The Dodgers took a serious step toward acquiring a much-needed center fielder and leadoff hitter Wednesday by offering free-agent outfielder Brett Butler a three-year contract worth $7.5 million, sources confirmed.
But the offer may not be good enough.
“I was kind of looking for a four-year contract,” said Butler, 33, from his Atlanta home. “And right now, it sounds like they are not willing to go the fourth year, or even discuss an option.
“I’ve only been on the disabled list once in my life. God has blessed me with a young body. I’ve been fortunate to be very durable. I don’t see a problem in playing four more years.”
Butler, who batted .309 and stole 51 bases for San Francisco last season while tying for the league lead with 192 hits, said he has essentially narrowed his choices to the Dodgers and his hometown Braves.
While the Dodgers are his sentimental favorites, the Braves have already discussed contracts of four years, or three years and an option.
“Even as a kid, I wanted to play for the Dodgers. . . . Heck, I was born in Good Samaritan Hospital,” Butler said. “The Dodgers are a great team. They can win it all, and I have a lot of friends in Los Angeles.”
However, Butler said: “I have learned, being wanted is more important to me than the money; I’ve always liked to play where I was wanted. I had that feeling with the Giants until the very end, and I would like to get that feeling again.
“So it isn’t a matter of one team offering more money. Heck, the Braves can’t get in a bidding war with the Dodgers, everybody knows that. It’s a matter of how much interest a team has in me staying with that team.”
The Dodgers, even though they haven’t had a true leadoff hitter since Steve Sax or a standout center fielder since Rick Monday, seem insistent on a contract that does not exceed three years. A month ago, they gave Darryl Strawberry a five-year contract.
“The length of a contract is extremely important to us,” said Fred Claire, Dodger vice president, who would not confirm the offer. “We’ve got to think about our own farm system. We believe that a young man down there, Tom Goodwin, is a bright prospect. We also have three good young outfielders as reserves in the big leagues. And we have three veteran starters in the outfield.”
Claire added: “We like Brett, but we don’t think our outfield situation is such that something must be done.”
The Dodger pitchers, who, like most other Dodgers, are quietly rooting for Claire to sign Butler, would disagree. They are worried about Strawberry’s ability to play center field, his position, club officials say, because Kal Daniels is in left and Hubie Brooks is in right.
If the Dodgers sign Butler, they could move Strawberry back to his accustomed spot in right and trade either Daniels or Brooks for a left-handed reliever or another starting pitcher.
“They cannot play Darryl in center field; that would be really stupid,” one starting pitcher said last week. “And they know it.”
Statistically, Butler is the answer to the nightmares that have plagued the Dodgers since the departure of Sax after the 1988 World Series championship season.
Since Butler’s first full season in 1983, he has not hit lower than .269 and has not stolen fewer than 30 bases in a season. During that time, he has averaged 76 walks and only 59 strikeouts a year.
Butler usually leads the league in bunt singles, averaging more than 20 a season, and he is tough to catch on the back end of a double play. Last year, he grounded into only one double play for every 207 at-bats.
Butler is just as consistent in the field, finishing second in the National League in putouts in each of the last two seasons.
Claire’s reluctance to offer him a four-year contract is based upon the feeling by some in the organization that Goodwin, the former 1989 first-round draft choice who will be playing for triple-A Albuquerque, N.M., this season, is the center fielder of the future.
Goodwin hit .278 for double-A San Antonio last season, with 60 stolen bases, in 102 games. But some scouts question his projected ability to hit big league pitching, and many believe he is more than one season away from the majors.
The Dodgers’ offer has been left with Butler and his agent, Dick Moss. Butler said he hopes to decide soon.
The Dodgers have had discussions with agent Dick Moss about free agent catcher Gary Carter, who was not offered a contract by the San Francisco Giants.