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Sleight of hand

Maybe Eric Milton, a lefty who has a lifetime 4.76 ERA and who missed most of last season with a bum knee, is going to be worth every penny of the $9 million the Philadelphia Phillies will pay him in 2004. That's a lot of money. But you never know.

Maybe LaTroy Hawkins, a right-hander who crapped out in Minnesota as a closer before morphing into a power setup guy, will be worth the $11 million that the Chicago Cubs signed him for over the next three years. Who knows?

What we know in this increasingly weirded-out baseball offseason is this: What we see is never how it really is. No signing is ever as straightforward as it may seem. No trade is ever just a trade. No sure thing is ever anywhere close to sure.

Take, for instance, Milton, who came to the Phillies earlier this week in a trade with the Minnesota Twins. He's a great talent, a lefty with a mid-90s fastball, a tough competitor ... all that. He fills a Philly need.

But, the fact is, the Twins didn't want him. Or, more accurately, they didn't want him at that price for the upcoming season. They couldn't afford him plus outfielder Shannon Stewart and closer Eddie Guardado. So the Twins shipped Milton to Philly for three guys you may never have heard of, only too glad to use that money to try to get Stewart and Guardado under contract before a critical deadline for free-agent signings this weekend.

The funny thing is, the Phillies didn't really want Milton that badly, either. At least he wasn't their first choice. They put in an offer for free agent Kevin Millwood, the gritty right-hander who pitched for them last year after coming over from Atlanta. But Millwood and his hard-charging agent, the infamous Scott Boras, were having none of this $10 million-a-year talk. They want more per year, and more years, too. So Philadelphia general manager Ed Wade said "The heck with you" -- or words to that effect -- and went with Milton.

There's always some other reason beyond the obvious.

Take the New York Yankees. On Thursday, the Yankees traded for Javier Vazquez, the young Montreal right-hander who was coveted by every team with a need for pitching. Which is to say any team with a pulse. Obvious reasons for the trade: Roger Clemens has retired, free agent David Wells just went through back surgery and Andy Pettitte might -- long shot, but might -- go somewhere else. The Yankees need starting pitching.

Not-quite-so-obvious: Boston threatened the status quo in the American League East by trading for Curt Schilling. And George Steinbrenner, remember, is a maniac.

The Yanks also signed reliever Paul Quantrill and will sign, if they haven't already, slugger Gary Sheffield. There's an obvious need for bullpen help on the team, and the Yanks haven't had a decent right fielder since Paul O'Neill. The not-quite-so-obvious reason: George Steinbrenner, remember, is a maniac.

There's always something else going on. You can't take any of these trades or free-agent signings at face value.

Hawkins went from the Twins to the Cubs -- turned down the Yankees, even, which should make him eligible for some sort of baseball sainthood -- for plenty of dough and the chance to pitch for the team he watched as a kid.

But, again, the small-revenue Twins could only afford so much. They wanted to keep Hawkins, but they're not torn up about not having to pay that kind of money to him.

Vladimir Guerrero will sign someplace in the next couple of months, as will Pudge Rodriguez, and Javy Lopez and Miguel Tejada and Kazuo Matsui and most of the other 200-plus free agents out there. Every team will sign some free agents, if only their own guys. There will be more trades, too.

Some of those deals will make sense. A lot of them won't. For just about every one of them, though, there will be a lot more going on than most of us realize.

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