Mets spending is attempt to rain on Yanks' parade


November 01, 1998|By PETER SCHMUCK

The New York Mets had to do it. They had to give Mike Piazza a $91 million contract. They had to make a huge effort to re-sign pitching ace Al Leiter. They had to do it even though the $123 million they committed for both players doesn't make them one run or one strikeout better than they were on the last day of the 1998 season.

If they didn't, they might as well have run up a white flag in the battle for New York.

Piazza was at the right place at the right time. The Yankees had just come home to a ticker-tape parade after putting together one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. The Mets were eliminated from the National League wild-card race on the last day of the season.

The choice was pretty simple. Let the Yankees have the high ground all winter or do something in a hurry to blunt their momentum.

The Piazza signing put the Mets back in the headlines. The Leiter deal assured that they would not take a giant step backward this winter. But they still must take a big step forward to keep from getting overwhelmed by the new Yankees dynasty.

There has been speculation that the Mets will soon acquire Bobby Bonilla from the Los Angeles Dodgers, but that won't be enough to close the talent gap with the perennial NL East champion Atlanta Braves, or even guarantee that the Mets will get to the playoffs next year.

They need to add one more marquee player to beef up the pitching staff or the batting order. They need to make a big splash in the free-agent market.

There is one guy out there who would fit their needs and further inflame the cross-town rivalry.

Bernie Williams.

He is, by most accounts, the best all-around player available this winter, and he is a local favorite who would force a lot of local fans to question their pinstriped pride. It would be a huge coup for the Mets, who have been forced into the background by the success of the Joe Torre Yankees the past three years.

Of course, it would also be a huge expense. Agent Scott Boras already has hinted that he thinks Williams can challenge Piazza's record contract. That's probably a stretch, but the veteran center fielder likely will get a long-term contract worth more than $11 million per year. Can the Mets afford that after committing so much to Piazza and Leiter?

They can if they deal Todd Hundley to the Orioles and trade outfielder Brian McRae to make room for Williams in center. They must if they want to upstage the Yankees, whose prospects for another title next year would be seriously impaired by the loss of one of their most valuable players.

There are other players out there. Randy Johnson would beef up the starting rotation considerably. Kevin Brown could compare World Series rings with his former Florida Marlins teammates - Bonilla and Leiter. Albert Belle could try his luck with some of the toughest fans in the business. But Williams is the perfect choice.

The Mets finished 18 games behind the first-place Braves this year. They have to do more than put the same team on the field again in 1999 or the Big Apple will belong to the Yankees for the foreseeable future.

Belle shops around

Why is Belle on the market again?

Belle and his agent, Arn Tellem, had the forethought to include a no-risk clause in the five-year, $55 million contract he signed with the Chicago White Sox in 1996, allowing him to become a free-look free agent this month.

The clause kicked in when three players surpassed Belle's once-record $11 million average annual salary and the White Sox declined to raise his salary enough to put him back among the three highest-paid players in the game. He has a month to try to improve on the White Sox deal, but the contract remains in effect if he does not find anyone willing to pay him more.

It will be interesting to see if anyone bites. Belle had another huge season in 1998, but his bad-guy reputation precedes him wherever he goes. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner said recently that Belle's volatile personality wouldn't scare him away, but that appeared to be little more than a bargaining ploy intended to show Williams that he is not irreplaceable.

The White Sox haven't really weighed in on the subject, but it's possible that they are hoping someone takes them off the hook for the remaining $33 million of Belle's contract.

Braves shake-up doubtful

Though speculation has surfaced that the Braves will break up their terrific starting rotation to sign Brown, it seems unlikely that they will make huge changes in a team that has been in nearly every postseason this decade.

Sure, the Braves are disappointed that they have won just one World Series title in the '90s, but they will again be a near-lock for the playoffs in 1999. They won the NL East by 18 games this year and the Mets spent all that money just to maintain the status quo.

Earth to Braves: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

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