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HOT STOVE HYSTERIA SALARY-DUMPING DEALS, FREE-AGENT SIGNINGS AND THE EXPANSION DRAFT TURNED UP THE HEAT ON AN ALREADY SIZZLING OFF-SEASON

Dec. 01, 1997
Dec. 01, 1997

Table of Contents
Dec. 1, 1997

Faces In The Crowd

HOT STOVE HYSTERIA SALARY-DUMPING DEALS, FREE-AGENT SIGNINGS AND THE EXPANSION DRAFT TURNED UP THE HEAT ON AN ALREADY SIZZLING OFF-SEASON

No sooner was the baseball expansion draft over on Nov. 18 than
general managers were lining up like patrons at a deli counter,
all but taking numbers before announcing their selections du
jour. The string of trade announcements at the Phoenix Civic
Plaza made for one of baseball's better off-season days. "This
is like the old winter meetings," said Arizona Diamondbacks
general manager Joe Garagiola Jr. "This brings the spotlight
back to baseball."

This is an article from the Dec. 1, 1997 issue Original Layout

The hot stove league has gone microwave. At week's end 11
current and former All-Stars had already changed teams since the
end of the season--only three of them by choice, as the
free-agent field was just starting to shake out. Among the
relocated stars on draft night alone were pitchers Pedro
Martinez and Roberto Hernandez, first baseman Fred McGriff,
outfielder Devon White and third baseman Travis Fryman, not to
mention less-decorated standouts such as second baseman Mike
Lansing and closer Robb Nen. Moreover, among the elite still on
the block and readily available as of Monday were pitchers Randy
Johnson and Kevin Brown and outfielders Gary Sheffield, Bernie
Williams, Kenny Lofton and Brady Anderson.

What--other than the charitable Florida Marlins and Montreal
Expos--gives? The market hit what a Wall Streeter would call
triple witching hour as the expansion draft and the fire sales
in Florida and Montreal added to the usual flow of players
caused by free agency. The result is that the ever-changing
baseball landscape, like Eastern Europe, is a cartographer's
nightmare. Getting the lay of the land has become as difficult
as forwarding mail to Chuck McElroy, a lefthanded pitcher more
aptly compared to Rand McNally than to Dave McNally. Drafted by
Arizona from the Chicago White Sox and then traded to the
Colorado Rockies, McElroy joined his fifth organization in the
past 18 months.

In the spirit of such adventure, what follows is a guide to
which teams moved ahead, which fell behind and which ones are
caught in the middle, still hoping to pull off a big deal or
two. But remember: Like that map of Eastern Europe, it's subject
to change.

WINNERS

1) Boston Red Sox. In the past 30 years only one Red Sox team
(in 1992) lost more games than the '97 Sox. General manager Dan
Duquette and his club grabbed some needed credibility by getting
Martinez from Montreal in exchange for top pitching prospect
Carl Pavano (and the ubiquitous player to be named later) and
were said to be on the verge of signing first baseman Mo Vaughn
to a contract extension. Though Martinez can depart after next
season as a free agent--and has indicated he doesn't want to
stay in Boston--Duquette says, "It sends a good message to our
fans that we'd like to put a winning team at Fenway Park, and I
think it also sends a good message to our players that the Red
Sox are back in business." Chief among those players is Vaughn,
and Boston was hoping that he especially got the message.

2) Atlanta Braves. No wonder they wanted no part of radical
realignment. The Braves' competition in the National League East
consists of Florida and Montreal, two clubs that have already
conceded the 1998 season; the punchless New York Mets, who will
be without injured catcher Todd Hundley, their best hitter, for
most of next year; and the dreadful Philadelphia Phillies, a
team that lost 94 games. Playoff tickets go on sale April 1.

Less certain than Atlanta's postseason chances, however, is the
wisdom of some of the moves the Braves made last week. They may
be no better on the field despite signing two pricey free
agents, first baseman Andres Galarraga ($24.8 million for three
years) and shortstop Walt Weiss ($9 million for three years),
because they traded McGriff to the expansion Tampa Bay Devil
Rays and are losing shortstop Jeff Blauser and Lofton to free
agency. Though Atlanta sorely needed a righthanded bat in the
middle of the lineup, the investment in Galarraga is
questionable. The former Rockie turns 37 in June and must prove
he is not just a Coors Field phenom. Although he led the league
in RBIs in '96 and '97, he has hit worse on the road in the last
five years (.281, 72 HR, 224 RBIs in 334 games) than McGriff
(.301, 80, 242 in 363 games). Even with Weiss, 34, on board and
a payroll that could exceed $60 million, Atlanta still lacks a
leadoff hitter. In this division that won't matter during the
regular season, but it might in the playoffs.

3) Colorado Rockies. Getting the 29-year-old Lansing from the
Expos to team with shortstop Neifi Perez, 23, gives the Rockies
a double-play combination that is younger and better defensively
than Weiss and Eric Young, whom Colorado traded to the Los
Angeles Dodgers for Pedro Astacio in August. The Rockies' front
office feels that rookie Todd Helton is ready to replace
Galarraga at first and that the money Colorado saves will allow
the team to improve its pitching, possibly with Houston Astros
free agent Darryl Kile.

Even so, Rockies manager Don Baylor was disheartened that
Galarraga didn't try harder to stay with the team that
revitalized his career. "So far I haven't seen any loyalty,"
Baylor said. "Guys are going for the money. There are not many
Tony Gwynns, I guess."

LOSERS

1) Florida Marlins. The world championship flag that is usually
raised on Opening Day has been replaced by a white one. Since
winning the title on Oct. 26, Florida has dumped seven players
by trade, release or the expansion draft without obtaining a
single major leaguer in return. It received nothing for Tony
Saunders, a 23-year-old lefthander who started Game 4 of the
World Series and was plucked by Tampa Bay with the draft's No. 1
pick. Alex Fernandez will probably be lost for the season with a
torn rotator cuff, and Brown and Al Leiter almost certainly will
be traded, leaving 22-year-old Livan Hernandez as the Marlins'
most experienced starting pitcher. The sell-off hasn't stopped
Florida from raising ticket prices, though. Plenty of good seats
are still available.

2) Montreal Expos. Pavano is a terrific prospect, but general
manager Jim Beattie came up short of his original asking price
of three top young players for Martinez, a Cy Young winner who's
in his prime. Lansing's departure also upholds the fine
placement record of Expos University: After five years Montreal
players graduate to better jobs.

3) Houston Astros. The only team to lose three 1997 big leaguers
in the expansion draft: promising outfielder Bob Abreu and
relievers Tom Martin, a southpaw who allowed one extra-base hit
to a lefthander in 56 innings all year, and Russ Springer, who
struck out 74 batters in 55 1/3 innings.

ON THE FENCE

1) Los Angeles Dodgers. They exposed three starting infielders
to the draft (Young, Eric Karros and Todd Zeile) and lost none
of them, which can be viewed as good and bad news. Their offense
is intact, but they will still have to pay Karros and Zeile $7.6
million next year, and they haven't opened up a spot for
talented minor league first baseman Paul Konerko. One move that
would make L.A. a winner would be getting Mark Grudzielanek from
Montreal to solve its shortstop dilemma.

2) Detroit Tigers. Thanks to realignment, they improved their
playoff chances simply by moving from the American League East,
where they finished 19 games behind the Baltimore Orioles, to
the AL Central, where they would have been only seven games
behind Cleveland. They nearly pulled off a trade for Yankees
centerfielder Bernie Williams before New York got cold feet, but
they still must make a deal to strengthen themselves if they
hope to catch the Indians.

3) Chicago White Sox. They have no proven replacements for
shortstop Ozzie Guillen, whose option they declined to pick up,
or catcher Jorge Fabregas, whom Arizona drafted. The draft also
cost the Sox pitching prospect Chris Clemons, 25, and the
peripatetic McElroy, whose trade value is indisputable. Of
course, Opening Day still is miles away. Happy motoring.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO Fred McGriffCOLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA Andres GalarragaB/W PHOTO: GORDON COSTER/TIME LIFE PICTURE COLLECTION [Iron stove]COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON Bernie WilliamsCOLOR PHOTO: DOUG PENSINGER/ALLSPORT Brady AndersonCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Randy JohnsonCOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS Kenny LoftonCOLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER The Marlins shipped off Nen and Conine and let Sheffield continue to dangle in the trade winds. Robb NenCOLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES [See caption above] Gary SheffieldCOLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN [See caption above] Jeff Conine