Besides my vested interest in Vlad, I like Vlad as a person from what I have read about him in the few interviews that exist. He is a good son to his mother who had to work long hours living away from home while he was growing up. He is loyal to his family and to his friends that he grew up with in the slums that was his neighborhood growing up and still is his home base. He has invested in businesses in his neighborhood and has philanthropically assisted friends who needed help. So no matter where he ends up, I will still be following his career closely.
Where, Oh Where, Will Vladi Go?
There appear to be ten teams that are in the race for Vlad's services. They are Anaheim, Atlanta, Baltimore, Florida, Los Angeles, Montreal, New York Mets, New York Yankees, San Francisco, and Seattle. I will be following Vlad's free agent saga over the coming weeks in a weekly article on what the latest rumors are and twists in fate are.
The Front Runners
Right now there are no team clearly acknowledged as hot and heavy for Vlad's services. The front runners right now are probably Atlanta and New York Yankees, only because they still consider Vlad as an option, but both have other free agent pursuits right now. Atlanta is actually more interested in retaining Javie Lopez and Gary Sheffield so Vlad would be their backup plan if anything. But Atlanta could be also having some budgetary tightness like many teams - AOL Time Warner has been having earnings problems - plus still have a need to obtain a key starting pitcher or two, like Kevin Millwood, so Vlad appears to be down on their list of priorities.
And according to reports out of New York, Sheffield wants to join the Yankees because his uncle Dwight Gooden 1) once played for them and 2) still works for them as a scout and is actively telling his nephew to join the Yankees. In addition, the feeling appears to be mutual as Sheffield appears to be their preferred right field target of the offseason and Steinbrenner likes him too. Plus the Yankees apparently believe that Vlad has no serious interest in playing for New York and don't want to be leveraged to drive up Vlad's final salary. Lastly, Sheffield canned his agent bulldog, Boras, and is acting as his own agent, which will facilitate his going to the team he wants to go. Given the mutual interest on both parties and no other constraints, it appears likely that the Yankees will end up with Sheffield in right field. And, again, Vlad could be their backup if Sheffield fall through because money is no object with the Yankees.
Stuck in the Middle
All the other teams have made moves or comments that suggest that they are out of the race for Vlad but they can still change course and decide to pursue him after all. The strongest of these appear to be Baltimore, the New York Mets, and Los Angeles. Baltimore was presumably the heavy favorite going into the off-season because of GM Beattie's prior relationship with Vlad in Montreal and their big wad of budget spending space but recent comments suggest that they question the efficacy of spending $15M on one player when they can get two good players for that price. The thought of another Albert Belle haunts their thoughts and actions. But perhaps this is just posturing as Vlad was named as one of their priorities not that long ago.
The Mets were also considered one of the preseason favorites, especially since an Expos teammate and acquaintances said that Vlad has family in New York and would enjoy playing there, but initial comments suggest that they feel that their need for depth in good starting pitching takes precedence. Again, this could be posturing though they have been burned repeatedly over the past few years with deals for oft-injured and non-productive players.
The Dodgers supposedly have the cash to burn due to many free agents leaving but with McCourt's purchase stuck in financing limbo and current owner Fox claiming annual losses of up to $40M, their budget looks to be frozen until this problem is solved and could possibly go much lower for 2004 once the ownership situation is cleared up. But, with clear and valid MLB profit and loss statements an illusionary beast, up there with chimeras, perhaps that was posturing as well. And perhaps McCourt will find that final investor to allow them to spend more in 2004.
Back of the Pack
The remaining teams have serious issues to resolve before getting Vlad. Montreal had been rumored to have offered Vlad $75M over 5 years but given that their current players who are due big money in 2004 plus a budget that looks about the same as 2003, signing Vlad could result in a salary purge as the Expos may need to get rid of players to meet the budget. According to reports, Minaya apparently has enough budget now to keep the players he has but has been forced to take the offer to Vlad off the table. The Expos were a long shot anyway because Vlad's agent made it clear at the beginning of the season that the ownership and location of the Expos had to be cleared up before serious negotiating happen. Vlad is loyal but not stupid, it appears.
They are still in the running only because Vlad could pull a "Greg Maddux" still and accept arbitration with them (assuming that they did offer him that in order to get draft picks) in order to delay this another year. However, next year there could be an influx of hot young outfielders in Magglio Ordonez and Carlos Beltran, so doing this would probably not be in his best interest. However, he appears to be very loyal to the Expos and may do this to allow them another year to find a new owner and location.
San Francisco's allures have been recounted before in previous articles but with their announced budget target and their current roster, the Giants are limited to offering Vlad only $1-5M in 2004 plus still below market salaries in 2005 and 2006, which would require a long and creative contract to boost the average annual value to an acceptable level to Vlad. This makes a deal unlikely until the Giants can clear up more budget. But given his loyalty shown to friends from his youth and neighborhood, I have to believe that Vlad will at least contact the Giants and see what can be worked out to both parties satisfaction since Felipe Alou and Luis Pujols are with the Giants.
Seattle has been mentioned by some as a possible suitor but they are busy re-signing their free agents, like Edgar Martinez (recently resigned to $3M deal with $4M in incentives) and Mike Cameron. In addition, their new GM has already indicated that he prefers to spread his budget around rather than put it all into one basket, which would preclude Vlad. But if Cameron flees and Bavasi doesn't see any better alternatives, perhaps he'll change his mind about that.
Florida is under a tight budget and possibly looking at non-tendering some very good players like Derrek Lee so they are a surprise potential player for Vlad, but only because Vlad reportedly said that he's interested in playing for the Marlins. I find this rather unlikely because of their budget situation and their need to try to keep as much of the World Series winning team intact. But you never know with Lurie.
Anaheim would be interested possibly because of their new Latin owner but most reports list their strongest free agent interest to be in Miguel Tejada. In addition, their new owner is on record as saying that he doesn't see how a team can afford a $15M per year player. But perhaps if they don't get the players they are looking for, Vlad will appear to be a more appealing target afterall.
Handicapping the Race
Right now, it looks like everybody is on the sidelines and not necessarily even kicking the tires. With the pall over the market due to falling attendances at 16 of 30 teams in 2003, multiple teams talking about reducing payroll from 2003 to 2004, and the specter of another 100 players being non-tendered in December and swelling the free agent pool form 200+ players to 300+ players, most teams have not been having very substantial talks with many of the major free agents and have been looking at their own players or players who really want to work for them.
In addition, Vlad's potentially high price tag - I had estimated that he should end up with an average of $12-13M based on past contracts and the downtrend in top salaries over the past two off-seasons, but others have him pegged at $15-20M - scares away most teams because he would either represent a very large percentage of their payroll or is priced so high that the team cannot fit him into their budget. I believe that this lack of serious bidders for Vlad will keep his salary down. In addition, because there is a lack of serious pursuers right now, he most probably will not be signed until after most of the non-tenders occur and teams have a better idea what their alternatives to Vlad are and what these alternatives's price tag might be.
Unless, like Sheffield, he targets one team that he wants to sign with and work with them mutually to get a contract that satisfies both parties. The good news for Vlad is that he probably won't have to face a Fautian deal where he has to chose between much higher money at a location that he doesn't view as ideal versus much less money at a location that he would view as a good place for him. With the number of bidders limited, his salary won't be bidded up and place him in that uncomfortable position. However, assuming he does have teams he prefers over others, there is no guarantee that any of those "preferred" teams will be among the bidders. Good luck to Vlad in going someplace where he wants to be; he has certainly earned that much with his performance so far in his career.
Martin Lee writes 'A Biased Giant's Fanatic's View' for SFDugout.com when the mood and muse strikes him. He wants to teach and share his love of baseball and, in particular, his love for the San Francisco Giants. He will believe to his dying days that Bobby Bonds was robbed of being the first 40-40 player and should be in Cooperstown. Please feel free to e-mail him at BiasedGiantsFanatic@yahoo.com if you have a question or comment.
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