(Hardly) free agents

by Matthew B. Burgess | 10/25/00 5:00am

I heard a rumor the other day that baseball is played outside of New York. I'm just as surprised as you are, but apparently there are 28 other teams out there, with 28 general managers, all of whom are salivating over the richest free agent class in baseball history. Money (lots of it) will be spent, franchises will be reborn and loyalties will take a backseat to checkbooks. Below are the top five most eligible ballplayers, coming to a stadium near you.

1) Alex Rodriguez, Seattle Mariners

What does it mean when the best baseball player in the world is also 25 years old? It means in the words of one teammate, "Alex will go wherever he wants." A-Rod had his best season since 1996, posting a .316 batting average, 41 home runs and 132 RBIs. Seattle can't afford to lose Ken Griffey, Jr. and Rodriguez in successive seasons, and they will aggressively try to re-sign their superstar shortstop. In a press-conference following Seattle's loss to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, A-Rod said, "Seattle is the favorite."

If they can come up with the money. Rodriguez will command in excess of $200 million over 10 years, and it is unlikely that the small-market Mariners have the financial resources necessary to ink A-Rod to the richest contract in history. Rodriguez would fit in nicely in the Atlanta Braves lineup hitting in front of Chipper Jones. His Hollywood persona and good looks likewise make him well suited for Los Angeles, playing for the Dodgers. But baseball insiders think the New York Mets have the inside track in the A-Rod sweepstakes. If the Mets commit to their inexpensive outfield of Timo Perez, Benny Agbayani and Jay Payton for 2001, they could free up enough money to outbid all other suitors. Rodriguez, who was born in New York, has expressed an interest in playing for the Mets, and would love to establish a rivalry with best friend Derek Jeter.

2) Mike Hampton, New York Mets

Hampton's 3.14 ERA and 15-10 record make him the most attractive pitcher available in this year's market. The 28-year-old lefthander is one of the most competitive players in baseball (he once pitched despite a broken rib), and he routinely goes to war with water coolers after poor outings. Most insiders find it unlikely that Hampton will re-sign with the Mets after the World Series. Yankees owner George Steinbrenner would love nothing more than to steal the Mets' ace and put him in pinstripes. Hampton, one of the best hitting pitchers in the game, is reluctant to go to the American League where he would be kept out of the batting lineup by the designated hitter. All things considered, Atlanta would be the best fit, so don't be surprised if you see him in a Braves uniform next year.

3) Manny Ramirez, Cleveland Indians

Manny Ramirez is the best run producer in baseball; his 165 RBIs in 1999 were the most in 61 years. At 28-years-old, Ramirez is entering his slugging prime, and will command at least $15 million on the open market. Injuries this year have limited the rightfielder to 118 games. But when he was in the lineup, Ramirez was one of the toughest outs in the majors- hitting .351 with 38 home runs and driving in 122 runs. It's likely that Ramirez will reject the Indians' last-ditch offer of $90M over six years and test the open market.

"Manny will go where the money is," says one GM. "And that likely will be the Yankees."

Ramirez grew up in the Bronx, and he'd do well taking over for Paul O'Neill in right field and in the lineup, but many believe he's wary about playing under the media scrutiny of a big city. If he's willing to switch leagues, Ramirez could end up with the Rockies where he could put up scary numbers in the thin Colorado air. Also, don't count out the Detroit Tigers if Juan Gonzalez leaves.

4) Mike Mussina, Baltimore Orioles

Mussina has been one of the most dominant right handers over the last eight years, winning over 18 games four times. Mussina made it clear from day one that he wouldn't be back with the O's in 2001. His unhappiness with the Baltimore front office perhaps affected his performance this year, the worst in his career. His 11-15 record marks the first time he had a sub-.500 season since his rookie year. Many think 2000 was an aberration and expect the 32-year-old to bounce back with a change of scenery.

The Mets and Yanks are working hard to strike a deal with Mussina, but don't discount the Braves, Indians, or Chicago White Sox.

5) Juan Gonzalez, Detroit Tigers

Gonzalez has been the biggest disappointment in baseball. In his first season with the Tigers, Gonzalez drove in 67 runs -- a far cry from the 140 RBIs that he had been averaging over the previous four years. The Tigers are still interested in signing him, hoping he can rebound back to the player he was with the Texas Rangers. He could fetch as much as $140 million in Detroit, a number he's not likely to reach anywhere else.