Time is now to commit to Palmeiro

July 26, 1998|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Rafael Palmeiro can't believe that Mo Vaughn would leave Boston. But it's going to happen, and Palmeiro could be the beneficiary if the Orioles don't re-sign him soon.

Why delay this any longer? The Orioles won't trade Palmeiro or Roberto Alomar. They still figure to lose Alomar to free agency. To remain competitive, it's absolutely imperative that they keep Palmeiro.

Think about it: They're likely to get subpar offense at shortstop and third base in 1999, and maybe in center field if Brady Anderson doesn't return to form. If they lose Palmeiro on top of Alomar, they could be in trouble.

This is the course they've chosen, to play for the present and address the future later. But that doesn't mean they can simply put everything on hold, not when the market for Palmeiro is being influenced by outside forces.

Owner Peter Angelos put himself in a difficult position with Palmeiro by awarding five-year extensions to Anderson and Scott Erickson. He's only making it worse by delaying talks with Palmeiro on a 51-homer, 136-RBI pace.

"I don't have a problem with that. I've said it many times -- there's no deadline, I don't care," Palmeiro said yesterday after raising his average to .303 with two singles and a double off left-hander Jeff Fassero in a 4-2 loss to Seattle.

"The only problem is at the end of the season, when maybe other teams are involved. I have to look at all my options then. That's all I've said all along. It doesn't mean I wouldn't come back. I want to stay. But I'm going to have other options at the end of the year."

The market for first basemen could be limited, but some team will ante up for a player as productive as Palmeiro. Boston will need a replacement for Vaughn. The contracts of Will Clark (Texas), Wally Joyner (San Diego) and Mark Grace (Chicago Cubs) are expiring. Anaheim? Colorado? You never know.

The Orioles, though, haven't negotiated with Palmeiro since the off-season, when he said he wouldn't "do a Brady" and accept a below-market-value contract. That remark angered club officials and irritated fans. But it was nothing compared to Vaughn's increasingly shameless act in Boston.

The Red Sox have made Vaughn a good offer -- $37 million for four years. But on Friday, the first day of a four-game, wild-card showdown between the Red Sox and Blue Jays, a Toronto newspaper quoted him as saying that the Blue Jays were "definitely" his No. 1 choice in free agency.

Nice timing, Mo.

But wait, this gets better.

Asked by a Boston TV station Friday whether he has seen his last days with the Red Sox, Vaughn said, "Honestly, I think I have. And it's a shame to say, but I think I have. I think I have for the wrong reasons, but sometimes, you know, things don't go the way you want to go, either."

Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette responded on the team's flagship TV station that night, saying, "If [Vaughn] doesn't want to stay here, the Red Sox organization is prepared to move on. Ten million dollars will get you a pretty good hitter."

Palmeiro, for instance.

Vaughn is offended that the Red Sox asked him to submit to an alcohol evaluation after he was charged with drunken driving in January. He also claims that the team followed him with private investigators and accused him of drug use, charges that Duquette denies.

"This is not personal," Duquette said. "We made several efforts to re-sign him. He's looking for more money. There isn't anything personal about that."

Palmeiro's reaction?

"I still can't believe [Roger] Clemens is not with the Red Sox, and that Mo Vaughn may not end his career in Boston," he said. "You look at players like that -- [Tony] Gwynn, [George] Brett -- those are the kinds of players who play their whole career with one team."

So, would Palmeiro be reluctant to sign with Boston?

And reduce his negotiating leverage?

Of course not.

"I'm looking from the outside," Palmeiro said. "I don't know what's going on inside. I can't close the door on that if it's going to be there. I can't say I'm not going to look into that. I've got to leave all my doors open."

Which is the whole problem.

Angelos held off on Anderson, and signed him for five years when he could have had him for three. He held off on Erickson, and signed him for five years when he could have had him for four.

What should he offer Palmeiro? The initial suggestion here was $30 million for four years, but that was before Vaughn turned down $37 million. The Orioles would love to hold Palmeiro to three years. Good luck now.

Andres Galarraga signed a three-year, $24.75 million contract with Atlanta last winter at the age of 36. That's yet another reason for Palmeiro to seek five years -- he doesn't turn 34 until September.

The problem is, the Orioles already are tied up long-term with too many thirty-something players -- Ripken, Bordick, Chris Hoiles and Scott Kamieniecki through 1999, Anderson through 2002, Erickson through 2003. And B. J. Surhoff is likely to join the list.

Would Palmeiro be the same hitter in three or four years, worthy of a $9 million salary? The answer could very well be "no." But the Orioles, with no better option at first base, probably have no choice but to answer "yes."

They've made their bed; now they've got to lie in it.

They're letting the mattress sag.

They've got to re-sign Rafael Palmeiro soon.

Pub Date: 7/26/98

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