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Money triggers winter moves

Special to

November 2

It always comes back to money. In the case of the Yankees, sure, they can afford to sign both Manny Ramirez and Mike Mussina and settle another $35-40 million worth of arbitration eligible contracts for Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. The Mets can be at a $100 million payroll, and so can the Dodgers and Red Sox.

But as the general managers prepare to gather on Amelia Island, Fla., right off Jacksonville, this weekend, there are teams wondering how they're going to deal with the inflation of salaries. For instance, the Indians. Ramirez and agent Jeff Moorad are going to make an offer in the next couple of days that will give Cleveland the chance to keep arguably baseball's best hitter. But while Manny wants to stay, the cost is going to be somewhere around $200 million for 10 years. The Indians' payroll is going to climb another $5 million from last season's $83 million level, but ownership knows that revenue streams are maxed, the payroll cannot go much beyond $90 million through 2005, and -- the way things are moving -- that number will be below the median in five years when current projections estimate the 2005 median payroll at more than $102 million.

In other words, what has been one of the game's model franchises since the opening of Jacobs Field now is standing at a crossroads. Then, too, digest a study done by Cleveland management. It shows that since 1985, no World Series winner has spent more than 13.4 percent of its total payroll on a single player (no data for 1987). The range is relatively narrow (9.0 to 13.4 percent) and the average is 12.0 percent. Given the variations in market size and aggregate payroll for the teams that won a championship during this period (the Twins, Reds, Marlins, Blue Jays, A's, Mets, Royals, Dodgers, Yankees, and Braves), the percentage is remarkably consistent. Using these percentages, and assuming a $90 million payroll, the Indians theoretically should pay Manny no more than $12.1 million (13.4 percent of $90 million).

If you are an Oakland fan, think about that when your club is trying to sign Jason Giambi, who is one year away from free agency. With a $35-40M payroll, GM Billy Beane is trying to deal with Giambi's rightful comparison to Carlos Delgado's $17M average salary and the question of whether he can have a team where one player is making more than 40 percent of the payroll; of course, even if Toronto is going to have a $65M payroll, Delgado is still going to be at least 25 percent of the pie.

What Oakland may do is make a run to win it all in 2001, which they could do if they can find a third premium starter to go with Tim Hudson and Barry Zito and one more big-time positional player, preferably a right-handed-hitting outfielder like a Tim Salmon. Then, at the end of next season, worry about Giambi and hope by then they're on the road to San Jose and the highest per capita cost of living in the country.

The Indians more than likely will not be able to keep Manny out of the market, and then will try to put the recruiting press on Mussina. But even if they can convince Mussina that they are not on the downhill side of the curve, the Indians will have a lot of competition from the Yankees, Cardinals, Mets, Red Sox and perhaps even a sleeper like the White Sox.

Can the Cardinals afford to get in on Mussina and Mike Hampton? "Maybe," says GM Walt Jocketty. "It's something we have to sit down and assess, because our payroll obligations for next season are high." Ray Lankford's 10/5 status complicates matter, as he can veto any trade. That the Cardinals can even think about playing in these financial matters is testament to what Jocketty did when he made the Mark McGwire trade, which changed the entire franchise.

Royals may have to move Damon
It is already clear that the Royals cannot afford Johnny Damon, and will have to trade him. But Allard Baird's complications run deeper. Owner David Glass is unlikely to allow that club's payroll to creep towards $60M, much less $50M, so all the young talent that so excited the area this season could be quickly undermined. Damon is a fifth-year arbitration player, one year away from free agency. Mike Sweeney -- who is in the top 10 in a myriad of offensive categories over the last two seasons -- and All-Star Jermaine Dye are fourth-year arbitration eligibles who will be in Damon's position this time, next year. So, as Baird builds up his stock of young pitching, how can they hold team thing together?

"I think situations with Mike and Jermaine are a little different," says Baird. "But it's clear that it's going to be tough with Johnny. He wants to wait and see what we do with the club. But we can't do it that way. We have to address our bullpen, and the markets on bullpen arms and fort Johnny are going to move fast."

So, when Baird gets into Amelia Island Friday night, he will begin discussing deals for Damon. "I figure there are about 10 teams that will try to be in it," says Baird. "But I also think there are only three or four that are going to be serious about addressing our needs, another three that will want to deal in prospects. We want help for this upcoming season, and that's what we'll be asking for." In other words, as Baird meets with teams, he wants two big arms he can use in his bullpen in 2001. If you have a young shortstop and/or a young catcher, they will help fill out the deal.

Then there's Montreal. "Things are not going to be any better for us next year," says club president David Samson. Whoops. Javier Vazquez has won Super Two arbitration rights. Carl Pavano won an arbitration case and now is arbitration-eligible. They can decline Ugueth Urbina's option for next year, but he's still going to be at $3 million or more. And they're letting it be known that they'll trade Dustin Hermanson (as well as Milton Bradley and Wilton Guerrero).

Ichiro-ing for a hitting star
But that's not anything players should worry about, because Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Mussina and Hampton are going to get whatever they want. No, the Yankees are not going to sign A-Rod and either move him to third or Jeter to second. But be it the Mets, Braves, Dodgers (if they move Shawn Green or Gary Sheffield), Rockies, White Sox or whomever, the 25-year old superstar is going to make more than the GNP of the entire nation of Chad.

The Mets are going to go hard after Hampton, and if that fails and he goes to the Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers or someone else. Then they'll go after Mussina, and they say they can keep Rick Reed, John Franco and Turk Wendell and do A-Rod, Mussina or Hampton, and an outfielder (if the Yankees let Paul O'Neill go, see how fast the Mets jump on him).

The Braves would like to trade Brian Jordan and some clubs think they'd discuss Kevin Millwood if they could get Hampton, but the fact that Jordan has had surgery on both shoulders makes him a huge risk.

"What's going to happen is that there are 10 or 12 teams that have their hearts set on one of the Big Four," says one GM. "Then when they lose out, they'll say, 'hey, we have this money committed' and overspend on (Darren) Dreifort, (Denny) Neagle, (Andy) Ashby, (Ellis) Burks, (Alex) Gonzalez and good, solid second-tier free agents like that. What that does is drag all salaries, and impacts Kansas City and Oakland even more. And who knows how this (Ichiro) Suzuki thing will play out."

Teams interested in the 27-year old Orix Blue Wave hitting star, who is compared to Damon and Trot Nixon, are in the process of letting the commissioner's office know who wants to play. Sometime next week, each interested team makes a sealed bid. That bid is simply to the Orix club for the rights to negotiate with the seven-time batting champion. "Somewhere between November 15 and 17, we should know who has the winning bid," says one interested GM. The winner then has 30 days to agree to a deal with Suzuki. If there is no agreement, he goes back to Orix for one more season, then becomes a 10-year free agent next fall, free to negotiate with anyone. As for the bid, it gets returned to the U.S. team if the negotiations fail.

The Mariners, Mets, Tigers, Indians, Red Sox and Dodgers are among the teams believed to be willing to bid for the left-handed hitter. "There is no way of knowing what the bid should be," says the GM. "What happens if someone bids $20M? I have to believe this is going to be Seattle's deal. Their ownership has ties to the Orix ownership. (M's international scouting director) Jim Colborn was the pitching coach for Orix for several years, and has close ties. We were told there are three criteria, in order: a contending team, a sizeable Japanese community and, last, money. With the M's pitching, they can probably contend in their division, and they have the other criteria." But the Mets are burning for a leadoff hitter, a left-handed-hitting outfielder and because of Bobby Valentine have strong Japanese ties.

If St. Louis is priced out of the Hampton and Mussina sweepstakes, then they will stick with Darryl Kile, Matt Morris, Rick Ankiel, Andy Benes and either Garrett Stephenson or rookie left-hander Bud Smith (who is so highly-rated that they turned down Jim Bowden's proposition of an even-up swap for Denny Neagle before he was traded to the Yankees), then try to add to the bullpen.

It will be interesting to see what other names get thrown around the Ritz. The Angels, who may be downsizing in anticipation of another sale, reportedly will take bids on Salmon, who is a free agent next fall, and Mo Vaughn; Yankee officials this week privately said they have no interest in Vaughn. The Red Sox will discuss Carl Everett, but Dan Duquette doesn't want to trade him unless he can get a Larry Walker in return. Then there's Walker, who has a no-trade clause and has built a new house outside Denver. The Dodgers may look to move Sheffield or Green and the Twins could trade Matt Lawton.

The Padres will deal Phil Nevin -- whose value is enhanced by the fact that he's signed for $1.5M for next season -- but any deal would have to address their need for a power bat and a young shortstop (if Toronto will do Vernon Wells and Felipe Lopez so they can move Tony Batista to short, that is a possibility). The Tigers would like to trade Tony Clark. Oakland will deal Ben Grieve. Houston has to wait on Jeff Bagwell, but will deal Roger Cedeno and Daryle Ward. The Brewers don't want to deal Jeromy Burnitz, but would for a Nevin or a top center fielder who can lead off. The Reds will listen on Scott Williamson; the Phils offered Travis Lee, but Cincinnati demanded Pat Burrell.

"Because these meetings are so early and you can't even talk money with free agents until the 11th, all the talks here may be preliminary," says one GM. "Then again, if the Royals go strong with Damon and clubs like the A's and Indians are very active, maybe something will happen. But most everyone else is dependent on the free agents, and that's going to take awhile."

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