Rattling the Saber

Midway through spring training, as teams came to realize that their pitching wasn't as good as they had thought. Bret Saberhagen of the Mets became the hottest trade commodity in baseball. A two-time Cy Young Award winner with Kansas City in the late 1980s, the right-handed Saberhagen is coming off two miserable years in New York. But he is still only 29, has terrific stuff and "has the eye of the tiger again," according to Met general manager Joe McIlvaine. The Blue Jays, the Tigers and the Yankees have shown the most interest in acquiring him, followed by the Royals.

While McIlvaine says he's not actively shopping Saberhagen, he quickly adds. "I'm in last place. This is a game of pieces. If someone wants to give me three pieces for one, we might have to do it."

Saberhagen would greatly enhance world champion Toronto's chance for a threepeat. He could also make the Yankees the favorites in the American League East and could elevate Detroit and Kansas City into solid contenders in their respective divisions.

That is, of course, if he avoids injury this season. Assorted ailments have limited him to 82 starts the last four years, during which he has gone 28-29. He experienced tightness in his right shoulder and was scratched from an intrasquad game on March 3 but reported no discomfort in his first two exhibition starts and threw well in both outings.

There is also a question about his desire to be a top pitcher again—"a big concern," says one American League general manager. A fun-loving but harmless guy in his eight years with the Royals, Saberhagen found trouble more than once last year. In the clubhouse after a game on July 7, he threw a lighted firecracker near reporters. Three weeks later he used a water gun to spray a few New York writers with bleach. (After the season the Mets suspended him for the first five days of the 1994 season for the attack.)

But now, Saberhagen says, his determination to succeed is greater than ever. "The hunger is always there for me," he says. "It goes back to me being very competitive. If my eight-year-old is going to beat me at something, he's going to have to beat me. I'm looking for the good times in New York, but if the Mets can improve by trading me, they should."

Saberhagen's contract could be a sticking point unless the Mets offer to pay most or all of the deferred money—$250,000 annually from 2004 to 2028—in the three-year, $15.34 million contract extension he signed last spring. If New York did that, Saberhagen's new team would have to pay him approximately $13 million over the next three years. "He comes with a lot of baggage," says another American League general manager. "Three young players is too much."

For the Mets any deal must include what McIlvaine calls a "centerpiece player" (most likely a top prospect) and a player who can help immediately in the major leagues. Toronto has such players to trade (pitcher Todd Stottlemyre and Triple A shortstop Eddie Zosky) and the money to pay Saberhagen. Last Friday about 20 scouts, including four from the Blue Jays, watched Saberhagen give up two runs in four innings against the Expos.

"If Toronto doesn't make a deal this spring," Detroit manager Sparky Anderson says of the Blue Jays' efforts to acquire any proven starter, "I'll be the most surprised guy in the world."

Another New Rickey

Watch for a big year from A's left tickler Rickey Henderson—so says Blue Jay pitcher and former Henderson teammate Dave Stewart. "Rickey is ready to play," says Stewart, who keeps in touch with Henderson. "He has changed his ways, like reporting to camp on time." Henderson, 35, is beginning his third stint in Oak-and, after attracting little attention on the free-agent market and accepting the A's offer of a two-year, $8.6 million contract last December.

"He was hurt that no one but Oakland offered him anything in the off-season," Stewart says. "He wants to prove them wrong. The A's need him for two reasons: He's a great player, and he can get [rightfielder] Ruben Sierra to play." Upset that Henderson was traded from Oakland to Toronto last July 31, Sierra hit just .187 the rest of the year. However, through Sunday, he was the A's RBI leader this spring with 11.

Back to the Norm

Last Aug. 7, Mariner pitcher Norm Charlton's left arm was aching—and, he says, the Seattle organization knew it—but he was asked to pitch that night and did so because he wanted to help the team. On a pitch to the third Ranger batter Charlton faced, a tendon in his left elbow snapped. He heard it snap. After throwing two more pitches, he left the game in great pain. Five days later he had surgery, and was supposed to be sidelined for a year.

After the season Seattle offered Charlton a one-year contract worth $109,000 (the major league minimum) plus incentives, way down from his '93 salary of $2.34 million. When Charlton rejected the deal, the Mariners released him. "What kind of message does that send to the players in their organization?" Charlton says now. "If you get hurt trying to help the team, you're gone."

Now, seven months after the injury occurred, Charlton is throwing painfree in the Phillies' camp and is expected to be ready to pitch as early as May. On Feb. 3, Philadelphia signed him for a base salary of $850,000 with incentives that could make the deal worth $2.5 million. For the Phillies, who are in dire need of bullpen help, Charlton might end up being a steal.

Short Hops

Early signs indicate there will be no sophomore jinx for Dodger catcher Mike Piazza, the 1993 National League Rookie of the Year. In his first at bat of the third exhibition game, Piazza hit a 450-foot homer, and then in his next trip to the plate he hit a one-handed shot over the leftfield fence....

Catcher Benito Santiago, who signed a two-year, $7.2 million deal with the Marlins in 1992, will not be back next year. Florida wants to open a spot for its first-round pick in the '92 draft, catcher Charles Johnson, who has drawn raves this spring, especially for his defense....

One American League general manager says if Michael Jordan doesn't make the White Sox 25-man roster coming out of spring training, four or five other big league teams will be interested in signing him and putting him in the majors. The way this general manager figures it, with the money Jordan can generate at the gate, a team could go out and buy two players better than him for next season.

PHOTORONALD C. MODRAIf Saberhagen stays healthy and regains his Cy Young stuff, he will be a hot property.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)