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Tuesday, December 2, 2003
Updated: December 3, 8:33 PM ET
Pitcher gets 3-year, $11 million deal

Associated Press

CHICAGO -- Plenty of other clubs wanted LaTroy Hawkins, and a few even offered the reliever more money. But the Chicago Cubs had something no other team -- or big contract -- could match.

"Not too many people get a chance to play close to home," the Gary, Ind., native said Wednesday after signing a deal with the Cubs that guarantees him $11 million over three years.

"I think I'd be happier here in Chicago than I would be elsewhere. And happiness is better than any amount of money, right?"

Hawkins was among the top relievers on the free agent market after going 9-3 with a 1.86 ERA in 77 1-3 innings for the Minnesota Twins last year.

Several clubs expressed interest in him, including the New York Yankees, who knew firsthand how tough he was after he struck out four over two innings to beat them in the opener of the playoffs.

But Chicago general manager Jim Hendry made an impression from the start by telling Hawkins he was the guy the Cubs were targeting this offseason.

"He said I was their guy, and they made the necessary effort to make me their guy," Hawkins said. "Me being from Gary, that was a big influence."

Hawkins, who turns 31 later this month, has spent his entire career in the Twins organization. But he grew up a Cubs fan, and he can still rattle off the names of his favorite players from his childhood.

He and his wife, Anita, live in Texas now, but all of their families are still in Gary. Including Hawkins' grandmother, Lesley Cannon, who has been telling her grandson for years that he was going to wind up with the Cubs.

"I guess it's a dream come true," Hawkins said, grinning. "What more can I say?"

A starter the first five years of his career, Hawkins was converted to the Twins closer in 2000. But it wasn't until he was moved into the setup role in 2002 that he really flourished.

He is 15-3 with a 2.00 ERA in 139 games since 2002. Last season, he tied for third in the majors with 28 holds. He didn't allow a run from July 31 to Sept. 14, a span of 20 games.

While Hendry and manager Dusty Baker said Joe Borowski remains the team's closer, there's a possibility the Cubs might return him to his old setup role and make Hawkins the closer. Hawkins' new contract even allows him the chance to earn $1.3 million more annually if he becomes Chicago's closer.

He would get $50,000 each for 20 and 25 games finished, $100,000 for 30, $150,000 each for 35, 40 and 45; $200,000 each for 50 and 55; and $250,000 for 60.

Hawkins gets a $2 million signing bonus in the deal, $2 million next year and $3.5 million in 2005, and he has a $3.5 million option for 2006. He also can earn an additional $150,000 per season based on appearances: $50,000 each for 60, 65 and 70 games.

But Hawkins insists he's happy in the setup role.

"Joe is the closer here in Chicago," Hawkins said. "I came in to help him accomplish that. I came in to get the ball to Joe. That's my job.

"That spot is very important," he added. "You can win the game or lose the game in those innings. You want to have your best pitchers out there or your hottest pitchers at that time."

And Chicago sure could use someone hot in that spot. The Cubs have one of the best rotations in the majors with Mark Prior, Kerry Wood, Carlos Zambrano and Matt Clement. But if they needed someone in the middle innings, it was a gamble.

Left-hander Mike Remlinger is solid, and Kyle Farnsworth is one of the hardest-throwing relievers in the NL. Borowski was a pleasant surprise, saving 33 games after taking over the closer's role when Antonio Alfonseca got hurt in spring training.

Even with that, the Cubs bullpen was 20-19 with a 4.16 ERA.

"We all know we needed to upgrade our bullpen," Hendry said. "We felt from day one that this was a prime need for us and we felt that LaTroy was the target guy for us."

And Hawkins is happy to be it.

"I'm over here to give them that help," he said, "that extra lift that they need."

Now that Hawkins is locked up, Hendry is looking for another left-handed reliever and some bench help. The Cubs have 10 free agents, but second baseman Mark Grudzielanek and outfielders Kenny Lofton and Tom Goodwin are the only ones still in consideration for new deals.

Teams must re-sign their free agents or offer them arbitration before midnight Sunday.