Hold 'Em or Deal?
Teams are facing agonizing decisions about big-name
Two weeks ago Brewers general manager Dean Taylor agreed to a
trade with the Padres that would send rightfielder Jeromy
Burnitz to San Diego for third baseman Phil Nevin and veteran
reliever Heathcliff Slocumb. However, the deal was contingent on
San Diego's being able to sign Burnitz, who will be eligible for
free agency after next season, to a contract extension. Had the
Padres not blanched at the request by Burnitz (who will earn
$5.3 million in 2001) for $9 million to $10 million per season,
the trade would have gone through and the 31-year-old slugger
might have spent Thanksgiving week preparing to move back to his
native state. As of Monday, though, Burnitz was still a Brewer.
"We have said since the season ended that Jeromy was in our
plans for 2001," says Taylor, who hopes to re-sign Burnitz
himself. "I still feel that way."
Such is the roller coaster ridden by a star the season before he
can become a free agent. As the usual big-market sharks circle
this winter's prize free agents--shortstop Alex Rodriguez,
rightfielder Manny Ramirez, righthander Mike Mussina and
lefthander Mike Hampton--several teams are racking their brains
for a way to keep their big fish from jumping into the pool next
year. Burnitz, Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, Royals
outfielder Johnny Damon, A's first baseman and American League
MVP Jason Giambi, and Cubs rightfielder Sammy Sosa are among the
stars entering their walk years. The conundrum facing their
teams: Should they sign their headliner to a break-the-bank
extension this winter, deal him before trade leverage evaporates
or sit tight and hope the player doesn't bolt a year from now,
when the team would get nothing in return?
Kansas City G.M. Allard Baird says he wants to extend the
contract of Damon, who hit .327 and led the American League in
steals (46) and runs (136) in 2000, but agent Scott Boras
insists that his client will test the market next year. It's
doubtful that the small-market Royals can come up with the cash
to convince Damon otherwise; their recent offer of $32 million
for five years is at least $18 million short of what it will
most likely take. Baird has been bombarded this off-season by
inquiries from teams interested in Damon, but K.C.'s steep
asking price--a package of players that includes a top
reliever--has turned off suitors. Still, if the right deal
presents itself at next week's winter meetings, Damon won't be a
Royal next season. "We do have some depth in the outfield, and
to get quality you have to move quality," says Baird.
The same logic was behind the nixed Burnitz trade. "This was a
deal that the Padres brought to us," says Taylor. "We felt it was
an opportunity to improve our club." The Brewers' contract offers
have been snubbed by Burnitz, and talks have been at a standstill
since July; the rightfielder (.232, 31 home runs, 98 RBIs last
season) has made it clear he won't negotiate with Milwaukee once
spring training starts.
Talks between the Astros and Bagwell are on hold because the
first baseman, who also says he won't negotiate after the start
of spring training, doesn't want to re-sign until the team
indicates it will spend money on other players who will make the
club competitive again. "Our goal is to sign Jeff to an
extension," says Houston G.M. Gerry Hunsicker. "I don't see a
scenario developing where we'd trade him, unless that was his
The same goes for A's G.M. Billy Beane, who has had informal
talks about an extension with Giambi but puts no timetable on
getting a pact done. "It depends on what you view as a good
return," says Beane. "For us that might be getting another MVP
year from Jason and a chance to go to the World Series."
Tony the Tiger?
Gwynn Looks Past San Diego
The specter of Padres icon Tony Gwynn in another team's uniform
was looming larger at week's end. In October the Padres refused
to pick up the 40-year-old rightfielder's $6 million option for
2001, and they have only until Dec. 7 to re-sign Gwynn or offer
him salary arbitration. Otherwise San Diego loses negotiating
rights until May 1, which would all but ensure that he'd play
elsewhere for the first time in his 19-year career. The team
offered Gwynn a one-year contract with a base salary of $1
million and a $250,000 bonus for every 100 plate appearances; it
had received no counteroffer. Gwynn would prefer to stay in San
Diego, but in addition to a more lucrative deal, he wants to
sign with a team that would use him as more than a role player.
Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City are among the teams Gwynn has
talked to. The Indians, who anticipate needing two bats to
replace likely-to-depart rightfielder Manny Ramirez, have talked
to Gwynn about platooning with the newly signed Ellis Burks.
Gwynn has also spoken with Tigers general manager Randy Smith, a
close friend who was San Diego's G.M. from 1993 through '95.
Gwynn--who had surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left knee
last June and finished the season with a .323 average in only 127
at bats--and his agent, John Boggs, met on Nov. 18 with Padres
owner John Moores, CEO Larry Lucchino, general manager Kevin
Towers and manager Bruce Bochy at Moores's home near San Diego.
"It was a meeting that should have taken place a few months ago,"
says Boggs. "That's the most positive spin I can put on it."
The Padres' lowball offer reflects the cash-strapped club's
concerns about the oft-injured Gwynn's ability to withstand the
grind of a full season. The June operation was the sixth Gwynn
has had on that knee, and he's played 130 games in a season only
twice since 1992. Gwynn says he feels better than he has in five
years, and six weeks ago the Padres' medical staff gave him a
clean bill of health. In hopes of regaining the spring in his
legs, the former San Diego State point guard has incorporated
basketball drills into his off-season agility workouts.
Will the Flash Pan Out?
It speaks to the dearth of pitching that a righthander who saw no
action in 2000 is positioning himself as the potential steal of
2001. Reliever Tom (Flash) Gordon, a once dominant closer who is
a year removed from reconstructive surgery on his pitching elbow,
has attracted a flock of suitors since October, when the Red Sox
declined to pick up his $4.5 million option. A few weeks later
scouts from at least 12 teams watched Gordon throw in bullpen
sessions in Arizona, and the reviews have been mostly favorable
for the man who led the American League with 46 saves in 1998. "I
thought he threw the ball well, keeping in mind that this was a
rehab appearance," says one American League general manager. "He
threw some breaking balls that had good definition and bite."
Gordon says he wants to reprise his closer role, a lofty goal for
someone who hasn't faced a major league hitter since July 1999.
Kansas City G.M. Allard Baird says the Royals would accommodate
him. The Cubs, Orioles, Phillies and Pirates are also among the
For complete stats and off-season news, plus notes from Tom
Verducci, go to cnnsi.com/baseball.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER After an aborted trade of Burnitz, the Brewers may just hang on to him.
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE Gwynn's rounding into shape, but for which team?
the HOT corner
At week's end the representatives of free-agent pitchers Darren
Dreifort, Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle had all indicated that
their clients had some interest in the Rockies, who would like to
sign one of them. Of the three, Neagle might be the most logical
fit in Colorado: An effective changeup is essential for survival
at Coors Field, and Neagle has the best off-speed pitch of the
bunch. Plus, his off-season home is in the Denver suburb of
Last week the Dodgers offered leftfielder Gary Sheffield to
Cleveland. Sheffield, who has a no-trade clause, said he'd
approve the deal if it included a contract extension, at which
point the Indians backed away....
Angels manager Mike Scioscia has asked 6'1" Mo Vaughn,
conservatively listed at 268 pounds last season, to lose 20 to
25 pounds over the winter. "Mo needs to be lighter because it
would help his defense and his offensive production," Scioscia
says of his first baseman, who turns 33 on Dec. 15. "He'd have
the ability to move around the bases better and score more
Last off-season the Reds were aglow at the prospect of acquiring
high-salaried centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr., but times have
changed and budgets have been tightened. Already this winter
Cincinnati has cut a projected $8 million in payroll by trading
catcher Eddie Taubensee, righthander Steve Parris, infielder
Chris Stynes and lefty Ron Villone. In return for those four
established players, the Reds received eight minor leaguers,
none of whom are considered topflight prospects.