The Front Runners
There are now 3-4 teams in the lead for getting Vlad. They include Anaheim, Baltimore, and either New York Yankees or Atlanta Braves, depending on who signs Gary Sheffield. Anaheim leaps to the front of the pack with their GM Stoneman announcing, after signing Kelvim Escobar, that they now had enough money to target a free agent bat in the outfield next and then the L.A. Times reported that Mike Scioscia confirmed that the team had also been discussing Vlad as well. Possibly newbie owner Artie Moreno is stepping up to the plate with extra payroll budget to make a big splash in his first full year as owner because previous reports had him scoffing at paying $15M for a player.
Baltimore surges up by reports by mlb.com that there were two meetings between the Orioles management and Vlad's agents, Diego Benz and Fernando Cuza. It could have been just casual, meet and greet meetings to kick the tires and see what each side is thinking. But given the reports out of Baltimore that, despite Beattie saying early that Vlad was a primary target, the Orioles management was having second thoughts about spending $15M on just one player when they could get two $7-8M players, two meetings at minimum is a sign of some strong interest on the part of the Orioles. In addition, reports say that the Orioles are not pursuing any of the high-end pitchers because they are focusing on offense in RF and SS and they remain interested in Miguel Tejada and Kazuo Matsui. Vlad also needs to decide whether the Orioles have fixed their roster up well enough to be contenders in the near future. One would presume that he does not want to join a perennial non-contender team.
Atlanta and the Yankees are linked together in that whoever loses the Gary Sheffield competition could salve their wounds by pursuing Vlad with the money they were allocating to Sheff. Sheffield's friend/lawyer/agent put some cold water on reports that Sheffield had met with Yankee officials which had made it seem that Sheff was leaning their way. Sheffield as well publicly announced that reports that he was targeting the Yankees was false, that he was still open to other teams.
Sheffield is reportedly looking for a $40M contract for three years. The Yankees and the Braves are the only rumored suitors and the Yankees are rumored to be set to offer something close to what Sheffield is asking for. Besides, when George Steinbrenner wants somebody, and apparently he wants Sheffield, it is usually hard to stop him, so he looks right now to be headed to New York and Atlanta will be the one looking at Vlad.
Or will they? The Braves are possibly preparing for life without Vlad or Sheff with their pick-up of Gary Mathews, Jr., who still believes that he is a starter, but was viewed by the Padres as an ideal 4th outfielder. If the rumors that the Braves are cutting salaries by a lot ($20-30M) are true, then they could already be out of the Sheff or Vlad sweepstakes.
Stuck in the Middle
The New York Mets and the Los Angeles Dodgers stay in middle of the race for Vlad. There has been rumors swirling around the Mets possible pursuit of Luis Castillo, Fernando Vina, or Pokey Reese for 2B and Reggie Sanders, Todd Hollandsworth, Jose Guillen or Mike Cameron for OF, and Keith Foulke or Ugueth Urbina for closer, but nothing at all about Vlad. If anything, they scoffed at getting him when there was so much need elsewhere. In addition, Piazza, whom they were rumored to be trading to perhaps the Orioles to free up payroll, announced that he wanted to stay in New York, so the Mets don't have as much to spend as they might have otherwise had a trade been done. In addition, they appear to be cutting back salary for 2004 by a lot, perhaps as much as $15-20M. Therefore, given all their needs and the names being thrown out, they appear to not want Vlad and would prefer instead to fill a lot of other pressing offensive needs. Plus they still need pitching. But, if they change their mind, the Mets should be able to spend more to get a player and thus at least are still capable of pursuing Vlad. And if they lose out on some of their primary targets, they may switch their focus and money towards Vlad.
However, Vlad's agents may have over played their hand with both New York teams. In a number of recent interviews, Vlad's agents said Vlad would be happy to play in New York and dismissed the thought that Vlad wouldn't or couldn't play in New York. By publicly saying that Vlad would be glad to play in New York potentially insults the intelligence of the New York teams' management as an obvious ploy to use them as leverage. His agent has said that he doesn't know where it came from that Vlad wouldn't play in New York but it is out there everywhere: Montreal officials have said it, anonymous baseball officials have said it, Vlad's mother said it, and even Vlad basically confirmed it.
Vlad had a perfect opportunity to dispel those rumors but failed. A reporter asked him about playing in the Big Apple in late September and he gave the perfunctory "I don't care where I play" speech that his agent probably coached him on. Then the reporter threw a curveball and asked Vlad if he would be able to handle the media pressure that going to New York would entail. Vlad swung and missed, replying "I don't know." What are the New York teams' managements suppose to take that to mean other than that they are being played? One moment Vlad don't know, the next he's sure he can do it fine?
The Dodgers are neck and neck with the Mets because they have the ability to spend big if the new owner wishes to do so. Their main targets appear to be SS Kazuo Matsui and Korean home run champ 1B Seung-Yup Lee right now plus trading Odalis Perez. In addition, they are currently trying to trade with the Brewers for Richie Sexson, which could make it harder for them get Matsui and Vlad together as the combined salaries of the three should be more than they spend. However, if the Diamondbacks succeed in trading Schilling to Boston, and they apparently currently have a deal in place awaiting Schilling negotiation for an extension (so this could be true by the time you are reading this), then that will clear up enough salary so that they can give mainly prospects to the Brewers to snatch up Sexson. In which case, this could bring the Dodger's focus on to Vlad. However, their ownership is in limbo right now because there was a financing snafu and so Evans hands may be tied because neither former or prospective owner can give him a budget figure until the sale either goes through or fails.
Back of the Pack
Florida, Montreal, San Francisco, and Seattle remain in back. Florida just unloaded Derrek Lee for minimal salary in return, helping their payroll, but their main concerns are on re-signing Luis Castillo, Mike Lowell, and Pudge Rodriguez, in that order. Montreal is suppose to get their budget anyday now but most probably would not be able to add Vlad without forcing the team to trade off at least Vasquez and possibly Jose Vidro too. As it is, they probably have to move Orlando Cabrera as he should get a lot in arbitration. But if the market turns cold on Vlad he could pull what Maddux did last year and accept the Expos arbitration offer and screw up their whole payroll and roster.
San Francisco with the trade for A.J. Pierzynski lost some more of their precious payroll that they had available, making any pursuit of Vlad a further away dream. But they are actively trying to figure out who they can get as Barry Bonds successor and the sooner, the better. Seattle, after spending big bucks on Raul Ibanez, is busy working on re-signing Mike Cameron, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, and Arthur Rhodes, and possibly pursuing Seung-Yup Lee or Kazuo Matsui, though rumor has it that "Kaz" would prefer not to join a team that already has a Japanese national position player. So Vlad is still just an afterthought for the Mariners, as he is for most of the teams mentioned so far, a Plan V should Plan A fails.
Lastly, Detroit has reared its ugly head and become a dark horse candidate in the pursuit of Vlad. It has been reported recently that Detroit has enough money to sign a big free agent and so they could be wading into the free agent pool and try to snag a big name free agent like Tejada or Vlad. I find it hard to believe that any free agent serious about winning would do that deal unless Detroit severely overpays in order to get top players interested in playing there. And so for most of the teams here, Vlad is currently an afterthought or plan B, with only Detroit strongly interested in him as a first option.
The Race so Far
The race is still early, with many weeks to go most probably given the dearth of news and rumors, and every one is still bunched together, jockeying for position, no matter who is in front and who is in the rear. There's plenty of race to come. The equalizer for everyone right now is that Vlad is asking for a contract length of eight years, as noted above. That is huge news. That plus the previous leak that the Expos offered $15M per year and was turned down, which means that Vlad's agents want more. That lets the market know what Vlad is basically looking for in a contract: eight years at $16-20M.
By asking for 8 years and at over $15M (maybe even A-Rod-type money?), many teams should be spooked because the size of that contract (visions of Albert Belle and Mo Vaughn will dance in their heads) will take a big chunk of their future flexibility away. Juxtaposed against that, the teams with the two highest paid players, Texas with A-Rod and Boston with Manny, are actively looking to trade them away. It seems like Vlad's agents can not see that the market is shifting away from such large contracts.
In addition, most teams cannot afford that large a contract without skimping on other key areas. Furthermore, Vlad's back problem could be the final straw that may kill off, in my estimation, some teams' desire to further explore with Vlad's agent what might be possible. Some teams might have at least spoke with his agent and kick the tires to see what's happening but the potential size of this contract puts an absolute freeze on those teams' interest. A contract of this magnitude is not a quick impulse buy but one that must be deliberated on and justified. That takes plenty of meetings. That takes plenty of time. However, nobody is going to waste that much time when the demands are so high in the beginning and therefore teams will just move on.
Time is of the Essence
Unfortunately for Vlad and his agents, he doesn't have time on his side. I understand why they are asking for the world first because in negotiations usually you need to start very high to see where the fringes of interest and budget are and then you can get down to the nitty-gritty. However, as noted last week, as teams fill out their roster, and they have already begun, they will have less and less payroll available to spend on free agents. As one can see above, many of the potential bidders are looking for a more economical way to fulfill their need without getting a $15-20M player. Furthermore, with the payroll cuts that most teams are facing already, the winnowing of bidders will happen faster than past years, resulting in a much shrunken supply of available bidders if they wait too long. Like Maddux last year, Vlad may find himself having to accept arbitration with the Expos to get the money he wants (or rather more accurately his agents want) or taking a lesser (than targeted by his agents) one-year contract, like Ivan Rodriguez got last year.
Not unless there is a team who has been eyeing a player like him and planning their payroll situation to getting a player like that, like the Giants may be doing and like the Orioles said that they will be doing. For all the other teams, Vlad is a backup plan if things don't go the way they think. Not so for the two Orange and Black teams. The things the Giants need is extra payroll and Vlad's willingness to backload, like Bonds, Schmidt, and Alfonzo backloaded their contracts. Supposedly Bonds is willing to restructure his contract to help land a big kahuna so there is that possibility, though currently a long shot without further news. What the Orioles need to show Vlad is that they can put together a competitive team and still have enough left over to sign Vlad. So Vlad could find himself being wooed by only two teams if his agents keep the pace of interest in their client slow by such high demands. It will be interesting to see what will unfold.
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.
The views expressed in the columns do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the site's publisher, writers, or other staff members. The content on this site may not be redistributed without the expressed consent of SFDugout.com.