Top free agents swing for fences Baseball: Marquee players such as Bernie Williams, Kevin Brown and Randy Johnson will explore how much they can cash in after Mets catcher Mike Piazza hit a $91 million jackpot.

November 01, 1998|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

The price of poker already has gone up.

Mike Piazza became the first superstar free agent to sign a long-term deal after the 1998 season, and his seven-year, $91 million contract with the New York Mets raised the stakes in this year's free-agent market before it even opened.

Piazza signed within the window when clubs have exclusive rights to negotiate with the free agents who were under contract to them at the end of the '98 season.

That restriction will be lifted Friday, and at that time baseball's annual player auction will begin in earnest.

Where will prices go?

They always go north, but that doesn't necessarily mean that someone will eclipse Piazza this winter.

"I would hope that the Piazza deal would be the top of the scale," said new Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Kevin Malone.

"It should give us an indication of where the top is."

The only available everyday player with better offensive statistics is free agent Albert Belle, and he has so much baggage that it is hard to imagine anyone willing to pay his moving expenses.

Belle is in a unique position. He exercised a clause in his five-year, $55 million contract with the Chicago White Sox that allows him to accept bids from other teams until Dec. 2.

Though he can make a statistical case for a raise, he has created such a negative image that he might find it hard to convince anyone that he's worth the trouble.

That won't be a problem for the New York Yankees' highly respected center fielder, Bernie Williams, who is probably the best all-around player on the market.

But it remains to be seen whether agent Scott Boras can `D challenge Piazza's record deal.

Boras apparently thinks he can.

"We now know what a premium player is worth when negotiating with one team," Boras said on the day Williams filed for free agency.

"As to what a premium player is worth when negotiating with multiple teams, that's yet to be defined."

What is yet to be determined is whether baseball ownership has thrown off all pretense of economic self-restraint.

Williams does not compare statistically with Piazza, and the notion that Piazza's contract was negotiated in a competitive vacuum is ridiculous. He already had turned down the biggest contract in baseball history from the Dodgers.

There will be a lot of teams interested in Williams but only a few with the financial wherewithal to give him a seven-year contract worth more than $10 million per year.

And the number of teams in that position could drop if Boras drags out the bidding war.

Premier pitchers Randy Johnson and Kevin Brown will be trying to sell themselves to the same large-market clubs.

So, presumably, will offensive stars Rafael Palmeiro and Mo Vaughn and dozens of other quality players.

Johnson is the most intimidating pitcher in baseball and bounced back from a rough start this year to go 10-1 (1.28 ERA) down the stretch after being traded to the Houston Astros.

The Astros ace won't match the six-year, $75 million contract that the Boston Red Sox gave Pedro Martinez last year -- largely because, at 35, he is eight years older than Martinez -- but he could get a shorter term for a similar annual salary.

The San Diego Padres' Brown also will command a huge deal.

He has emerged as one of the most dominating pitchers in the game, and his strong performance in the postseason the past two years could make him even more attractive than Johnson.

Don't be surprised if the Orioles take a long look at one of them.

The acquisition of another top-flight starter would greatly enhance their chances of unseat- ing the Yankees at the top of the American League East standings next year, and the likely departure of Roberto Alomar and veteran pitchers Doug Drabek and Jimmy Key would free up the money to do it.

The Orioles have a number of holes to fill and just now are getting down to the business of determining which direction the club will try to go this off-season.

But new GM Frank Wren can thank Brown for the World Series ring he got in Florida, so it seems likely that Brown will be very high on the Orioles' shopping list.

Manager Ray Miller also would like to have a high-quality second baseman to replace Alomar, all indicators pointing to Delino DeShields of the St. Louis Cardinals or Jose Offerman of the Kansas City Royals.

Both fit the club's need for a solid all-around second baseman who can provide some speed on the bases.

Offerman is coming off a career year in which he batted .315, stole 45 bases and scored 102 runs.

DeShields is a quality hitter (.290 last year) with leadoff skills and solid defensive credentials. It could come down to price.

No doubt, the Orioles will be prominent in speculation involving a large number of players, including Williams and local product Brian Jordan (Milford Mill High) of the Cardinals, but they probably won't be the most active team in the free-agent market.

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