2-year deal should get Martinez

BASEBALL

July 25, 1993|By JIM HENNEMAN

Will this be the week that one of the contenders buys a division title?

The unrestricted trading deadline is Saturday night, and ex-Orioles right-hander Dennis Martinez is the biggest prize on the block -- and he's in a position to call his own shot. As a 10-year veteran with five years with his current team (the Montreal Expos), Martinez has veto rights over any trade.

The word is that Martinez prefers to stay in the National League because he needs only five more victories to complete one of baseball's rare feats -- 100 wins in each league (he had 108 with the Orioles). That, however, may not preclude a return visit to the American League.

Martinez also has expressed a desire to finish his career in Florida, where he makes his home and is active in the community. He could accept a trade to the American League, then go back to the NL, possibly to Florida, as a free agent at the end of the year.

The rumor mill says the San Francisco Giants are the strongest pursuers of Martinez, with the New York Yankees also showing interest. But don't rule out the Toronto Blue Jays, who desperately need an additional starter.

GM Pat Gillick demonstrated a year ago (in the deal for David Cone) that he's willing to trade prospects for a potential free agent -- and collect additional draft choices when the free agent leaves. The Orioles would be interested in bringing Martinez back to Baltimore under similar circumstances, but GM Roland Hemond is reluctant to part with blue-chip prospects.

The Cincinnati Reds' Tim Belcher is also available, and his situation is less complicated because he doesn't have veto power over any trade. It has been speculated for weeks that Belcher would end up with the Chicago White Sox, but the Yankees are said to be a strong contender, too.

Negotiations for Martinez could go right to the deadline. And the team willing to give him a two-year extension can buy an expensive chance at a division title.

Pop quiz

Quickie quiz: What former Orioles pitcher came within one victory of winning at least 100 games in both the AL and NL?

Jose who?

When the Texas Rangers packaged Ruben Sierra, Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell in last year's blockbuster deal for Jose Canseco, they figured they had solidified their offense for three years. But they hardly figured they'd be better without Canseco.

Yet that's what the early returns indicate. Before Canseco went on the disabled list the Rangers had a 31-39 record. In 25 games since they are 18-7.

Canseco was supposed to team with Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer and Rafael Palmeiro to give the Rangers perhaps the most feared offense in baseball. The Rangers have managed to live up to the billing -- but without Canseco.

In the 25 games since the controversial slugger went on the DL (because of an arm injury suffered while doing mop-up duty as a pitcher in a game against the Red Sox), the Rangers have hit .290 as a team and scored 158 runs (6.32 per game).

Even Tom Grieve, the general manager who took the risk by making the trade, acknowledges that the Rangers have not as yet been hurt by Canseco's absence. "Having Jose out of the lineup had a settling effect [on the team]," Grieve said. "It's not that we don't want him, but now the uncertainty [about Canseco's availability] is removed."

Apparently the injuries that have tormented Canseco the past few years have taken a toll. He said that he was never completely healthy last year, and there is now a growing suspicion that his once awesome skills have deteriorated.

Considered a bargain at the time of the trade because he was signed for two more years, Canseco is now a huge question mark. The Rangers weren't going to sign Sierra or Russell, but in retrospect Grieve probably wishes he had the draft choices they would have provided as free agents.

So-so HoJo

Dallas Green has seen enough to convince him that the New York Mets' top priority for next year is an improved defense. "We can't survive in this league giving up four or five outs an inning," he said.

Green is learning firsthand what others have been saying for years. The Mets' defense was atrocious even when they won the World Series in 1986, and it hasn't gotten any better.

One of the many disappointments for the Mets has been Howard Johnson, who can be a free agent at the end of the year but might not attract much attention. His numbers are way down, and they're not likely to come back up because Thursday night he suffered two chip fractures of his thumb while sliding into second base. He might be out for the season.

"People want to know which one is the real Howard Johnson -- is it the 30-30 [home runs and stolen bases] man or the one who has struggled the last two years?" said Green, who doesn't deal in smooth talk. "He says he doesn't have friends and nobody believes in him. The belief has to start with himself. Does he think he's still an impact player?"

Expensive mediocrity

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