ROSEMONT,ILL — ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Perennial stolen base leader Vince Coleman just might be the fastest player in the National League, so it's no wonder it took the New York Mets about two months to catch him.
But the former St. Louis Cardinals outfielder slowed down long enough to accept a four-year contract worth a reported $11.95 million, highlighting another day of free-agent mania at the 89th winter meetings.
Coleman was one of the most sought-after players in this year's bumper crop of front-line free agents. He batted .292 last year and has led the National League in stolen bases the past six seasons.
"Vince Coleman will add a new dimension to our lineup that we haven't had in some time," said Mets general manager Frank Cashen. "He just brings fear into the hearts of the opposition each time he gets on base."
The Coleman signing was considered the centerpiece of the Mets' off-season reconstruction project, and it became a much higher priority when the club lost outfielder Darryl Strawberry to the Los Angeles Dodgers through free agency.
But Cashen denied there was any connection between the two free-agent transactions.
"We've been trying to get a player like Coleman for a lot of years," he said. "We really needed a leadoff man."
Coleman, 29, has been getting their attention for a lot of years. He was successful the first 57 times he tried to steal against the Mets, the string finally ending last season.
* The Milwaukee Brewers ended months of sometimes negotiations by re-signing left-hander Ted Higuera to a four-year contract worth a reported $13 million.
Higuera had been one of the most coveted pitchers in the free-agent market, but a history of injury made the Brewers initially reluctant to offer more than a three-year term.
But the free-agent salary spiral of 1991 -- which led to $2.5 million annual salaries for several lesser pitchers -- brought the market to him.
* Orioles manager Frank Robinson said that there was no way that shortstop Juan Bell would spend another year in the Orioles minor-league system, prompting speculation that he soon will be traded. Hemond said that there has been substantial interest from other clubs, "but we recognize that he has a lot of value and there has to be proper compensation."
* The Toronto Blue Jays, easily the most active team at this year's convention, warmed up for yesterday's blockbuster deal with the San Diego Padres by signing infielder Pat Tabler, 32, to a two-year contract worth $1.6 million.
Tabler, who hit .273 in a limited role with the Kansas City Royals and New York Mets last year, is expected to be the right-handed designated hitter. He is the second free agent acquired by the Blue Jays, who signed relief pitcher Ken Dayley in November.
* The Atlanta Braves continue to play checkbook baseball in their attempt to build a division contender. Yesterday, they signed former Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Sid Bream, 30, to a three-year contract worth $5.5 million.
The Braves just signed third baseman Terry Pendleton to a four-year contract worth $10 million.
* Deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg announced yesterday that the 26 major-league owners had ratified the collusion damage agreement that was negotiated in October.
The New York Times reported more than a month ago that each club would be required to pay $10.8 million to compensate players for four years of conspiring to depress the free-agent market. The agreement also calls for 15 players to become new-look free agents.
Greenberg said, however, that the agreement would not be final until it also is ratified by the executive board of the Major League Players Association today.