In Johnny Damon, the A's got what they needed--for a year, at
Billy Beane's phone conversation with Allard Baird on Jan. 5
wasn't the first between the two general managers this winter.
For months the Athletics' Beane had been bending the ear of his
Royals counterpart, trying to strike a deal for All-Star
outfielder Johnny Damon. This latest chat was different. "We were
just talking baseball stuff, nothing about Johnny," says Baird,
who wanted to upgrade Kansas City's bullpen before spring
training. At one point Baird mentioned that he had his eye on
Devil Rays righthanded closer Roberto Hernandez but didn't think
he had the ammunition for a trade. "I'll call you back," Beane
replied. "I think I can get him [for you]." Three days later
Beane shipped outfielder Ben Grieve to Tampa Bay for Hernandez
and righthander Cory Lidle, then forwarded the closer, shortstop
prospect Angel Berroa and catcher A.J. Hinch to Kansas City for
Damon and minor league infielder Mark Ellis.
This was one of those rare trades in which every party appeared
to get what it really wanted. The 27-year-old Damon, who last
season hit .327, had a solid .386 on-base percentage and led the
American League in stolen bases (46) and runs scored (136),
solves three of Oakland's glaring weaknesses: lack of speed, low
production from the leadoff hitter (in 2000, Oakland's regular
leadoff man, rookie centerfielder Terrence Long, had a subpar
.336 on-base percentage) and shoddy outfield defense. Grieve, 24,
the AL Rookie of the Year in 1998, frustrated the A's with his
slowness afoot--he hit into a major-league-leading 31 double
plays--and limited outfield range, but he gives the rebuilding
Devil Rays, who were last in the American League in batting
average (.257) last season, one of the game's best young
lefthanded hitters (career .280). "He'll put up big numbers in
that dome," says one AL scout of Grieve's prospects in Tropicana
Field. Adds Beane, "The only way we considered moving a player of
Grieve's caliber was to get someone like Damon in return."
The Royals also accomplished their main off-season goals. First,
and not without regret, they unloaded Damon--a free agent after
the 2001 season who was all but certain to sign elsewhere--before
losing all trading leverage. Next, they filled gaping long- and
short-term holes. Berroa, who hit .277 with 10 home runs for the
Class A Visalia Oaks last year, immediately became the top
shortstop prospect in K.C.'s system. Hernandez fills a more
immediate need. Over the past two seasons Royals relievers blew
more saves (56) than any other team, a total devastating to a
young club's mental well-being. Though not quite the intimidating
fireballer he was early in his career with the White Sox, the
36-year-old Hernandez (32 saves in 40 opportunities, a 3.19 ERA
last season) still throws in the mid-90s and brings instant
credibility to Tampa Bay's bullpen.
That Damon, a Scott Boras client who has said he won't sign a
long-term deal until after testing the free-agent market next
winter, ended up in small-market Oakland speaks volumes about how
the A's are approaching the 2001 season. To get his man (who will
play leftfield), Beane surrendered precisely the type of player
he has spent years developing: Grieve is young, productive and
under contract for $12.4 million over the next three seasons (a
relative bargain). Given that Oakland must also sign reigning MVP
Jason Giambi to a long-term deal, the chances of Damon wearing
green and gold beyond next season seem remote.
The A's, who extended the eventual world champion Yankees to five
games in their Division Series in October, can live with that.
"What's wrong with having a player for one year if he helps you
take that next step?" says Beane. "We weren't that far from the
World Series last year. At some point you have to grasp the
Clayton Starts Over
Short and Sweeter?
New White Sox shortstop Royce Clayton would have been an ideal
candidate for David Letterman's old Brush with Greatness
segments, Late Night bits in which ordinary audience members told
of connections with the rich and famous. In 1996 Clayton replaced
the game's greatest defensive shortstop, a changing of the guard
that sat poorly with Cardinals fans and with Ozzie Smith. Last
month Clayton, who signed a four-year, $22 million contract with
the Rangers after the 1999 season, became expendable after Texas
signed 25-year-old free agent Alex Rodriguez to a 10-year, $252
million pact. "[Rangers general manager Doug Melvin] told me they
were going after him and asked me if I wanted to move to second,"
says Clayton. "I said no. I still have a long career left as a
Three days after landing the best young offensive shortstop ever,
the Rangers shipped Clayton, 31, to Chicago. He was happy with
the deal but faces another potentially awkward situation:
replacing incumbent shortstop Jose Valentin, who in November
signed a below-market, three-year, $15 million deal to stay with
the White Sox. Chicago general manager Ken Williams says Valentin
will happily move to third to make room for Clayton. "I'm going
to talk to him as soon as we get to spring training," Clayton
says of Valentin.
The move is a chance at a fresh start for Clayton, an eight-year
veteran who endured one of his most difficult seasons in 2000.
The Rangers' experiment in moving Clayton to the leadoff spot
backfired when he hit .202 and had a puny .237 on-base percentage
in 109 at bats; his .242 overall average was a career low for
seasons in which he had at least 400 at bats. "There were things
I could have handled better," Clayton says. "It's hard to leave
the Rangers, but when they look up and [the White Sox] win the
World Series, they'll say they traded a pretty good shortstop."
A Net Gain for Toronto?
David Wells, whom the Blue Jays sent to the White Sox in a
six-player trade on Sunday, is a battle-tested ace lefthander who
went 20-8 in 2000 and has at least 16 wins in each of the last
four seasons. Lefty Mike Sirotka, the best of the four players
that Toronto received in return, has one winning season in three
years as a full-time starter. So which team improved its staff
Possibly the Blue Jays, who unloaded a disgruntled 37-year-old
who will make $8.25 million in 2001 and replaced him with the
rarest commodity in the game: a young, talented lefthanded
starter. Sirotka, 29, won 15 games last season, had the league's
fourth-best ERA (3.79) and will earn $3.2 million this summer.
"Sirotka hasn't really been through the wars, but he's going to
be a very good pitcher for a long time," says an advance scout
for one American League team.
Moreover, among the three other players the Blue Jays picked up
is outfield prospect Brian Simmons. The acquisition of Simmons
gives the Jays, who already had incumbent starter Jose Cruz Jr.
and up-and-coming Vernon Wells, a glut of young centerfielders--at
least one of whom could become a valuable chip should Toronto
deal for another arm in the preseason.
For complete off-season news, plus notes from Tom Verducci, go
COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE At the plate, on the bases and in the field, the speedy Damon should give Oakland a boost.
the HOT corner
Teams in need of a gate attraction this season--are you
listening, Tigers and Twins?--might stir interest by grabbing a
future Hall of Famer willing to work cheap. At week's end
outfielder Rickey Henderson, the alltime leader in walks and
steals, who is also 68 runs from establishing the career mark in
that category, was still unemployed....
Righthander Bryce Florie, who suffered extensive damage to his
right eye when he was struck by a line drive off the bat of the
Yankees' Ryan Thompson last September (SI, Nov. 27), reported to
the Red Sox camp in Fort Myers last weekend to attempt a
comeback. "The eye is still bad," he said of his 20/60 vision
(corrected), "but doctors have given me the O.K. to see what I
David Cone will join a select group if he makes the Red Sox'
Opening Day roster: Only nine other players--eight of them
pitchers--have played for the Mets, the Yankees and the Red Sox.
However, only two of those eight pitchers won a game at their
last stop among those three clubs....
Wonder if Giants manager Dusty Baker's heart will skip
a beat while he's watching Barry Bonds run down balls in the
Pacific Bell Park outfield early this season? The XFL's San
Francisco Demons will play five home games at Pac Bell in
February and March, meaning the grounds crew will face the
daunting task of replacing chewed up turf in time for the grass
to take root before the April 2 opener against the Padres. Giants
ownership has promised the field will be perfect for the first