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Yankees cut payroll? Ha!

By MARC TOPKIN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- The new year is supposed to be a time for reflections and resolutions, for thoughts of hope and dreams of change.

Too bad the Yankees have spoiled everyone's party.

Forget the weak economy, the beefed up luxury tax and their stated effort to reduce payroll. It's clear one thing that won't change with the calendar is the Yankees' proclivity to spend.

They dropped veteran relievers Mike Stanton and Ramiro Mendoza in a nod toward fiscal restraint.

But you get the feeling they did so with a mocking laugh.

With the huge contracts they gave promising but unproven imports Hideki Matsui (the Japanese outfielder who got $21-million over three years) and Jose Contreras (the Cuban pitcher who got $32-million over four) and the one-year deal they are finalizing with Roger Clemens, the Yankees' 2003 payroll projects (in baseball math) to be about $167-million.

That's nearly as much as they spent before implementation of the new economic system (the one designed to restrain spending), and enough to cost them about $9-million more in luxury tax payments.

So why sign Matsui and Contreras?

The Yankees say: Why not?

"We couldn't -- the right word is we wouldn't -- sacrifice the opportunity to sign these talents on the basis of reducing payroll first," general manager Brian Cashman said.

The Yankees will make a show of trying to dump additional salary, but it's clear the system isn't going to stop them. (And so much for those cost-saving moves of cutting employee dental plans and hours for elevator operators.)

This is a team that now has five frontline outfielders and eight -- yes, eight -- veteran starting pitchers: Clemens, Contreras, Orlando Hernandez, Sterling Hitchcock, Andy Pettitte, Mike Mussina, Jeff Weaver and David Wells.

"It's very difficult to bid against a team that has an unlimited budget," Red Sox owner John Henry said. "It doesn't matter how many outfielders or how many starters they already have. With an unlimited budget, you can buy anyone you think you need."

The Contreras signing particularly galled the Sox, who were willing to bid higher. While they didn't officially cry foul, they sure whined a bit, suggesting the Yankees might have had a precut deal. (Yankees officials, meanwhile, say "sour grapes" and allege the Sox booked all available rooms in the Nicaragua hotel where negotiations took place in an attempt to freeze them out.)

"In any process like this, unless you have chosen a team you prefer in advance or have an understanding of some sort, normally an agent tries to maximize dollars," Henry said.

"That didn't happen here. They will never know, and we will never know, exactly how much Mr. Contreras would have been paid had there been competitive bidding."

Or, as Boston president Larry Lucchino so aptly put it, "The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America."

RAYS REPORT: The Rays seem to be keeping quiet while considering how to get the most of their limited money, about $1.5-million. They called about Jose Cruz (probably the best outfielder available) but likely can't afford him, though agent Randy Hendricks pointed out Cruz "hits very, very well" at Tropicana Field (.313, 8 homers, 27 RBIs in 29 games). Eric Owens and Todd Hollandsworth are among the other top possibilities. If they also want an infielder, Desi Relaford, Marlon Anderson and Frank Catalanotto are choices. Another option is a veteran reliever. Would ex-Ray Roberto Hernandez be a possibility? ... According to Baseball America, the Rays are looking to sell the Double-A Orlando franchise, which would move to Montgomery, Ala., in 2004.

X-RAY FILE: Esteban Yan got $1.5-million (same as he made last season) from the Rangers to work as a setup man. ... Mike DiFelice and Albie Lopez, expansion draft picks who left together in a trade to Arizona, are set to be reunited in Kansas City. DiFelice took a minor-league deal for a shot to be a backup catcher. Lopez has an offer to pitch middle relief.

MISCELLANY: Bad market? One player (Jim Thome) has signed a contract in excess of $40-million (down from seven two years ago). Only 18 have gotten deals worth $5-million, down from 25 last year and 35 in 2001. ... Cleveland's projected payroll is $51-million compared with $78.9-million last season and $92.6-million in 2001. ... The Mets gave the Rays $4.25-million to take Rey Ordonez, took on Russ Johnson's $775,000 salary then spent $1.3-million to sign Rey Sanchez with another $700,000 available in incentives. ... MLB is expected to decide by July on a new home for the Expos, choosing among Washington (with three groups), Portland and Charlotte, N.C. ... Cincinnati's old Riverfront Stadium comes tumbling down this morning. The implosion has become a boon to tourism. Hotels with views of the stadium say they are sold out for the weekend.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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