THREE TOP-NOTCH STARTERS UP FOR SALE--DISMANTLING A CHAMPION--DID JOHNSON ERR?

November 24, 1997

ACES IN SPADES

Like true post-up centers, Picassos and two seats on the aisle
halfway back at the multiplex, genuine No. 1 starters are one of
life's treasures, and the supply never meets the demand. How
then do you explain the availability last week of three such
starters, all of them ERA-title winners and two of them Cy Young
Awardees? Not surprisingly, this plenitude of pitching turned
the general managers' meeting in Scottsdale, Ariz., into a
high-stakes flea market. Baseball in November has never been
more volatile--or more interesting.

The Mariners, the Expos and the Marlins welcomed bids for,
respectively, lefthander Randy Johnson, righthander Pedro
Martinez and righthander Kevin Brown--a troika that had a
combined record of 53-20 last season. All of them are one year
from free agency, the status already enjoyed by another star
righty up for grabs at the meetings, Darryl Kile.

Moreover, the Indians listened to offers for third baseman Matt
Williams, and the Yankees held internal discussions about moving
centerfielder Bernie Williams, both of whom are also potential
free agents after the 1998 season. And the champagne had barely
dried on the clubhouse carpet before world champion Florida
jettisoned its leading run producer, leftfielder Moises Alou,
and eagerly began taking bids on its 29-year-old former batting
champion, rightfielder Gary Sheffield.

A weak free-agent field seemed irrelevant against the backdrop
of the most intense shopping this side of Loehmann's. Consider
it a sign of the times. What seemed a bold move eight months
ago, when Cleveland stunned baseball observers by trading star
centerfielder Kenny Lofton to the Braves as a preemptive strike
against his impending free agency, has become accepted business
practice. "In many cases the guys who are one year from free
agency are treated [by clubs other than their own] almost the
same as free agents," says Rangers general manager Doug Melvin.

Says Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski, "Other than for a
handful of [high-revenue] teams, it's like the game changes on a
year-to-year basis now. One year you might be trying to win, and
the next year you might be trying to move contracts."

The star-studded market is humming partly because the number of
players who think they're worth $10 million is greater than the
number of teams willing to pay them that much. With players like
Chicago outfielder Sammy Sosa, who signed a four-year, $42
million extension in June, lowering the bar for admission,
Johnson, Martinez, Bernie Williams, Red Sox first baseman Mo
Vaughn and Dodgers catcher Mike Piazza--all of whom could be
free agents after the '98 season--are looking to join the most
elite company.

Seattle, for instance, didn't hesitate to announce that the
34-year-old Johnson was on the block when his agents, Barry
Mesiter and Alan Nero, tried to compare Johnson, who won the
American League's Cy Young Award in 1995, with Atlanta's
four-time winner, Greg Maddux ($11.5 million a year). One source
says several Mariners volunteered to defer some of their salary
as a way to keep the Big Unit. Still, the front office didn't
even bother negotiating with the man who literally threw out his
back carrying the team to the 1995 American League Championship
Series and saving baseball in Seattle.

In one of the more blunt pronouncements of the meetings,
Montreal general manager Jim Beattie said, "We're not trying to
win next year." Beattie also announced that in exchange for the
26-year-old Martinez, this year's National League Cy Young
winner, he wants three players "no closer than two years away
from arbitration." That didn't stop him from asking the
Yankees--to their amusement--for a package that included
righthanded closer Mariano Rivera, who is one year from
arbitration eligibility. "[Unless it's a player] we intend to
keep," Beattie said in clarification of his one-day-old
pronouncement.

Brown, 32, figured to be the first ace discarded. Among the 15
clubs to ask Dombrowski about Brown was Cleveland. The Indians,
who also expressed interest in Johnson and Martinez, appreciate
the rarity of a No. 1 starter. For all of their maneuverings and
success over the past four years, they have never been able to
give the ball to such a pitcher in his prime. "Of course, we
would have to be interested," Indians general manager John Hart
said of acquiring one of those aces. "I can't recall when
there's been this kind of trade talk. It has everyone talking
baseball."

FROM CHAMPS TO...

Four days after winning the World Series, Florida owner Wayne
Huizenga and president Don Smiley called Dombrowski and manager
Jim Leyland to a meeting with one topic on their minds:
dismantling the Marlins. Dombrowski was told to cut the payroll
from $53 million to $25 million because Smiley, who is putting
together a group to buy the team, cannot afford to carry the
losses that the deep-pocketed Huizenga did.

"We all feel bad," Dombrowski says. "It's not a pleasant
experience. But you can't sit around feeling sorry for yourself.
It's not what I prefer. But this is what I do. I work in
baseball. I meet the challenge."

Only Connie Mack's sell-off of the 1914 Philadelphia Athletics
comes close to matching the swiftness and thoroughness of the
Marlins' plans to raze a champion. The wrecking ball swung first
on Nov. 11 when Dombrowski sent Alou to the Astros for three
minor leaguers 10 minutes before the 2 p.m. deadline for making
deals. (There was a moratorium on trades until after Tuesday's
expansion draft.) Last Saturday, Dombrowski predicted that he
could announce three or four other deals following the draft.
According to sources, among the trades he was working on were
deals to send Brown to the Cardinals for a couple of young
pitchers, Sheffield to the Mets for outfielder Bernard Gilkey,
and righthanded closer Robb Nen to Boston for two prospects.

Meanwhile, Houston, which in 2000 will open the kind of
baseball-only park the Marlins covet, emphatically stamped
itself as a team headed upward--even with an
all-righthanded-hitting lineup. Never in the franchise's 36
years had the Astros traded for a player of Alou's All-Star
caliber. Houston also remained in contention to re-sign Kile,
who was fielding offers from the Diamondbacks, the Padres and
the Rockies.

FALLOUT

Davey Johnson resigned from the Orioles on Nov. 5, instead of
waiting a few weeks to be fired, so that he could be considered
for other managerial openings. But the mushroom cloud from his
battle with Baltimore owner Peter Angelos may keep him from
starting next season with a job. According to a highly placed
source, Blue Jays general manager Gord Ash, having clashed with
ousted manager Cito Gaston, is cool toward hiring Johnson for
fear of similar difficulties. Ash is less worried about a
stressful relationship with his other three finalists: Larry
Bowa, Tim Johnson and Buck Martinez. Davey Johnson has not been
mentioned for the other remaining managerial opening, with the
White Sox.

COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS For Martinez, the Expos want a package of young players who aren't eligible for arbitration. [Pedro Martinez pitching] COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES In a pitch to reduce its payroll, Florida put Brown on the market and dealt Alou (below) to Houston. [Kevin Brown pitching] COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE [See caption above--Moises Alou]

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