Originally created 04/27/97

Newest teams spending lots



It's a high-stakes, high-risk poker game that those 1998 expansion teams, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, are playing.

Consider Matt White, the high school pitcher who was a first-round selection of the San Francisco Giants last June and was one of four first-rounders granted free agency when the teams that drafted them failed to offer contracts within the required 15 days.

All four were signed by the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays for staggering sums, White receiving the most, $10.2 million from Tampa Bay.

White has yet to deliver a minor league pitch because he was found to have a stress fracture in his lower back.

It's not believed career-threatening, and White should be pitching by midsummer, but he represents the risk in giving $10.2 million to an unproven teen-ager.

Even so, Tampa Bay showed no reluctance in setting the latest ante a few days ago, signing Rolando Arrojo to a minor league contract for $7 million.

Arrojo, the longtime pitching ace of the Cuban national team, was granted Costa Rican citizenship after defecting last year.

He is not a teen-ager. Nor is he believed to be 28, as he claims.

Most think he is 32, which would make him 34 by the time his first major league season is completed, providing he proves capable of pitching in the majors next year.

Many clubs think he is. Nineteen attended tryout sessions in Costa Rica two weeks ago but most backed out as the bidding soared.

There was also the specter that any non-expansion club signing Arrojo to a major league contract would have had to include him among the 15 players each can protect in the November expansion draft.

Neither the money, nor the possibility that Arrojo is four years older than he claims, scared off Tampa Bay.

"This is truly our first major league deal," General Manager Chuck LaMar said. "We project him to be a starter in 1998 and beyond."

It's the thinking in Tampa Bay and Phoenix that the expansion draft will offer only graying, expensive veterans, possibly past their prime.

With pitching about to become even thinner, $7 million for a pitcher in his prime - 28 or 32 - is a sound decision, LaMar said.

So is the chance to stockpile young talent, he added, a reference to the $10.2 million signing of pitcher White and the $3 million signing of high school pitcher Bobby Seay.

The Diamondbacks had played the first card in the scramble for the four free agents out of the last draft, signing former San Diego State first baseman Travis Lee for $10 million and later signing high school pitcher John Patterson for $6 million.

The Diamondbacks also recently signed two Cuban pitchers, Vladimir Nunez and Larry Rodriguez, for $1.75 million and $1.25 million, respectively.

LaMar cited the rare availability of the Cubans and the technicality that made White, Seay, Lee and Patterson free agents, calling it a unique situation.

"I can't speak for the Diamondbacks, but Matt White and Bobby Seay represent our long-term commitment to development," he said.

"We're not going to find that kind of potential in the expansion draft, and I think there's often an overreaction to the money. We can't give major league contracts until November, meaning we can't spread out the money on multiyear contracts like other clubs do. We have to pay it as a bonus."

Overreaction? Philadelphia General Manager Lee Thomas called it a justifiable reaction.

"There's a lot of concern," Thomas said. "These two clubs are driving the price up for unproven, untested talent. I don't blame anybody for trying to get all they can, but I blame all of us for giving it to them.

"I have enough problems of my own to jump on somebody's case, but they're helping ruin the industry. I mean, those two clubs are loaded, and they're spending money like they're printing it.

"I don't know about the rest of us, but maybe we need some of those sheiks to come in with a ton of money and treat it like a game."

Many in baseball fear a domino reaction in the June draft, where the previous record was the $2 million the Pittsburgh Pirates gave Clemson pitcher Kris Benson last year.

Indeed, agent Jeff Moorad, who represented Lee, said, "The cat is now out of the bag. We now know what clubs will pay for top amateur talent. Those signings will impact the draft for many years to come."

It's also suspected that when Tampa Bay outbid the New York Yankees for Arrojo, Yankee owner George Steinbrenner plunged into completion of the trade for Japan's Hideki Irabu and is prepared to offer a multiyear contract in the $25-million range.

"I haven't heard that, but if it's true, why not?" Thomas said. "If you're going to give $10 million to a high school pitcher, why not $25 million for a guy with professional credentials?"

Do the Devil Rays and Diamondbacks care?

"Our attitude is that everybody knows their own business and what's best for them," Arizona General Manager Joe Garagiola Jr., said. "We respect what other clubs do and hope they respect what we do.

"You didn't hear us complaining when the White Sox signed Albert Belle for $11 million a year."

But Belle had credentials.

Who gives $10 million to a high school pitcher or $7 million to a thirtysomething defector?

Of course, the expansion teams do seem to be operating money machines. The Diamondbacks have sold 33,000 season tickets and almost all of their 69 luxury boxes. The Devil Rays have sold more than 20,000 season tickets and 51 of 55 luxury boxes.

Is it any wonder that another group of unsigned Cubans - 17-year-old pitcher Osmani Fernandez, 17-year-old catcher Yalian Serrano and 21-year-old second baseman Ramos Valdivia - are checking the area codes for Phoenix and Tampa Bay?