Neither star nor scrub, Pat Meares's price tag cost him a job

Pat Meares is a five-year starting shortstop in the big leagues
who has been more productive than Royce Clayton and who is
coming off a season in which he drove in more runs (70) than
Hall of Famer Phil Rizzuto did in his best year (68 in 1942). At
week's end he was also unemployed. Nothing personal, Pat. It's
just business. "We liked him," says Twins general manager Terry
Ryan, who released Meares in December. "We couldn't afford to
pay him."

As the best free agent who is still unsigned, Meares is a cruel
example of why baseball's shrinking middle class is the most
dangerous territory for clubs and players. Teams prefer to stay
out of the middle ground, believing that if you don't blow open
your budget in order to compete, you might as well be fiscally
prudent. Likewise Meares, who stood to earn a raise through
arbitration from $2.5 million to more than $3 million, is
neither the bargain player low-revenue teams covet nor the
premier talent high-revenue teams can afford. Welcome to a world
in which the Yankees will pay their backup catcher, Joe Girardi,
what the Twins refused to pay their starting shortstop.

Meares's agent, Steve Comte, is angry at the Twins for waiting
until Dec. 18 to cut Meares, rather than releasing him sooner or
trading him. "If they want to be a Triple A franchise, they
ought to join the PCL," Comte says. Ryan says he did try to
trade Meares while asking little in return as he pares his
payroll to $15 million. Two G.M.'s, however, aware of the clout
Meares could wield in arbitration and the likelihood that
Minnesota could not afford to keep him, say it made little sense
to trade for him. By December, says one of the G.M.'s of
Meares's release, "clubs either had filled their positions or
run out of money."

The Rangers, for instance, gave free agent Clayton $18 million
over four years. True, Meares has been a better run producer
than Clayton (chart), but he doesn't walk much (an abysmal .296
on-base percentage last year), doesn't steal bases (seven) and
is unremarkable on defense (his 24 errors were fourth-most among
American League shortstops).

Until last week Carlos Baerga also had been squeezed out of the
market. He and Meares have nearly identical totals over the past
three seasons. But teams avoided Baerga because the former
three-time All-Star plays only one position (second base) and
has been in a downward spiral at the plate, best viewed by his
home run totals since 1993: 21, 19, 15, 12, nine and seven. "He
just isn't driving the ball the way he did in the past," says
Steve Phillips, general manager of the Mets, Baerga's team last

Like unemployed workers in a downsized market, Meares and Baerga
were considered for one of the last job openings: second baseman
for the Cardinals. St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty
offered Baerga a nonguaranteed contract that would pay him $1.25
million if he was on the Opening Day roster. The G.M. made a
similar overture to Meares, who played second base in the
minors. Comte asked for about $2 million. Jocketty signed
Baerga. "The underlying factor," Jocketty says, "was money."

What becomes of Meares? One general manager says the agent must
drop his asking price, accept an invitation for Meares to report
to some team's camp and take advantage of a full free-agent
period after the 1999 season. Another G.M. says a spot could
develop in Cleveland if Omar Vizquel's harping about
renegotiating his contract turns ugly enough for the Indians to
trade the shortstop.

Rotator Cuff Rehabs

A pitcher who wins more games than he loses, throws 200 innings
and keeps his ERA under 4.00 doesn't sound so formidable. But
pitchers who did that in each of the past three years were
downright rare. There were only six: Kevin Brown, Jeff Fassero,
Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez and Denny Neagle. Now
the Marlins may have regained a similarly reliable starter.
Remember Alex Fernandez?

Only the strike-shortened 1994 season kept Fernandez from a run
of five such quality seasons before he tore his rotator cuff in
the 1997 National League Championship Series. After a year of
rehabilitation and a stint in the Instructional League,
Fernandez, 29, has progressed so well that Florida expects him
to be its Opening Day starter. "With Alex healthy, we're already
15 games better than we were last year, when our fifth starters
won about one game," says Marlins general manager Dave Dombrowski.

Agent Jim Bronner is shopping free agent Ramon Martinez, 30, as
a similar sleeper. Martinez (.615 career winning percentage) is
recovering from more recent rotator cuff surgery than
Fernandez's. (Martinez's procedure was done last June.) Two
scouts who watched him work out in the Dominican Republic last
week raved about his progress, though he has yet to throw off a
mound. Martinez most likely won't be ready to pitch in the
majors until July.

The Diamondbacks, Indians, Mets and Red Sox (who could pair
Ramon with brother Pedro) are among the many teams who have
shown interest in Martinez, though one National League general
manager said Martinez's asking price was too high: the chance to
earn as much as $4 million this year plus an option for 2000.

Major League First

In a busy off-season during which the Tigers added Dean Palmer,
Gregg Jefferies and Brad Ausmus, nothing has lit up the team's
switchboard more than the naming of a new head groundskeeper.
Here's the dirt on the deal: 28-year-old Heather Nabozny is the
first female put in charge of a major league field. While such
media outlets as PEOPLE and the Today show (which wants to mike
her on Opening Day) have joined the long queue, Tigers public
relations director Tyler Barnes has started turning away some
interview requests. "We've had to shut her down," Barnes says.
Nabozny comes with impressive credentials. After growing up 40
miles northwest of Detroit, in Milford, Mich.--and often looking
in awe at the expanse of Tiger Stadium greenery from an
upper-deck seat--Nabozny earned a degree in turf management from
Michigan State. One spring she groomed the Blue Jays' training
fields in Dunedin, Fla., and for the past five years served as
head groundskeeper for the Class A West Michigan Whitecaps.
Nabozny developed a reputation there for a smooth infield and
unique mowing patterns, such as hallucinogenic curly lines for a
"Summer of Love" promotion.

Nabozny replaces the retiring Frank Feneck, who was known to
appease former Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson and his sinkerball
pitching staff with infield grass that resembled your neighbors'
after they were on vacation for a month. She met with the
Detroit coaching staff last weekend to learn its preferred field
conditions. "It really is a dream job," she says. "I'm really
happy the Tigers have broken [the gender] barrier. At the same
time, I know they chose me because they believe I'm the right
person for the job."

For more off-season major league baseball news from Tom Verducci,
go to

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID SEELIG/ALLSPORT In line for a $3 million salary in '99, the middling Meares now might not get even $2 million.

Far Afield

Carlos Baerga and Pat Meares have produced numbers in the same
ballpark as those of several other middle infielders who were
free agents or eligible for arbitration in the off-season--with
one glaring exception: contract figures. Here is how Baerga and
Meares stack up over the past three seasons against peers who
had signed deals by week's end.


Jose Offerman, 30 415 1,592 487 14 152 .306
Red Sox
AVG. SALARY/TERM $6.5 million/4 years

Royce Clayton, 29 425 1,608 425 24 149 .264
[AVG. SALARY/TERM] $4.5 million/4 years

Delino DeShields, 30 421 1,573 421 23 143 .268
[AVG. SALARY/TERM] $4.2 million/3 years

Chris Gomez, 27 432 1,427 369 13 138 .259
[AVG. SALARY/TERM] $2.6 million/3 years

Carlos Baerga, 30 406 1,485 396 28 171 .267
[AVG. SALARY/TERM] $1.25 million/1 year

Pat Meares 30 435 1,499 400 27 197 .267