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Money issues playing a major
role in all discussions
By Peter Gammons
Special to ESPN.com
During a recess in Wednesday morning's GM meetings, a National League general manager walked away from his peers down the hallway of the Tuscon LaPaloma Hotel, visibly upset.
"I've tried to talk trade with every team in baseball and all I hear are two phrases," he said. "The first is, 'it's got to be contract for contract,' the other, 'I'm five million dollars over budget if those projected arbitration numbers are correct."
The GM was asked if he were over budget.
"Probably," he replied. "But then, I haven't been given a budget."
The meetings were a lot of lobby mingling for nothing, unless you consider that Matt Kinney/Javier Valentin deal from Minnesota to Milwaukee for Gerard Oakes and Matt Yeatman a show-stopper. The one major league deal involved the Cubs acquiring Arizona catcher Damian Miller for two minor leaguers, a trade that was all about the Diamondbacks having to move Miller's contract.
"The Cubs and Phillies are the two teams with cash to move," said an American League club official. "The Braves and Mariners may, as well, depending on how many of their free agents they re-sign. But the rest are wandering around with tight, constricted budgets."
"Having cash in hand is a tremendous asset," says Cubs GM Jim Hendry. "That enabled us to get an All-Star catcher."
No one worked any harder at the meetings than Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd, who by Saturday morning had worked on three deals to get his club out of the hole it dug two years ago in signing Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle. The Rockies' payroll, which projects to be in the $75-80 million range could be slashed to $50-55 million.
The Rockies on Saturday sent Hampton and center fielder Juan Pierre to Florida for center fielder Preston Wilson, catcher Charles Johnson, left-handed pitcher Vic Darensbourg and second baseman Pablo Ozuna. Wilson, who has three years and $27 million left on his contract, Johnson and Darensbourg all have multi-year commitments at big dollars. But at the end of Hampton's contract, the Rockies will save $34 million.
Later, the Marlins reportedly sent Hampton to the Braves for reliever Tim Spooneybarger and an unnamed prospect.
Another trade would have Larry Walker go to Arizona for Matt Williams, outfielder Dave Dellucci, first baseman Erubiel Durazo and right-handed pitcher Bret Prinz, pending Williams' OK; the cash is a virtual wash for 2003, but Walker has 2004 and 2005 remaining on his contract, so the Rockies would save $23 million and have the opportunity to move Durazo for a top player if he can't play right field.
"We're tryng," said O'Dowd, "to get ourselves out of a hole," which the long-term saving of nearly $70 million would go a long way towards accomplishing. "It's all about money."
While the Phillies, who had more people at the meetings than invaded Normandy, were offering Jim Thome, Tom Glavine and David Bell big bucks, most of the agents at the meetings felt a chill. "I've never been to a GM meetings like this," said Adam Katz. "It's cold. Very cold. This is a very strange market."
Katz represents Bell, who has the good fortunate to be coming off a strong regular season and playoffs and to be a third baseman. He has offers coming in from the Phillies, Yankees, Diamondbacks and Cubs, to name just four. Gregg Clifton, who represents Glavine, was besieged by the Phillies with a three-year offer, then after the Braves maintained their one-year position, got a three year, $31 million offer from the Mets.
"This is one of those times when while one would think waiting would up the offers, I wonder if it's not best to act quickly and try to get something done before the market dries up. I get the distinct feeling that there aren't going to be many big players out there."
Several general managers plan to sit tight and let the market come to them. San Francisco's Brian Sabean has feelers out on free agents like Ray Durham but says, "January may be my busiest month. There may be some very good players at bargain prices then, after the free agent market has stalled, the non-tenders and the trade dumping contracts."
If the new Basic Agreement was supposed to free up the small and middle markets, it doesn't appear to be doing so. Owners felt the crunch of the effect months of labor talks had -- on attendance and TV ratings -- and right now larger market owners of the Dodgers, Mets and Red Sox want no part of paying a luxury tax; A's GM Billy Beane was surprised at how little the Red Sox have to work with (right now $13 million more, with Cliff Floyd unsigned and a need for two starters, two relievers and a first baseman) without some creative trading.
Beane relished the creative possibilities because of the cash Sox owner John Henry, chairman Tom Werner and team president Larry Lucchino are willing to invest in development. But after turning them down, Beane had to get back to his own reality of having to pare $5 million off his A's payroll quickly. Hence Beane was trying to move Cory Lidle, with the White Sox (catcher Mark Johnson) interested but the Reds unable to take on the salary despite their new ballpark (which is not going unnoticed in Cincinnati).
"Why wouldn't I be smart to wait?" asked one GM. "There are going to be several free agents that freefall into the first of the year. And look at all the players teams are begging to unload."
Here are a number of them:
Juan Gonzalez. Jay Powell. Todd Van Poppel. Carl Everett. David Segui. Marty Cordova. Scott Erickson. Brook Fordyce. John Burkett. Keith Foulke. Mark Wohlers. Dmitri Young. Matt Anderson. Damion Easley. Craig Paquette. Dean Palmer. Shane Halter. Bobby Higginson. Danny Patterson. Joe Randa. Timo Perez. Michael Tucker. Jeff Suppan. Rick Reed. Raul Mondesi. Rondell White. Sterling Hitchcock. Carlos Delgado. Jeff Cirillo. Greg Vaughn. Mo Vaughn. Ben Grieve. Todd Hundley. Hampton. Neagle. Walker. Richard Hidalgo. Eric Karros. Mark Grudzielanek. Jeffrey Hammonds. Eric Young. Burnitz. Ordonez. David Weathers. Roger Cedeno. Travis Lee. Jason Kendall. Kevin Young. Bubba Trammell. Livan Hernandez. J.T. Snow ...
"If O'Dowd pulls off those deals, it will be a miracle," says another NL GM. "Hampton, like Mo Vaughn, Manny Ramirez and maybe even Alex Rodriguez, are the most untradeable contracts in the game." As a management labor official notes, "Hampton, Neagle, Rodriguez and Ramirez were the last contracts signed in an era that's now past."
Then when listing the available contracts, add in the Montreal Expos. If the Players Association and MLB can come to some agreement, they will play 20 of their 81 home dates in Spanish in San Juan, rather than French in Montreal. MLB is telling Expos officials that the Puerto Rican dates will raise more revenue. Expos GM Omar Minaya's lieutenants tell him that playing a quarter of their home dates on the road will eliminate any chance the team has to be competitive. Minaya estimates the current team will cost between $55 million and $60 million to keep it together, and even with the San Juan revenues, MLB might require Minaya to get down to between $45 million and $50 million, which might necessitate dealing off a couple of the players who can be free agents at the end of the season -- namely Bartolo Colon, Javier Vazquez and Tony Armas; Colon's contract is for $8.2 million, while the other two are fifth-year arbitration cases.
"We won't know about San Juan or the budget until after the owners' meetings," says Minaya. The owners meetings begin this coming Wednesday.
Cleveland, meanwhile, can't get into the five-year, $75 million range on Jim Thome that the Phillies are willing to expend. The Indians this winter are paying into revenue sharing and the Phillies are getting $15 million, so Cleveland will be helping to pay for Thome's salary should he leave. However, Indians ownership figures that their revenues will dip to the point that when GM Mark Shapiro's rebuilding is completed in 2004, they will receive revenue-sharing dollars that they can spend on free agents to fill what holes they'll then have.
Several general managers believe that numerous forces have crossed to create the Lowell George Cold, Cold, Cold chorus at LaPaloma: the 2002 baseball/labor recession, the 1998-2000 overspending, the national economy that has greatly impacted so many owners and the fact that all the owners watched the Anaheim Angels ($66 million payroll) beat the San Francisco Giants ($80 million payroll) in the World Series, two teams run with hard budgets whose general managers are forced to make tough choices.
No one is suggesting the competitive balance issue is solved, but the fact remains that in the previous five postseasons there were five games won by teams with payrolls in the bottom half, and this October the Twins (four) and A's (two) won six games between them and the top four payrolls -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers and Mets -- combined to win just one game.
"What the success of the A's, Angels, Giants and Twins have done is make several of the larger-market owners ask their general managers to make tough decisions of their own," says one AL GM. "The Red Sox were willing to quadruple Billy Beane's pay because they want their team making tough business decisions, and their owners know they have a huge debt service and no minor league talent. That requires someone with the creativity to find the players to surround their current stars while building a new base so that when so many of their current players are gone after 2004 they don't go through the floor."
The traditional way of running baseball teams is to have a trusted, veteran "baseball man" who makes decisions based on the next season and entrusting development to the back offices.
"There are so many economic pressures on the majority of owners right now, and the fact that the insurance industry came to the meetings and informed us that they will only cover three years of any contract and will get stingier on insuring existing injuries (the Phillies thus may only get three years of Thome's contract covered, and even with the $1 million annual premiums likely can't get coverage on his chronic back problem) only makes things more difficult," says one AL GM. "These are complicated businesses. This is not the '80s anymore."
What we are seeing is Bart Giamatti's vision of the future of baseball management. He hoped that a classical scholar who turned to the baseball business would encourage many bright and energetic university graduates to follow their hearts away from Wall Street to baseball, and that is precisely what is happening. Mariners GM Pat Gillick is considered a traditionalist, but as a 20-year-old graduate of USC was way ahead of his time, and a man whose brilliance has long been recognized. Sandy Alderson, a graduate of Dartmouth and Harvard Law, obviously has had a dramatic impact, with Beane and Blue Jays GM J. P. Ricciardi following his teachings, and now two future GMs under Beane in Harvardians Paul DePodesta and David Forst waiting in the wings. Shapiro is a graduate of Princeton, Jim Beattie of Dartmouth. Theo Epstein came out of Yale and got his law degree while working under Kevin Towers in San Diego. It now seems nothing for someone to go from any Ivy League or small, elite institution like Williams (Jim Duquette) or Amherst (Neil Huntington, Ben Cherrington) to go into baseball.
"The young circle of general managers like Beane, Shapiro, Brian Cashman, O'Dowd, Ricciardi, Towers and guys like that are very different," says agent Scott Boras. "Some of them are very bright, and very creative. I hate to admit it, but I think we agree more than we disagree on a lot of issues about which I have long felt very strongly." While discussing this very subject, one of the members of Boras' staff kidded him by saying, "we're not smarter than everyone anymore."
Beane's approach to Boston was to instill a motto for the organization that he passed on to his close friend Epstein: "Our goal is to be a $100 million developmental machine."
"With (the Red Sox's) potential revenues, they can accomplish that goal, but it's going to take a ton of hard work and creativity," says Beane. "I'm not worried about them, because Theo has the vision, the creativity and the capacity to outwork people. That's what it's going to take, and no less."
One week's vagrancy in the lobby of the LaPaloma made it clear that these are different times. So the labor agreement did not insure parity, entitlement, two chickens in every pot or a car in every garage, but it is clearly leading to what Giamatti, Alderson and legitimate visionaries saw long ago -- that the good ole days are not coming back, which calls for different minds with visions that see for miles and miles and miles and miles.Send this story to a friend | Most sent stories