I know people say we overpaid," he says. "But look at Eddie's track record, and don't tell me he's overpaid. O.K., maybe I could have saved a couple hundred thousand a year with him. but I couldn't take that chance. With Bobby, six teams were after him. I would have gotten more blame if I hadn't got him."

Are the Mets much improved? "Sure they are," says McIlvaine. "What did they give up? Nothing but money."

Harazin's revamped lineup will be a powerful and extremely versatile one that could include six switch-hitters: Bonilla, Murray, Howard Johnson, Gregg Jefferies, Vince Coleman and Todd Hundley. Bonilla has been one of the better players in the National League the past four years, but as good as Bonilla is, he's not in the same class as Bonds, Larkin, Sierra, Will Clark, Jose Canseco or a number of others. Bonilla hit only 18 homers last year. "He's no Darryl Strawberry," says a former Pittsburgh teammate. "He won't hit 35 homers and carry a team. Bobby's a good player; he's probably in the top 20 in baseball. But he's not close to Bonds."

Defensively, Bonilla is slightly below average as a rightfielder and is scheduled to learn a new position, leftfield, because Johnson will play right. Bonilla's weight, now around 240 pounds, could become a major problem by the end of the contract. The same ex-teammate says Bonilla has been getting slower every year. He also says that Bonilla might help the chemistry of the Mets clubhouse, but that his reputation as a happy-go-lucky, ever-upbeat player is overrated. "Bobby's kind of a phony," the source says. "I almost threw up when I heard him say all he wanted to do was go home [to his native New York City] to play. He went for the money. His contract was all he talked about all last year. We'll miss him, but in a way we're glad he's gone."

There's nothing phony about Murray, who has a scowl for every Bonilla smile and cares mostly about playing on a championship team. The moody Murray could be a good influence in the Mets clubhouse if they're winning, but a detriment if they're losing. Perhaps more significant for New York, which has suffered against lefthanders the past few years, Murray's average dipped to .217 last season against lefties. Still, he hit 19 home runs and drove in 96 runs in 1991, and he has had at least 17 home runs for 15 straight years. In the history of baseball, only Babe Ruth, Mel Ott and Henry Aaron had longer such streaks.

"I think Eddie's out to prove us wrong [for offering him only a one-year contract]," says a Dodger scout. "If he gets himself in better shape, he might have a hellacious year. But I worry about his defense. It's gone downhill a lot."

The acquisitions of Murray and Bonilla have given Harazin latitude in trading for a top starting pitcher. Kansas City's Kevin Appier has been mentioned—perhaps in exchange for first baseman Dave Magadan or outfielder Kevin McReynolds—but a Royals front office source says K.C. wouldn't make a deal for McReynolds, partly because he has three years and $10 million left on his contract. "Now if they want to talk Jefferies," the source says, "we'll listen."

Trading Jefferies would make the most sense because he can bring a No. 1 or No. 2 starter and because three tempestuous years in New York is enough. Despite hitting a so-so .272 in 1991, the 24-year-old Jefferies is a potential batting champ. But he's a bad third baseman and a horrible second baseman: bad hands, bad feet, bad instincts. "His lower half is not conducive to playing second," says McIlvaine. "But he's a guy they could deal. There's a premium on third basemen. He can play third. I know it."

Whatever G.M. Harazin does next, he insists he won't do much more via free agency. "You know," he says, "I've spent a lot of money already."

Short Hops...

The signing of knuckleballer Candiotti to a four-year, $15.5 million deal by the Dodgers looks like an overpay job, but Candiotti was actually the most attractive pitching investment among this year's free agents—definitely better than Frank Viola. Over the past four seasons his ERA ranks with the best in the American League. And remember, knuckleball pitchers historically hit their prime in their mid-30's; Candiotti is 34....

Having lost out in the Bonilla bonanza and having anticipated the free-agency departure of Wally Joyner, who signed with Kansas City on Monday, new Angel general manager Whitey Herzog showed his desperate need for hitting by trading Kyle Abbott, 23, a lefthander with promise, and 26-year-old Ruben Amaro Jr., a switch-hitting outfielder, for Phillie outfielder Von Hayes, 33, who hit no homers last year. "We ain't got no bats," Herzog said. "This team is null and void offensively." Score another steal for Philadelphia general manager Lee Thomas....

As of Monday night, the Rangers' plans remained in paralysis as team officials tried to determine whether they can re-sign Sierra, who will be a free agent after the 1992 season. Regardless, there was good reason to expect Texas to trade Julio Franco for pitching help. There's no way the Rangers can win a championship with as poor a defensive player as Franco playing second base....

A Yankee source says that George Steinbrenner most definitely aims to run the team again now that Robert Nederlander has announced his resignation as managing general partner. In August it will be two years since commissioner Fay Vincent banished Steinbrenner for his connection with gambler Howard Spira. Although Steinbrenner ultimately accepted a permanent suspension, Vincent originally planned to give Steinbrenner a two-year suspension....

The team most improved by off-season dealings—as of Monday night, at least—is the Reds. Cincinnati has added two quality starting pitchers, Greg Swindell from the Indians and Tim Belcher from the Dodgers, plus a starting leftfielder and competent leadoff man in ex-Padre Bip Roberts. Also, manager Lou Piniella has rid himself of two of his least-favorite players by shipping outfielder Eric Davis to L.A. and reliever Randy Myers to San Diego.



The Mets' parade of well-paid switch-hitters now includes (from front) Bonilla, Johnson and Murray.



Herzog says the Angel bats are "null and void."



Even at $15.5 million, Candiotti may prove to be a Dodger bargain.