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Market Swing Because he lacks power, free agent Bernie Williams was entertaining few offers in his bid to become the major leagues' highest-paid player

Nov. 30, 1998
Nov. 30, 1998

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Nov. 30, 1998

Faces In The Crowd

Market Swing Because he lacks power, free agent Bernie Williams was entertaining few offers in his bid to become the major leagues' highest-paid player

Power is the most valuable commodity in baseball. Power sells,
which is why the speed of every pitch and the length of every
home run are posted in lights at most ballparks. It is why the
game, in catering to a 450-megahertz world, is cranking out more
strikeouts and home runs than in any other era in its history.
On average, one in every 4.5 at bats last season resulted in a
whiff or a homer, those staples of the highlights shows and a
casual fan's attention span.

This is an article from the Nov. 30, 1998 issue

The top road draws last season were Sammy Sosa's Chicago Cubs
and Mark McGwire's St. Louis Cardinals. Now strikeout master
Randy Johnson, who finished the season with the Houston Astros,
is selling himself on the free-agent market armed with
statistics for wins, earned run average, punch-outs--and
television ratings. (Astros cable ratings more than doubled
whenever he started.) What is baseball these days but
programming, anyway, especially with a growing class of media
conglomerates operating some of the biggest franchises? Every
program needs star power. Pity the Los Angeles Dodgers, owned by
Fox, who ended last season with a $62.8 million payroll and
nothing close to a Jennifer Love Hewitt on their roster. That's
why one agent, rattling off the names of three top free-agent
power players, predicted last week, "The Dodgers will wind up
with Randy Johnson or Kevin Brown or Mo Vaughn."

In this environment Bernie Williams, the multitalented
free-agent centerfielder who has played his entire six-year
career with the New York Yankees, presents a challenge to the
postmodern definition of an elite player. At week's end Williams
and his agent, Scott Boras, were making their case to, among
others, the Yankees, Arizona Diamondbacks, Baltimore Orioles and
Boston Red Sox. (The Yankees, in turn, were keeping their
options open by flirting with Chicago White Sox leftfielder
Albert Belle, whose $11 million-a-season contract allows him to
negotiate with other teams until Dec. 2.) Should a guy who is
roughly equal in popularity to Joey Cora and whose moderately
powerful career statistics recall the less privileged side of
the Yankees centerfielder lineage (hello, Bobby Murcer) be one
of the highest-paid players in the game? The answer is as
complex as Williams, the trained classical guitarist who has
never hit 30 or more home runs in a season but in '98 still had
a better slugging percentage (.575) than fellow free agents
Rafael Palmeiro and Mike Piazza, the would-be free-agent catcher
whom the New York Mets recently made the highest-paid player in
baseball, at $13 million per season over seven years.

The Dodgers provided their answer to the question of what
Williams is worth by signing former Diamondbacks centerfielder
Devon White, who turns 36 next month, to a three-year, $12.4
million contract. "I feel like Devon White is a comparable
player, and he does it at a third of the price," Los Angeles
general manager Kevin Malone says. "Bernie's a quality player,
but Devon White is an All-Star, a premier defensive player and a
20-20 guy. I don't see Bernie being three times better. I don't
know if he can carry a club."

Says Colorado Rockies general manager Bob Gebhard, who also
passed on Williams, "We have x amount of dollars to spend. We
feel we were better off trying to strengthen three or four
positions rather than just signing Bernie Williams." So Gebhard
scoured the markdown aisle at Wal-Mart and invested in utility
players Lenny Harris and Kurt Abbott, southpaw Brian Bohanon,
centerfielder Darryl Hamilton and an old Carpenters CD.

Boras was telling clubs it would take at least a seven-year
contract to get Williams. He has hinted strongly that Williams
should be paid more than Piazza, who, by coming to terms before
the free-agent signing period began, lacked the leverage he
would have derived from officially fielding offers from other
clubs. However, no position player this decade has become the
highest-paid player in the game without hitting at least 32 home
runs (Piazza's '98 total) in a season. Of the nine position
players to earn at least $8 million last season, only one has
never hit 40 or more homers in a season: Williams.

"Is Bernie going to get you 40 home runs and 120 RBIs? I don't
think so," says one National League scout. "Does he go to a team
like Arizona and turn it around? I don't think so. Do you want to
build a team around Bernie Williams? You'd better have a lot of
other stuff."

Chances are the Styrofoam Thanksgiving turkey your kid made in
art class looks more like a centerpiece than Williams does.
Sure, he batted cleanup for the winningest team of all time, but
the Yankees went 21-10 in midseason while he was on the disabled
list with a sprained right knee, and he hit only .175 in the 11
postseason games New York won. Moreover, Williams finished 32nd
overall in All-Star balloting this year, barely edging the
nondescript Cora, a slap-hitting second baseman for the
Cleveland Indians. Williams has never started an All-Star game.
(Every nonpitcher who's been the highest-paid player this decade
has started at least one.) He's missed 18% of the Yankees' games
over the past three years with injuries. Furthermore, his
numbers are more Bobby M than Joe D. In fact, Williams's totals
after his sixth full season (1,096 hits, 126 homers, 566 RBIs,
.298 batting average after 938 games) are very similar to those
of the capable but unspectacular Murcer (1,012 hits, 140 home
runs, 542 RBIs, .282 batting average after 958 games).

Williams does bring considerable assets to the market. He won
the '98 American League batting title with a thoroughly
consistent season: .339 overall, .350 against lefthanders, .333
against righthanders, .335 with runners in scoring position and
.333 with the bases loaded. His growth has been subtle but sure.
Starting with 1993, his first season as a regular, his on-base
percentage (.333, .384, .392, .391, .408, .422) and slugging
percentage (.400, .453, .487, .535, .544 and .575) read like the
chart of a blue-chip stock. However, Major League Baseball has
yet to stage an On-Base Percentage Derby on the eve of an
All-Star Game.

A year ago Boras asked the Yankees for $77 million over seven
years, calling the price nonnegotiable. Bob Watson, New York's
general manager at the time, told him Williams wasn't an elite
player worth that much money, an opinion that still gnaws at
Williams. The Yankees, instead, signed Williams to a one-year
deal for $8.3 million in '98. Last week they offered him $60
million for five years, which means they have been willing to
pay him $68.3 million over six years. Tack on another year at a
modest $8.7 million and you have the $77 million deal the
Yankees turned down last year. "No question the Yankees dropped
the ball on that one," one agent says.

"No," says Brian Cashman, then Watson's assistant and now the
Yankees general manager, "because seven years is something we
don't want to do. If it was $11 million [per year] for five,
maybe. Eleven for seven, I'm not so sure."

If the Yankees determine they can't sign Williams, they could
trade lefthander Andy Pettitte for Anaheim Angels centerfielder
Jim Edmonds, trade three of their best prospects for Montreal
Expos centerfielder Rondell White or sign offensively challenged
centerfielder Steve Finley. Perhaps the most likely option would
be to sign the combustible Belle, thus turning manager Joe
Torre's serene clubhouse into a tinderbox, and hope Ricky Ledee
can be an every-day centerfielder. "Joe says he can handle
[Belle]," says one member of the Yankees hierarchy. "Of course
he can. But that's not the problem. The problem is the media and
the fans and just being in New York. That's got nothing to do
with the manager. That's what scares me." Belle, though, is an
attraction, one of the game's most feared sluggers as well as a
notorious curiosity. Think Rodman in spikes (though not Manolo
Blahniks).

Like Belle, Vaughn and Piazza also have more obvious leading-man
credentials than Williams does. Vaughn has averaged almost 40
home runs over the past four seasons and has been a positive and
forceful clubhouse presence with the Red Sox. The Angels have
offered him a better deal (close to $80 million over six years)
than the Yankees offered Williams. While Piazza has scored 100
or more runs only once and is a deficient defensive player, he
is a power hitter who has been voted an All-Star five years
running.

Though Williams does not have a strong arm and doesn't react
particularly well on balls hit in front of him, the position he
plays--and plays well enough to have won a Gold Glove last
season--is at the heart of his value. ("If Bernie were a
leftfielder," Boras concedes, "we wouldn't be talking about him
in this company.") Put him in leftfield and he is Rusty Greer.
Put him in centerfield and, until Andruw Jones blossoms, he is
the best player at the position not named Griffey. Boras is
telling general managers that Williams was three RBIs short of
attaining his third straight season of 100 RBIs and 100 runs
scored. Among other elite centerfielders, Kirby Puckett and Fred
Lynn had only two such seasons in their careers, and Mickey
Mantle had only three. Boras also tells clubs that Puckett
became the highest-paid player in baseball without being a slugger.

Puckett, though, reached the top of the pay scale in 1989 during
a period of antiquity (roughly the time the steam engine was
invented), when small-market teams actually had a prayer of
winning a pennant. The stakes for premium players are much
higher now. While the median salary has risen 53% in that time,
the top salary has soared 333%. For that kind of investment, an
owner wants someone with power at the plate and the gate.

"The power is the easiest thing to see," Boras admits. "Albert
Belle is the best run producer out there. But obviously,
character matters, as does defense. With Bernie you're getting a
star who is well respected by his team. A star who is humble."

Williams's character, however, came into question during the
postseason when "a personal issue" caused an obvious aloofness,
according to Yankees sources. Though rumors of its cause have
circulated widely among baseball executives, Boras, who refuses
comment on specifics, says it's "a nonissue. There is nothing in
his personal life that is not in order at this point."

On Sunday, Williams said no official from any club had inquired
about any personal issues, adding, "I've always tried to keep my
personal life off-limits and take pride in my job. Over the
years I've done a good job at that." Williams said he was
considering all teams "on an equal basis. I think it's going to
come down to competitiveness. For once, I'm going to experience
the fact that teams want to compete for my services, instead of
the other way around. It's a good feeling."

Does Williams deserve to be the highest-paid player in baseball?
At week's end the list of clubs willing to provide an
affirmative answer seemed to be shrinking. But even if Williams
raises the bar, expect it to be elevated again soon. "I think
Kevin Brown is going to go above him," says Boras, who also
represents the hard-throwing righthander who snarled his way to
the second-highest strikeout total in the National League last
season, with the San Diego Padres. After that, rightfielder Juan
Gonzalez of the Texas Rangers, the '98 American League MVP, will
be eligible for free agency following the 1999 season, and
centerfielder Ken Griffey and shortstop Alex Rodriguez of the
Seattle Mariners could be in the free-agent class of 2000.

By then Williams will be a footnote, and the importance of
power--getting a big bang for the bucks--will have been
unquestionably confirmed.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY VICTOR BALDIZON STRUM AND FRET While Boras hawked him, a pensive Williams made soothing sounds at El Morro Fortress in his native Puerto Rico. [Bernie Williams playing guitar]COLOR PHOTO: MATTHEW STOCKMAN/ALLSPORT [Albert Belle batting]COLOR PHOTO: RVP GO-GETTER Gold Glover Williams bases his bid for bigger bucks in part on his sterling play in centerfield. [Bernie Williams running for baseball in game]

POWER PLAY

Despite having won the 1998 American League batting title and a
Gold Glove, centerfielder Bernie Williams may be finding his
value limited by his lack of home run power and his history of
brittleness. Here's how Williams's '98 stats stack up against
those of Albert Belle (above) and other top offensive players who
were eligible to be free agents during this off-season.

ALBERT RAFAEL MIKE MO BERNIE
BELLE PALMEIRO PIAZZA VAUGHN WILLIAMS

Games played 163 162 151 154 128
Batting average .328 .296 .328 .337 .339
Runs scored 113 98 88 107 101
Home runs 49 43 32 40 26
Runs batted in 152 121 111 115 97
Extra-base hits 99 80 71 73 61
Runs produced* 216 176 167 182 172

*Runs scored plus runs batted in minus home runs --David Sabino

Of the nine position players who earned at least $8 million in
'98, only one has never hit 40 or more homers in a season:
Williams.