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Rays can pay now -- or later

Young players present a dilemma when it comes to contract negotiations.

By JOHN ROMANO

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 10, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- In business, they say you must spend money to make money. In baseball, sometimes you must spend money to save money.

This is the quandary facing the Devil Rays. With a roster of young players they may want to build around, the Rays will decide this season which of those players, if any, they should tie up in multiyear contracts.

The decisions are not automatic -- even with the best players.

The latest trend around baseball is to strike multiyear deals with young players before their free-agency years.

Such deals can benefit both parties. They give players a dose of security. They give teams a fixed budget and guard them against the rising cost of arbitration.

Yet, they can be risky. Players usually have to trade some earning power to get the security. And teams can be stuck with an undesirable contract if a player does not work out.

"It can be extremely healthy to tie up a player to a multiyear contract if he continues to perform at the level that you want," Rays general manager Chuck LaMar said. "You're taking that risk on how he performs. But in most cases, a player is leaving some of that potential money on the table."

None of Tampa Bay's brightest young stars are on the verge of free agency. Quinton McCracken has at least three more years to go. Tony Saunders has four. Rolando Arrojo is looking at five.

Still, a long-term deal eventually could save the Rays money. If they sign McCracken to a four-year extension, for example, they can keep him away from free agency for an extra year. If they sign Arrojo to a three-year deal, it may mean overpaying him in 2000, but it will save the team money when he's eligible for arbitration in 2001.

Other than veterans, the Rays have gone to a multiyear deal with only one player. Reliever Albie Lopez was eligible for arbitration in the off-season but agreed to a two-year, $1.35-million contract.

"A lot of guys can get out of control when they're eligible for arbitration," Lopez said. "You have this hammer, and you can use it, but it can also hurt you. You sign that one-year deal and you can go out and hurt yourself the next year. You can also leave a bad taste in the owner's mouth and the GM's mouth.

"It works both ways. It can be good and bad."

Avoiding arbitration is a major factor in multiyear deals. Teams dislike the process because they have little control over how high the salaries can go and because they often must slag their players to make their case.

The effects of arbitration can linger far beyond the case and lead to bitter feelings.

"A team comes to a player with a deal that's below market value and some guys will take it personally," said Bill Moore, the agent for McCracken. "You'll hear a guy say, "I thought they liked me. They told me they liked me, and this doesn't seem like they like me.' I'll bet you right now Todd Helton is saying, "The Rockies like me.' "

The Rockies recently signed Helton to a four-year, $12-million contract. Considering Colorado could have renewed Helton for around $250,000 this season, the contract seems excessive.

Yet, the Rockies are figuring Helton will be an even bigger star in two years and could command $5-million a season.

Even Helton agrees that he probably will make less money than had he gone on a year-to-year basis.

"I hope I outlive this contract. It will mean the Rockies saved money, but I will still be hitting my prime (when it expires)," Helton said. "If I play well, it will be reflected in my next contract."

The Phillies took a similar path with Scott Rolen, and the Red Sox went the same way with Nomar Garciaparra.

Tampa Bay's situation is not quite so easy to decipher. Arrojo and Saunders have potential, but pitchers carry more risk than position players. And though McCracken was the team's MVP in 1998, he hasn't put up the numbers of a Rolen or Garciaparra.

The Rays talked long-term deals with Arrojo and McCracken in the off-season but agreed to one-year contracts.

McCracken, who was eligible for arbitration, split the difference with the Rays and signed for $1.85-million. Arrojo, who has no leverage yet in negotiations, signed for $240,000, with multiple incentives built into the deal.

LaMar has stated he will not negotiate once the season begins but now says he may relax that policy this year. He declined to talk about specific players, but McCracken, Arrojo and Saunders might find long-term security with strong performances this season. Others such as Esteban Yan and Bubba Trammell also could further their case.

"We're in a stage of our development where we might have to discuss contracts during the year. I don't like that philosophy," LaMar said. "I think once you break camp and the season starts, everyone's mind should be on one thing: that's winning a championship. I will always feel that way.

"However, we drafted a lot of players in the expansion draft and have a lot of unique contractual situations. If I feel the need to negotiate a long-term contract during this season, I would not be against that."

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