Seattle goes a courtin’

  • LARRY LaRUE / The News Tribune
  • Wednesday, December 6, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

By LARRY LaRUE

The News Tribune

Alex Rodriguez might be the most extraordinary free agent in major league history – a 25-year-old member of the 40-40 club, a former batting champion and a franchise player around whom most any team could build.

Small wonder, agent Scott Boras said, eight big league teams are in the A-Rod Derby this off-season.

Well, make that seven. No, six. Would you believe five?

“Truthfully, I have no idea who is in it and who isn’t,” Mariners general manager Pat Gillick said. “And I’m not sure it matters.”

When the Mariners get their first face-to-face meeting with their free agent shortstop today in Florida, they will become the last team on his list to sit down and talk.

Boras would have them believe seven other suitors are pounding at his door with extraordinary offers – the Braves, Mets, Rockies, Dodgers, White Sox, Orioles and Rangers.

It isn’t true but, as Gillick said, it might not matter.

Forget the Lear Jet and the office space, the billboards and the tent in which to sell A-Rod merchandise at spring training. Whether those were Boras demands or suggestions or talking points, they’re no long factors in who lands Rodriguez.

If, as Boras insists, those eight teams are involved, then Rodriguez is no longer merely considering teams with a chance to win.

In the end, it could just be about money.

From the beginning, the Rodriguez bidding has had a floor but no ceiling, with bids expected to start at $20 million a year – and the deal to run anywhere from 10 to 12 years.

“Alex is looking for a team he may finish his career with,” Boras said last month at the general managers meetings.

What he also wants, Boras adds, are two contract clauses. The first is a salary escalator which would keep A-Rod’s salary among the highest in baseball should players begin signing bigger contracts during the course of his own.

And the second? Boras and Rodriguez want escape clauses after the third and sixth year of any deal that would allow the shortstop to declare himself a free agent.

If A-Rod is looking for a team with which he might finish his career, he also wants the chance to leave that team should things go wrong.

When the Mariners finally get the chance to throw themselves and their money at Rodriguez, it’s unclear just how high they’re willing to go. But that $20 million a year figure never intimidated them, and Gillick says there’s room on his 2001 payroll to fit the highest paid player in the history of baseball.

The question the Mariners face is whether money – and the team’s chances of winning – will be enough to lure A-Rod back.

“We’ve been to the postseason three times in his career, and been to the American League Championship Series twice,” one Mariner executive said.

“Match that with the other teams he’s talking to and only one of them, the Braves, has done better.”

The initial criteria Rodriguez cited when the offseason began included a winning track record, a strong farm system and the commitment of a franchise to compete every season for a ring.

Given those factors, few of the teams on Boras’ list of eight fit.

  • The Orioles haven’t been to the postseason since Gillick was their GM back in ‘97, their farm system is in shambles and their best pitcher – Mike Mussina – just signed with the New York Yankees.

  • The Rangers won back-to-back division titles, lost in the first round of each postseason and last year finished fourth in the four-team AL West. Their closer, John Wetteland, is a free agent, and their starting rotation’s ERA last year was 5.56 – the second highest in the league.

  • The Rockies were fourth in the National League West, finishing 15 games behind the Giants, and even the addition of pitcher Denny Neagle this week doesn’t figure to turn their staff around – his career ERA in Coors Field is over 7.00. The numbers A-Rod might post in that ballpark are staggering, but as he said last season, any offensive accomplishments there would forever be accompanied by a high-altitude asterisk.

  • The White Sox languished in the AL Central in the mid- and late-’90s, then posted the league’s best record in 2000. They also were swept in the playoffs by the wild card team – Seattle – and ranked ninth in the league in attendance. Chicago still belongs to the Cubs, and the Sox say they can’t meet A-Rod’s salary requirements.

  • The Dodgers finished 11 games out in the NL West, have $70 million committed to 15 players on their roster and, according to GM Kevin Malone, are two starting pitchers short heading into 2001. They have a manager without major league experience, a GM whose job is on the line and a reputation for under-achieving. Add to that, they haven’t won a playoff series in more than a decade.

  • The Mets wanted A-Rod, they had the money and a record of back-to-back seasons in the playoffs – but GM Steve Phillips nuked talks with Boras almost before they’d begun. Phillips cried ‘foul’ on the agent’s request for contract perks, and the Mets backed away without ever having made an offer. They may yet make a bid, but A-Rod’s image in the Big Apple has been torched.

  • The Braves are perennial postseason players, a team built around great pitching – but try to picture Rodriguez happily sharing a clubhouse with John Rocker. Atlanta is a short flight home to Miami, does have the money and is probably the soundest choice for many reasons.

    And then, there’s Seattle, the only big-league team A-Rod has ever played for. He doesn’t like the dimensions in Safeco Field but loves manager Lou Piniella and teammates like Edgar Martinez and Stan Javier.

    It’s the width of the nation from his home and family, but he’s an icon in the Northwest, and the Mariners can certainly make a case that they’re contenders. The strength of the team, pitching, could be better in 2001, with the addition of reliever Jeff Nelson and the prospect of full, healthy seasons for youngsters Freddy Garcia and Gil Meche.

    On the immediate horizon is 20-year-old Ryan Anderson and good young hitters in Willie Bloomquist and Ryan Christianson.

    And in place of Rickey Henderson, the Mariners have added Ichiro Suzuki.

    In a division Seattle lost by a half-game, none of the other teams have improved this winter. And then, there’s the matter of money.

    Whatever the Mariners offer, A-Rod should be able to live on. And so should his great-grand children.

    How soon it’s decided depends entirely upon Rodriguez. If winning is a prerequisite, his market is far smaller than eight teams. If $20 million is the minimum bid he’ll accept, the White Sox and Dodgers are out.

    Today, the Mariners will jump into an A-Rod derby that might feature far fewer horses than expected. It doesn’t make them favorites, but it can’t hurt their odds.

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