Jon Heyman
Friday March 2nd, 2007

TAMPA, Fla. -- If Yankees superstar Alex Rodriguez exercises his opt-out clause after this season and walks away from the $81 million and three years remaining on his record contract, he may be subjected to even more boos in the Bronx. But if he stays without at least leveraging the clause in question, he surely will be giving up a lot of loot.

Though A-Rod the Yankee hasn't quite lived up to every ounce of hype, he has continued to produce big numbers in New York and assuredly will have plenty of teams begging for his services if he hits the open market next winter.

That's extra clear from the outside interest he attracted last summer. People familiar with trade inquiries made for Rodriguez last summer tell SI.com that no fewer than eight teams -- some of them shocking -- asked about him. One person with connections to the Yankees identified the teams as the Angels, Dodgers, White Sox, Cubs, Giants, Phillies, Diamondbacks and Indians.

"It was a lot of teams," is the way Yankees general manager Brian Cashman put it. "And some of them would surprise you."

And it's no stretch to believe that some of those teams would have been willing to extend his record 10-year, $252 million contract an extra three or four years, maybe even more. And that some of them would still be willing to do that should A-Rod walk away from the Yankees.

That means Rodriguez probably could double the money due him, to $162 million, if not more. (Alfonso Soriano, seen as barely a bit player in A-Rod's trade to the Yankees three years ago, recently got $136 million over eight years from the Cubs in an exploding market reflective of the industry's revenues doubling to $6 billion in a matter of a few years.)

The list of eight could even grow this winter assuming A-Rod puts together a more typical season. Last year he turned in perhaps his worst as a big leaguer, batting .290 with 35 home runs and 121 RBIs while struggling at times at third base.

It's no surprise both Los Angeles teams and both Chicago teams called for A-Rod. Both of the L.A. clubs have prospects aplenty to offer and the wherewithal to compensate A-Rod. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf (who once employed Michael Jordan and made a run at Rodriguez six winters ago) is known to be an A-Rod admirer, and the Cubs had a third-base question last summer, thanks to Aramis Ramirez's own opt-out clause. The Cubs, on the other hand, were a few months away last summer from embarking on a $300 million spending spree, which started with the hiring of Rodriguez's first big-league manager and close confidant, Lou Piniella.

According to someone familiar with the inquiries, the White Sox and Dodgers were among the most persistent pursuers for A-Rod. However, should A-Rod hit the open market, many will view the Angels as the favorite. They are known to be searching for a big bat and have put themselves into position to acquire big players through a series of shrewd business moves. Additionally, the Angels have yet to make the "major" move club owner Arte Moreno foresaw heading into this past offseason.

The list of A-Rod inquirers shows the type of interest A-Rod can generate, as it runs the gamut from big-to-small market clubs. Even Arizona and Cleveland, two teams with fairly tight payrolls, dreamed of jumping into the fray.

The other two interested teams are intriguing for the killer combinations they could have created: A-Rod and Barry Bonds would have made an all-time tandem. And what about A-Rod and Ryan Howard?

One top baseball decision maker on one of the eight teams claimed, "We offered the house, but [Cashman] wouldn't even respond." While the interest in Rodriguez was great, it appears that talks never got off the ground.

From the start, Rodriguez made clear to Cashman he had no interest in waiving his no-trade clause and wanted to remain a Yankee. And despite A-Rod's perplexing summer slump, which briefly infected his fielding, Cashman didn't try to sway him on that score, either.

"Not only is he one of the premier players in the game, he's not an easily replaceable individual," Cashman explained. "We knew then we weren't going to have [Gary] Sheffield. You can't take two right-handed hitters out of the lineup like that. It would make no sense."

Besides, A-Rod rendered the point moot with a four-word message to Cashman regarding the possibility of a trade. "No thank you, Cash."

So even if the Yankees' interest could have been piqued a tad by a team like the Dodgers, which possess a multitude of exciting and talented young players, exactly the type of players Cashman covets, the Yankees GM didn't want to waste anyone's time, including his own.

"I knew Alex well enough to know that he was not waiving his no-trade clause," Cashman said. "It was a combination of A) not having any interest in trading him, and B) him not wanting to go anywhere ... It would have made entertaining offers senseless."

Rodriguez never wavered in his resolve to remain last summer. But that doesn't mean it's a certainty Rodriguez will make the same call this winter. Technically speaking, there are three possibilities: A-Rod could opt out of the most lucrative contract in the four major team sports and sign elsewhere; he could try to enhance his contract with an extension from the Yankees; or he could just stay, keep the $81 million in hand and play out the original contract.

"I understand my options. I love New York, and I want to be in New York," Rodriguez said. "I understand there's interest."

"He's very happy," agent Scott Boras adds. "His goal was to go there and win a world championship, and his entire focus is on the '07 season. Like any player with a contract provision ... he will take the chance to evaluate things at the end of the year. Just as a team will weigh its options, the same goes for a player. As of now Alex is happy in New York."

This spring Rodriguez looks like a new and happier man. He's slimmed down to an ungodly low 9 percent body fat for a man his size, and if a team is interested in A-Rod as a shortstop, he now looks slim enough to switch back to his original position after willingly surrendering it for Derek Jeter. Rodriguez has shown no outward interest in returning to his original position, but beyond the fact he is only one home run shy of Cal Ripken's home run record for a shortstop, he may still be worth even more as a shortstop.

Besides, how many players surrender a chance to double their pay?

This past winter both stars with opt-out clauses, J.D. Drew and Ramirez, used the opportunity to greatly increase their contracts. Drew left the Dodgers for Boston and Ramirez extracted an extension out of the Cubs. And neither of those players is anywhere near A-Rod's caliber.

A person could be cynical and say A-Rod's choice to stay last summer was a business decision, that if he surrendered his shot at succeeding in New York so quickly, his star would dim. But it's much more likely that his call was more about unfinished business than just plain business.

If A-Rod and New York haven't been quite the perfect pairing thus far, the marriage hasn't been nearly as bad as it's seemed in some quarters. He may not always please tough Yankees fans and his occasional struggles may even puzzle Joe Torre at times. But he's also shown a continuing ability to put up enormous numbers under the glare of New York's spotlight, won a second MVP and helped the Yankees become an even hotter ticket with his obvious star power. He didn't make the pinstripes, but he's added to the allure.

The Yankees are surely disappointed that A-Rod and his teammates have failed to deliver on their ultimate goal of winning the World Series during his three seasons in New York. They're also undoubtedly bewildered over his surprisingly unclutch play in two straight October series. And yet it's hard to think they'd want him to opt out. Beyond the fact that he's one of the greatest all-around talents ever, it's an all-around great deal for the Yankees, who benefit by Rangers owner Tom Hicks paying about one third of A-Rod's salary, as agreed upon when the Rodriguez-to-the-Yankees trade was agreed to on Valentine's Day 2004. His salary is scheduled to be $27 million from 2008 through '10, but could rise by as much as $5 million in each of the last two years if he plays out the whole contract.

But should A-Rod walk away from the Yankees after this season, one baseball person pointed out, "Hicks would be the happiest man on Earth .... In fact, he's probably sending A-Rod brochures of Laguna Beach and Michigan Avenue." Should A-Rod walk away from the current deal, Hicks would save exactly $29 million.

While there's no percentage in the Yankees publicly speaking about the possibility they'd give Rodriguez an extension to stay, that can't be ruled out. The Yankees of Cashman are now keeping a much closer eye on the budget and have few qualms about letting big names leave, as was the case with Sheffield and Randy Johnson. Although, as an all-time great who'd have a good chance to break the lifetime home-run record in the next Yankee Stadium, A-Rod is a different case altogether. And unlike in the cases of Sheffield and Johnson, Cashman has appeared to be much more in A-Rod's corner from the start.

But for now, there are no promises on either side. Cashman would prefer to put the ball in A-Rod's court. Referring to the opt-out clause, Cashman said, "It's something he earned in negotiations, and it's a personal decision he will have to make at the end of the season ... He's got a contract in place. He has a decision to make. If he wants to opt out, he can opt out. Though we hope he doesn't opt out."

The intrigue has just begun.

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