Padres Have Tartabull In Grasp : Baseball: Executive says team has 'a great chance' to lure the free agent outfielder.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Padres, who virtually had given up hope of signing free agent Danny Tartabull a week ago, now have become optimistic, if not confident, they'll be able to lure the power-hitting outfielder, a club executive said Tuesday.

"I'm not saying it will definitely happen," the executive said, speaking on condition of anonymity, "but we believe he's fallen into our price range. If everything we're hearing is correct, I think we've got a great chance."

The Padres, the executive said, are prepared to offer Tartabull a four-year deal worth $16 million with incentives that would substantially increase the value of the contract. They're expected to submit their offer within 10 days, and believe it might be enough to lure Tartabull to San Diego.

The reasoning is simple: Tartabull is not attracting the same interest as Bobby Bonilla.

Although Bonilla signed a five-year, $29-million contract with the New York Mets a week ago, there are no clubs willing to make a similar offer to Tartabull. The Padres, who previously believed it would take at least a five-year, $25-million offer to sign Tartabull, now are convinced they can sign him for less than $20 million.

The Angels helped fuel the Padres' optimism Tuesday when team Senior Vice President Whitey Herzog announced that he no longer sought Tartabull's services. In fact, there there are only four known teams who still have sincere interest in Tartabull--the Boston Red Sox, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals and the Padres.

Yet, the interest shown by the Red Sox and Rangers is only conditional. The Red Sox would want Tartabull only if they trade left fielder Mike Greenwell, and the Rangers would only want Tartabull if they trade Ruben Sierra and can not acquire Kevin Mitchell.

"They (Tartabull's agents) may not want to admit it," the Padre executive said, "but the money's just not out there."

The Padres were informed that Tartabull is seeking a five-year contract, a source said, but it's doubtful the Padres would offer more than a four-year deal with an option. The Padres say they simply can not afford to pay more than $20 million, and the way it appears, they might not have to pay more.

"I told (agent Dennis Gilbert) economically what we can do, and what we can't do," said Joe McIlvaine, Padre general manager. "Now, we'll determine how badly (Tartabull) wants to come to San Diego.

"We can't compete with flat money, but we'll see whether he wants to come for a lesser arrangement or a creative arrangement. Maybe we'll name the gift shop after him."

The question no longer is whether the Padres are willing to make a financial commitment to Tartabull, but rather if that commitment will exceed their limitations.

"As a fan, I'd love to have Danny Tartabull," Padre Chairman Tom Werner said. "But it's a question of money. Can we spend $29 million on Danny Tartabull, I don't think so. This isn't a hard and fast thing. It's a question of flexibility.

"It you look at the net worth of our partnership, it's probably greater than any ownership group in baseball, but it doesn't mean you don't want to act sensibly. If we go out and make a bona fide offer for Danny Tartabull, then things have to be done."

The Padres' optimism in acquiring Tartabull has allowed them to formulate their plans without having to trade away a starting pitcher. They believe they can fill their holes, and even keep their rotation intact, according to one scenario.

The Padres would send catcher Tom Lampkin or outfielder Thomas Howard to the Houston Astros for Casey Candaele, filling their hole at second base. They would then solve their third-base woes by acquiring Scott Cooper from the Boston Red Sox, giving up reliever Craig Lefferts and perhaps another reliever.

There also are several other options the Padres might pursue. They had trade discussions Tuesday with the Cleveland Indians about second baseman Jerry Browne and the Atlanta Braves about second baseman Jeff Treadway. McIlvaine said he also talked to the Chicago Cubs, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates.

Perhaps the most intriguing team involved in the trade talks is the Red Sox. The Red Sox, according to a source, offered a three-for-three proposal that would send Cooper, center fielder Ellis Burks and another player to the Padres for pitcher Andy Benes, reliever Craig Lefferts and another player. The proposal quickly was rejected by the Padres, and it's doubtful they can pull off a deal to acquire Burks.

"We have some pitchers they're interested in," McIlvaine said, "and they have some players we're interested in. But I'm not going to trade the 6-foot-6 guy (Benes). I just don't want to give up any of our top pitchers."

The Padres instead are hopeful of making a deal that won't involve starters Bruce Hurst, Greg Harris, Benes, or reliever Randy Myers. He also said right fielder Tony Gwynn, first baseman Fred McGriff and shortstop Tony Fernandez are virtual untouchables.

The Padres also are learning in their trade talks that there's little interest in catcher Benito Santiago. Few teams appear willing to take the chance of acquiring him, then losing him to free agency a year later.

"I don't anticipate moving Benito in the winter meetings," McIlvaine said. "If we sign him, or don't sign him, at least I'll know what our alternatives are. . . . I don't know if he'll be a Padre."

If the Padres are able to sign Tartabull, it appears unlikely Santiago would remain on the team. They already extended their payroll to the brink by taking at least $1 million in extra salary in the Bip Roberts-Myers trade, and likely would not be able to afford Santiago's expected $3-million salary if Tartabull is signed.

The Padres' intrigue with Tartabull, in fact, may also have a bearing on free agent infielder Tim Teufel. The Padres have not negotiated with Teufel for three weeks, and Tuesday the Cincinnati Reds expressed interest.

The Reds lost their utility infielder when Mariano Duncan signed with the Philadelphia Phillies for $6.2 million over three years, guaranteeing $4.5 million over two years. Duncan's first choice was the Padres.

"(McIlvaine) has to work under certain budget restraints that we think are reasonable," Werner said, "but we think we have ample resources to be a contender."

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