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Thursday, April 26, 2007
Think A-Rod won't opt out? Think again

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

This week's bulletin from the Alex Rodriguez Opt-Out Watch was this save-for-future-reference quotation:

"I want to stay in New York, no matter what."

Third Base
New York Yankees

Profile
2007 SEASON STATISTICS
GM HR RBI R OBP AVG
20 14 34 26 .444 .385

OK, let's hold that laugh track for a minute. "No matter what." That's what he said.

No matter if he goes 6-for-50 in October, and those April cheers turn into another rollicking performance of the "He's Still Not A True Yankee" chorus?

No matter if he hits .238 in September and the whole Yankees lineup then goes hitless (and at-bat-less) in October?

Or -- given how unlikely those first two scenarios are -- how about this one:

No matter if the Yankees respond to that no-matter-what quote by saying, "Hey, that's cool. Then why don't we just rip up that opt-out portion of your contract?"

All righty. You can feel free to begin giggling now. Because the list of people who think A-Rod and the poet laureate of opt-out clauses, Scott Boras, won't exercise that clause is shorter than the list of people Joe Torre enjoys waving for in his bullpen.

"Let me ask you something," one GM said this week. "Did J.D. Drew have an opt-out clause?" Yep. "And did J.D. Drew opt out?" Yep. "So of course he's going to opt out. Scott loves opt-out clauses."

And love, baby, is a powerful thing. So let's not even debate whether Boras is going to use that clause. Let's debate an issue that's much more fun (for everybody but Bud Selig):

How much money is Boras going to seek for the honor of bringing the A-Rod Show to a lineup near you?

Feel free to let your imagination run amok. Remember, we'll be talking about a guy who's 32 years old, who already will have 500 career homers, and who will be coming off a 110-homer, 300-RBI season. Oh, all right. No, he won't. But even if he goes into a … cough-cough … tailspin and ends up with "only" 55 homers and 150 RBIs, he'll still be fairly employable.

ZAMBRANO RUMBLINGS
Carlos Zambrano
Zambrano
Something sure seems funny about the Tribune Company's decision to fire up the emergency brakes, just as the Cubs looked close to finalizing a five-year extension with Carlos Zambrano. As first reported by Fox's Ken Rosenthal, this deal had better get done really soon -- or Zambrano could be only days away from announcing that he has waited long enough, so he's heading for free agency after the season.

But our question is still: What happened? True, the impending sale of the Tribune Co. has created lots of issues throughout the company. But was that sale some kind of shock to Cubs management? Hard to believe. Everyone knew it was coming. Yet GM Jim Hendry apparently was allowed to negotiate with Zambrano, make him a big offer and tentatively agree on the terms. Only after all that happened did the Trib bigwigs balk at signing off on it.

Why? Lots of people sure would like to know. But the latest buzz is that Bud Selig himself recently pulled into Chicago to see if he could get the Trib pooh-bahs to take away the roadblocks before a five-year, $80 million deal explodes into a $130 million free-agent bonanza next winter.

"If this guy goes into free agency, he'll end up making Barry Zito money," says one front-office man. "But if this deal gets done [with the Cubs], it probably saves some other team $50 million next winter. Then, maybe next winter's Gil Meches are taking $1 million less or so a year. So this is too good a deal for the industry for anybody to stop it."

So give it a guess. A high-ranking official of one large-market team that would have interest says he has heard eight years, $200 million -- which comes to $25 million a year. But a GM who has spent many years wrangling with Boras laughed at that.

"Knowing Scott," the GM said, "I'll say 10 years, $250 million."

Finally, one prominent agent fired a not-quite-so-round number into the breeze -- eight years, $201,600,000. Where'd that number come from? Why, it's A-Rod's annual average under his current contract ($25.2 million) -- times eight. Of course!

Well, whatever. It'll be slightly more than Neifi Perez will be asking, anyway.

But now here's an even more relevant question: Whatever insane number Boras tosses out there, would somebody actually pay it?

"Arte Moreno [of the Angels], maybe," guessed an official of one club.

"In this game, I wouldn't put it past anybody," one AL executive said.

"Why wouldn't the Yankees do it?" one baseball man wondered. "It isn't their style to let a future Hall of Famer, and the probable all-time home run champ, just walk out their door -- particularly when he could possibly walk in the Red Sox's door."

True. True. And true again. But that doesn't mean it will happen, either. For one thing, not many teams would have $25 million a year they could risk tying up for the next decade or so -- or even the next six months or so.

"It would all depend," said the aforementioned GM, "on whether you want to spend your money on him or spend it on three $8 million-a-year players. If you decide to spend it on him, that means you're losing two of those $8 million players because you can't afford them anymore. So then the question is: How good is your farm system? Because you'll need to plug in two $400,000 players out of your system to fill those holes."

This assumes, of course, we're not talking about a team like the Yankees, where "budget" is a highly flexible concept. But your average franchise would have to make major sacrifices to accommodate a $25 million player -- for any length of time. Remember that.

OK, now let's remember something else: It has been 6½ years since A-Rod signed his original deal for $25.2 million a year, Manny Ramirez signed for $20 million a year and Derek Jeter signed for a tick under $19 million a year.

How many position players since then have signed for $25 million a year? Zero. How many have signed for $20 million a year? Also zero. How many have signed deals averaging even $19 million a year? Right you are. Nada.

For whatever reason, long-term position-player contracts have boomeranged southward since then. And nobody has nudged past $18 million a year.

According to our trusty calculators, the pole vault from $18 million to $25 million would be a climb of nearly 39 percent. So how can we safely assume that just because A-Rod is averaging $25 million on his current deal, he's exempt from the forces that have kept any other player from even approaching that level over all these years since he cashed in?

"I think he can get to 20 [million]," one baseball man said. "But 25? Let's just say there would be enormous pressure on clubs not to get to 25."

So who, exactly, would be applying that pressure? C'mon, friends. This isn't that tough. How much moaning, publicly and privately, have the commissioner and some of his favorite owners done over the years about insane signings and misguided contracts?

You think Boss Steinbrenner or Arte Moreno or John Henry -- just to name three possible ownership suspects -- wouldn't get an earache listening to lectures from that group as he courted A-Rod at Boras Manufacturing's suggested retail prices? Guess again.

TRIVIALITY
Four active players have stolen more than 300 bases -- but have never led their league in steals. Can you name them? (Answer later.)
On the other hand, if the Yankees were to extend A-Rod, they could spin this differently than any other team. That's because only they can factor in the $81 million he has coming over the next three seasons under his current deal.

Take that money, add a five-year extension for $119 million, and you've got $200 million for eight years. But the Yankees could argue that the extension averaged out to just $23.8 million a year -- so they got him for a (gulp) discount. Yeah, right.

So where is this all leading? To some extremely large number. No doubt about that. But how large? And from what lucky franchise? We can kick those questions around from now to Thanksgiving. Gentlemen, start your rumor machines.

Still Rumbling, Still Grumbling

• What does it say about the strange saga of Alex Rodriguez that when he gets hot, our first inclination is to break down his psyche instead of his swing? But scouts say toning down the big leg lift he used last season has made all of this possible. "What he was doing last year was, he lifted that leg up so [high] that he was falling forward," one veteran scout says. "So his head was moving forward and downward, and he couldn't track the ball or get his body stabilized. Now, his head is totally stable. So he's tracking the ball better and getting to the ball faster. He was always a leverage-type hitter. But now he's adjusted his technique to get to the ball faster. So he's using leverage and bat speed. And that's a lethal combination."

YOUNG RUMBLINGS
Washington NationalsLooking for a great story? There aren't many tales that top Dmitri Young's revival in Washington.

Young was sent home by the Tigers last summer after a post-divorce spiral led to all kinds of issues in his personal life. He didn't get signed until after spring training had already started. He had to spend half the spring dressing in the minor league clubhouse, up the road from the rest of his team. And now he's hitting cleanup. In the big leagues.

"He's been a really good citizen," says manager Manny Acta. "Everyone loves him. He plays the game hard. And he's gotten better at the plate, the more at-bats he's gotten."

His agent, Adam Katz, says: "Dmitri always saw the big picture. He wasn't going to let [being assigned to minor league camp] torment him. He always had total confidence that he could do this, that he could still play at a high level in the major leagues."

What happens to Young after Nick Johnson returns is hard to say. But more people are rooting for this guy than you might think.

• By the way, one more A-Rod note: What he's doing might be unprecedented for the start of a season. But we have seen guys this hot before. Just not out of the chute. Our buddy David Vincent -- author of the new book, "Home Run: The Definitive History of Baseball's Ultimate Weapon" -- reports that both Sammy Sosa (16 in 1998) and Barry Bonds (15 in 2001) have had stretches in which they hit more home runs in 18 team games than A-Rod's 14. And five players -- Sosa (2001), Bonds (1999), Rudy York (1937), Albert Belle (1995) and Mark McGwire (1998) -- have had 18-game stretches in which they hit exactly 14. None of them wound up with 100 homers, best we can recall. So it's safe to predict A-Rod has to cool off.

• One scout who has been following the Nationals has this review of closer Chad Cordero: "He's Eddie Guardado. You watch him and you say, 'Oh my god.' But somehow, he does it." Admirable as it might be, though, to have a closer who just guts his way through the ninth, Cordero's lack of pure stuff will make him tough to trade for the two or three impact arms the Nationals have asked back for him. "I don't have a problem paying for a Cadillac as long as I'm getting a Cadillac," the same scout says. "I like Cutlasses, too. But they don't price them like Cadillacs."

• A baseball man who has known Bud Selig for years says we shouldn't plan our coverage of the commish's retirement party quite yet. "If I were a betting man, I'd bet Bud will be in that job for another five or 10 years," Selig's friend says. "He loves that job. So why would he give this up? Private planes. Fifteen million bucks a year. He has more reasons to stay than to go."

• The Dodgers don't know quite what's going on with Jason Schmidt yet. They just know his fastball went from 86-88 mph his first start to 81-84 by his third. So they're one of the few teams lucky enough to have enough pitching to shut him down for a few weeks until his shoulder bursitis calms down, then build him back to be the ace they thought they'd signed.

• Dodgers GM Ned Colletti on Luis Gonzalez: "He's a winning player. He's all about winning and trying to make everyone around him better. He grows on you quick."

• Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has the makings of a really fun player -- "but he's got to calm down," one scout says. "He's like a pinball. He's got a cannon for an arm, and he's got big-time bat speed. But he swings at everything."

Cys in the making

In most who's-going-to-win-the-Cy Young debates, you hear the usual suspects. But two names have popped up lately that you could be hearing a lot of down the trail.

Cole Hamels
Hamels
Matt Cain
Cain
One is 22-year-old Giants right-hander Matt Cain, a guy who already has made 10 starts (the most in baseball) since 2005 in which he gave up no more than two hits. "Matt Cain wants to be the best pitcher in the game, and he's doing what it takes to get there," says Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, who was an assistant GM in San Francisco when Cain first reached the big leagues. "I think he'll wind up pitching more no-hitters than almost anybody in the history of the game."

The other name is 23-year-old Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels. Just last Saturday, Hamels struck out 15 Reds in only the 27th start of his career. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only four other pitchers in the past 25 years have had that big a strikeout game that early in their careers -- Roger Clemens, Kerry Wood (twice), Hideo Nomo and Greg Swindell. One scout who watched Hamels told Rumblings he'd vote for him for the Cy Young right now.

TRIVIA ANSWER
Barry Bonds, Omar Vizquel, Steve Finley and Reggie Sanders.
"I would never say he had a better changeup than Johan Santana, because nobody's better than Santana," the scout said. "But let's just say Santana's change is no better than this guy's. It's just as good. And I can't give any higher praise than that. They never made contact with it the whole night. He kept throwing it, and they kept swinging right through it."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.