Juan Gonzalez goes to the Tigers, presaging other stunning deals
Tigers general manager Randy Smith admitted last Friday that it
was hard to surrender six young players to get a slugger who
might turn out to be a one-year rental. "But it was even harder
to say no when [the long-ball hitter] was a two-time MVP and
future Hall of Famer," Smith said of rightfielder Juan Gonzalez,
whom Detroit acquired from the Rangers on Nov. 2.
Smith decided that the chance to get Gonzalez was too rare an
opportunity to pass up. Was it? Five days later another slugger,
Shawn Green, was traded when the Blue Jays sent him to the
Dodgers in a four-player deal that shipped Raul Modesi to
Toronto. (The trade was officially completed on Monday when L.A.
signed Green to a six-year contract extension worth $84 million.)
With the likes of the Mariners' Ken Griffey and Alex Rodriguez,
the Indians' Manny Ramirez and the Blue Jays' Carlos Delgado
still drawing trade inquiries, the bazaar had only just opened.
The middle-of-the-lineup slugger used to be one of those
commodities teams held on to like family heirlooms. So why has
the trade market for big boppers gone as nuts as the one for
Pokemon cards? In a word, money.
Until 1992 only eight players in baseball history had been traded
one season or less after hitting 40 home runs. Now there have
been six such swaps in just over seven years: Jose Canseco ('92),
Mark McGwire ('97), Mike Piazza and Greg Vaughn ('98), and
Gonzalez and Green. All save Canseco were traded because they
were in the last year of their contracts, with free agency
Texas general manager Doug Melvin admitted that he worked quickly
to move Gonzalez because of the flood of other 40-homer
free-agents-to-be coming onto the trade market. "I told Randy,
'Let's get it done before [this week's] G.M. meetings, because
once we get there, we'll get all kinds of rumors and frenzy,'"
Melvin is generally regarded as having gotten the better end of
the deal. His key acquisitions are lefthanded pitcher Justin
Thompson, 26, an All-Star when healthy, which he is expected to
be by next season; emerging outfielder Gabe Kapler, 24; and
righthanded reliever Francisco Cordero, 22, whom one executive
called "a young Mariano Rivera."
The Tigers were desperate for a star to help sell seats in their
new stadium, Comerica Park, which opens in April. The deal works
for Smith only if he gets Detroit into the postseason next year
or Gonzalez's signature on a contract extension. The Tigers may
have a shot at keeping Gonzalez, given that he had a clause in
his Texas contract precluding trades to, among others, the
Braves, Mets, Orioles, Red Sox and Yankees.
Detroit's effort to keep Gonzalez has unofficially begun.
Suddenly, the depth of the leftfield power alley at Comerica
Park, slated for a hefty 398 feet, is being considered for a
reduction. After finding decent pitching so hard to come by,
Smith said, "We'll try to outscore people. Our 3-4-5 hitters
stand up to anybody's."
Gonzalez, Tony Clark and Dean Palmer did mash 108 home runs last
season, but they also whiffed 391 times. Rumors quickly spread
that Detroit would trade Clark to the Padres for righthander Andy
Ashby to improve a rotation of Dave Mlicki, Jeff Weaver, Brian
Moehler and Seth Greisinger.
The market for sluggers is so crowded that several general
managers predicted that Vaughn, a free agent with 95 home runs
over the past two years, will get squeezed. Sure, 40-home-run
hitters are more common in today's turbocharged game, but that
doesn't fully explain why 11 of them have been traded in the
1990s. As many of these sluggers use Kevin Brown's $15
million-a-year contract as a benchmark, more teams are coming to
the conclusion Texas did: It's not prudent to sink such a large
percentage of your payroll into one player. Payrolls may be
getting as saturated as the trade market. "We're headed there,"
says Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker. Offers his Atlanta
counterpart, John Schuerholz, more soberly, "I said that 12 years
Griffey Wants a Trade
WHO'S IN THE JUNIOR LEAGUE?
Agent Scott Boras has vowed to put Mariners shortstop Alex
Rodriguez on the free-agent market next year, when A-Rod will be
just 25. That's why Boras told Seattle president Chuck Armstrong
and general manager Pat Gillick last week not to bother making
any more contract offers. As for Mariners centerfielder Ken
Griffey, who said last week that he wants to be traded to a
contender that is based closer to his Orlando home and has a
Florida spring training site, several baseball executives say the
Braves are the best fit for both Griffey and Seattle. Atlanta's
chances of cutting a deal with the Mariners would be enhanced if
it would give up centerfielder Andruw Jones, 22, and lefthander
Bruce Chen, 22. The Indians could also put together a good
package without stripping their roster. But Atlanta and
Cleveland, according to one general manager, are prudent
organizations unlikely to make a rash move for a potential free
agent, even one of Griffey's status, especially if Griffey is
unwilling to commit to re-signing.
If Gillick can't get good value from the Braves or the Indians,
he may have to turn to the middle-market Reds or Astros. Griffey
grew up in Cincinnati, and his father is a coach for the Reds.
However, among teams in the sweepstakes, the Reds have the least
talent to trade.
The Astros, observers for now, could put together a knockout
package from among outfielders Moises Alou, Derek Bell and Carl
Everett; pitchers Jose Lima, Mike Hampton and Shane Reynolds; and
second baseman Craig Biggio. Coincidentally, Houston G.M. Gerry
Hunsicker was scheduled to meet this week with the agent for
Biggio and first baseman Jeff Bagwell about their future salary
demands. If the Astros estimate that they can't afford to keep
both players, they could make a move for Griffey and deal Bags or
For complete stats and off-season news, plus more from Tom
Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Now that Gonzalez (left) is Detroit's newest model, will Griffey find a home with the Braves?
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [See caption above]
the HOT corner
The Giants were considering a deal to acquire third baseman Vinny
Castilla, 32, from the Rockies but lost all interest when they
heard whispers that he would demand either a trade after next
season or a three-year contract extension with a hefty raise that
would carry him past his 37th birthday. Castilla is owed $13
million over the next two seasons on his current contract. One
team that might be willing to gamble on Castilla's playing only a
year before moving on, while still having the financial resources
to possibly re-sign him: the Cubs....
Because of the depleted supply of pitching talent and a
lackluster field of free-agent arms available this fall, "I
guarantee you'll see some teams do ridiculous things to get
pitching," Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker said last
Saturday. Only hours later the Indians gave Cuban refugee Danys
Baez, a 22-year-old righthander with a fastball that has been
clocked in the mid-90s, $14.5 million over four years.
Meanwhile, free-agent righthander Aaron Sele (75-53 lifetime),
late of the Rangers, was looking for $9 million per year, and
Padres righty Andy Ashby (72-74) was the most coveted pitcher on
the trade market. Cleveland was trying to get Ashby without
giving up slugger Richie Sexson. With Baez signed, the Indians
could put righthander Jaret Wright in the deal....
Five future managers played for the 1972 Dodgers: Frank
Robinson, Bobby Valentine, Jim Lefebvre, Bill Russell and,
thanks to his appointment last week by the Brewers, Davey Lopes.