BASEBALL : It's Still Too Early for Serious Trade Talks

How big is the Opryland Hotel, site of baseball's winter meetings?

"This hotel is so big that Lewis and Clark couldn't find their rooms," Dodger Manager Tom Lasorda said.

"This hotel is so big that I passed through two area codes getting from one end to another."

This 1,850-room hotel is so big, in fact, that the baseball convention seems to have become lost somewhere between the two lobbies, one of which is thought to be in Kentucky.

Maybe that's why there has been so little news reaching the press room. Maybe it's even too far for the homing pigeons.

Or maybe there has been very little news, period.

The fact is, the nature of these meetings, once thought of as a virtual swap meet of players, has changed significantly. If not obsolete, they are definitely held at the wrong time--at least in those years when the owners are not colluding and a free-agent logjam brings trade activity to a standstill.

Currently, Robin Yount, the American League's most valuable player, and Mark Davis, the National League's Cy Young Award winner, remain available, as well as free agents of the Hubie Brooks, Pete O'Brien, and Craig Lefferts. Probably half of the 26 teams are involved in negotiations with one free agent or another.

"We should be holding the meetings in January, after the Super Bowl," Manager Whitey Herzog of the St. Louis Cardinals said.

"That way, the free agents would be signed, clubs would have a better sense of their needs because it would be closer to spring training, and we'd be able to get something done (in the way of trades).

"As it is, we're wasting a hell of a lot of time and money being here.

"I mean, baseball always met in December to get some winter headlines and help ticket sales. Now baseball is in the headlines every day. We don't have to worry about the publicity. This is just the wrong time."

At the winter meetings of 1980, in a series of blockbuster trades and signings, Herzog began rebuilding the Cardinals by acquiring 13 players and trading away 11. Rollie Fingers was obtained from the San Diego Padres one day and sent to the Milwaukee Brewers the next.

Since then, there is no longer a trade imperative associated with the meetings because the Friday night deadline has been removed. In addition, contracts have become more complicated, salaries have escalated and the art of trading is significantly more difficult.

"Now, you don't talk trade without your banker," Herzog said.

The one and only major trade of these meetings is typical of the way it works now.

Joe Carter, eligible for free agency after the 1990 season and adamant about not re-signing with the Cleveland Indians, is traded to the San Diego Padres conditionally, the trade becoming official only if Carter signs with the Padres within a 48-hour period.

In turn, the Angels' bid for Carter is stymied by Yount's indecision, Yount being the prospective replacement for center fielder Devon White, whom they have offered for Carter.

Such is the way it is now.

"Sometimes you have to re-sort your priorities because of things that are out of your control," Angel General Manager Mike Port said, adding that there is a lot more re-sorting than in previous years.

All of this could be relieved somewhat if Herzog's timetable were adopted. In fact, there are many baseball executives who believe that the winter meetings have outlived their usefulness, pointing out that the owners have four other meetings a year, the general managers meet twice and there are winter marketing and public relations meetings even before this convention, which is sponsored by the National Assn., governing body of the minor leagues.

It is also theorized by some that the major leagues remain affiliated with the convention only because of a desire not to offend the National Assn., which selected Nashville and the cozy Opryland Hotel.

Next year? Los Angeles. Yawn.

One free agent was removed from the logjam Tuesday night when the Detroit Tigers signed the Oakland Athletics' versatile Tony Phillips to a three-year contract.

Mike Gallego will replace Phillips at second base for the A's, while Phillips will play third and bat leadoff for the Tigers, the 38th third baseman since Sparky Anderson became manager in 1979.

"He can catch the ball, which is something we had a little problem doing last year," Sparky said, alluding to the 103 losses of 1989. "We've never had a bona fide third baseman, and he comes the closest, but no one player can be a savior for us.

"If the Bambino came back, even he couldn't do it."

The Angels' contingent leaves Nashville today.

A news conference is scheduled for Anaheim Stadium Friday, ostensibly to introduce Mark Langston.

But could the early departure be?

--A smoke screen for a rumored meeting between Angel executives and Robin and Larry Yount Friday?

--A smoke screen for an announcement on the signing of Yount?

General Manager Mike Port denied both possibilities Tuesday, insisting that the club has not even made an offer to Yount.

Maybe not in writing, but it is difficult to believe that after all this time, after all the revelations about the complexities of Yount's financial position, after all the recent comments by Jackie Autry regarding the ball being in Yount's court and her belief that Yount is torn by an emotional decision involving the Angels and Milwaukee Brewers, no offer--not even the outline of an offer--has been discussed.

No team has been more devastated by free agency than the Montreal Expos.

They have lost Langston, signed by the Angels for $16 million; Bryn Smith, signed by the St. Louis Cardinals for $6 million, and Pascual Perez, signed by the New York Yankees for $5.7 million.

Brooks seems headed for Detroit, Pittsburgh or Atlanta.

"I just hope that winning, integrity and desire enters into this salary structure somewhere," Montreal Manager Buck Rodgers said. "The sad thing is, some of these guys actually think they're worth it."

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