Anderson, Mussina on '98 Indians?

On Baseball

February 16, 1997|By Buster Olney | Buster Olney,SUN STAFF

Barring a dramatic concession by Mike Mussina or the Orioles, the All-Star pitcher will become a free agent and he'll wear another uniform in another city next year.

The Indians uniform. In Cleveland.

That's just a guess, but an educated guess. Logically, Mussina with the Indians is a perfect fit.

He could be joined there by Brady Anderson. If you think the breakdown of Mussina's negotiations increases the chances of Anderson, another potential free agent, re-signing with the Orioles, think about this: The breakdown may actually increase the chances of Anderson departing. If Mussina leaves, the Orioles will be forced to pour every available nickel into acquiring a couple of solid veteran pitchers to pick up the slack. Replacing a 19-game winner is going to be expensive.

Signing a 19-game winner would cost the Indians big money, but they're going to have cash available. After this season, the contracts of center fielder Kenny Lofton and pitchers Jack McDowell and Orel Hershiser expire, among others. Lofton is almost certainly abandoning Cleveland as a free agent after the '97 season, and McDowell and Hershiser will have to pitch more consistently to merit new deals with the Indians; even then, there's no guarantee the Indians would want them back, with Hershiser set to turn 39 and McDowell's star gradually fading.

The Indians already have demonstrated their interest in acquiring a No. 1 starter. Cleveland general manager John Hart asked about a Mussina-for-Lofton trade back in November, and then they tried to sign Alex Fernandez, Roger Clemens and Jaime Navarro. (Reportedly, the Indians offered Fernandez a contract greater than the five-year, $35 million deal he got from Florida.)

The Indians could, in 1998, field a rotation of Mussina, Charles Nagy and a couple of their top young pitchers, such as Bartolo Colon.

Landing in Cleveland makes sense for Mussina, too. He values stability, and signing with the Indians means he could stay in the American League and remain close to his home in central Pennsylvania.

Once Lofton goes, the Indians could want Anderson for all the reasons they aren't willing to give Lofton a monumental five-year contract. Lofton's game is dependent on his speed. If he's not running well, then he's not an impact player worthy of impact dollars. In the fifth year of his contract, he would be 35, an age by which most ballplayers have inevitably slowed down.

Even if Anderson isn't stealing bases, he can still hit home runs. The Indians figure to be searching for a center fielder, and Anderson likely will be the best available after this year. They can pick him up when they swing through Baltimore, for some one-stop free-agent shopping.

Spending conservatively

Agents and players are assuming the two expansion teams, Arizona and Tampa Bay, will make huge bids on free agents such as Mussina and Lofton and drive up the prices. That's not necessarily the case.

Florida didn't begin diving headlong into the free-agent market until after the 1995 season, its third year in existence, and the Colorado Rockies have never really made a big splash, instead signing and then retaining reclamation projects such as Andres Galarraga, Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks.

Frankly, it doesn't make a lot of sense for Arizona or Tampa Bay to spend a lot of money on a star such as Lofton, who will not make them a contender by himself and won't really add much marketability to teams that are going to draw well in the first year or two, anyway. What would Mussina do for the Diamondbacks -- help them win 65 games instead of 60? Big deal. You sign a guy like Mussina or Lofton when you're preparing to push your team over the top.

Lofton indicated two weeks ago that he wasn't interested in negotiating with Cleveland, but he softened that stance last week, in a face-to-face meeting with GM Hart. "Kenny's point was that he wants as few distractions as possible for the ballclub and for himself," said Hart. "He did say, though, that he would be receptive to talking at some point in the future. We're just going to let this thing play itself out."

What Albert Belle lacks in gambling acumen he more than compensates for in gall. Belle left the Indians to sign with the rival Chicago White Sox last fall, slamming the Indians as he departed. That didn't prevent him from showing up at Jacobs Field and attempting to work out in an indoor batting cage. Once Hart got wind of this, security was summoned and Belle was told he wasn't welcome. Belle left without incident.

Hart was asked about Belle's alleged gambling. "Albert Belle is not our player anymore," said Hart, "so I really don't have any comment on it. We'll let Albert and the White Sox deal with it." Asked if he was surprised about the revelation, Hart replied, "Nothing Albert Belle does surprises me."

Flanagan helps out

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