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Rays still have big gap to bridge in talks with Japanese star

Rays, agent for infielder Akinori Iwamura acknowledge they are far apart in contract negotiations.

MARC TOPKIN
Published December 5, 2006


LAKE BUENA VISTA - To get the rights to Japanese infielder Akinori Iwamura, the Devil Rays had to determine a value for a player they'd barely seen, gauge the market based on what other teams might bid, then prevail with a single, sealed bid, which turned out to be $4.5-million.

And that may have been the easy part.

Signing a player acquired through the Japanese posting system can be considerably more complicated than a standard transaction, with numerous issues and a looming deadline, and three weeks of on-and-off talks, plus a weekend visit to the Tampa Bay area, haven't led to much progress.

"We're really very far apart philosophically and financially," agent Alan Nero said Monday at the winter meetings. "I have confidence that we'll be able to come together, but at the moment we're about as far apart as Tokyo and Tampa Bay."

One issue, of course, is money, with the Rays naturally preferring less around $2.5-million a year on the theory that Iwamura hasn't proven himself as a major-league player and Nero seeking more (around $5-million a year) on the theory that he will be a star.

Another, which can be more complicated, is the structure and length of the contract. In this case the Rays want more years and Nero fewer. First-year players are typically bound to a team for six years before becoming free agents, but Japanese players have been signing two- and three-year contracts that make them free agents at the end of the term.

Plus, the negotiations must be completed within a 30-day window, which gives them until Dec. 15 to make a deal. If they do, the Rays then pay the $4.5-million posting fee. If they don't, the Rays don't have to pay, and Iwamura, 27, goes back to Japan to play for Yakult, where he will make around $3-million.

Iwamura is scheduled to be examined today by the Rays doctors then head back to Japan on Wednesday. He toured Tropicana Field over the weekend and had dinner Sunday with Rays officials, including manager Joe Maddon, and talked about possibly moving from third base to second and how he would hit at the Trop. He got a glimpse of what major-league success can lead to, being entertained by Hall of Famer Wade Boggs, also one of Nero's clients, at his Tampa home.

Despite the issues and the approaching deadline, Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said he is optimistic a deal can be done.

"It all gets back to numbers," he said, "and I think there are a range of scenarios that make sense for both sides."

RAYS REPORT: Friedman, senior VP Gerry Hunsicker and other officials arrived Monday and started a series of afternoon and evening meetings to talk trades and explore free-agent possibilities.

Their primary goal is to improve their bullpen, and Friedman said there are options in both scenarios. Free-agent possibilities include Russ Springer, David Riske and Octavio Dotel.

He said they are also discovering "a tremendous amount of interest" in their young players. Outfielders Rocco Baldelli and Carl Crawford are primary topics of conversation, but trade talks may also include B.J. Upton (whom the Marlins have asked about) and Jorge Cantu.

LOBBY CHATTER: Free agent left-hander Ted Lilly is rumored to be headed to the Cubs, which could lead to a series of signings as teams scramble to overpay for starters. Barry Zito's reps are meeting with the Mets, Jason Schmidt is reportedly deciding between the Dodgers and Mariners and Gil Meche appears headed to Toronto. ... Right-hander Vicente Padilla reached a preliminary agreement on a $33-million, three-year deal with the Rangers, AP reported. ... The Giants, who are now again interested in and exchanging offers with Barry Bonds, continue rebuilding with aging veterans, re-signing third baseman Pedro Feliz ($5.5-million, one year) and first baseman Rich Aurilia ($8-million, two years) and nearing a three-year deal with catcher Bengie Molina. ... The Red Sox are talking to the Dodgers, and maybe the Mariners, about Manny Ramirez. ... Reliever Joe Borowski is close to a deal with Cleveland and David Weathers with Cincinnati. ... The Cardinals worked out an extension with ace Chris Carpenter that could keep him in St. Louis through 2012 and pay him about $77-million. ... Outfielder Jose Guillen, an ex-Ray, signed a one-year, $5.5-million deal with Seattle.

MISCELLANY: MLB announced plans Monday to stage the Civil Rights Game, a March 31 exhibition in Memphis, Tenn., between St. Louis and Cleveland, with proceeds to several related causes. ... Dunedin's Tim Wilken, the former Rays scouting director now with the Cubs, was honored as East Coast Scout of the Year. ... The Rays' Durham affiliate was named Triple-A winner of Baseball America's Bob Freitas Award for outstanding minor-league operations.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801. View his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/rays/.