Early Returns Favor Braves

With plenty more dollars to be dished in this wild and wacky winter, here is the early line on the winners and losers:

WINNERS

1. Atlanta: Addressing the imbalance between pitching and hitting, the Braves clearly have improved on a team that won 106 games and a seventh consecutive division title but was a disappointment again in the postseason.

They traded Denny Neagle and Michael Tucker to Cincinnati for second baseman Bret Boone and signed free agent right fielder Brian Jordan for $40 million over five years. Jordan brings a football mentality to a conservative clubhouse and Boone provides stability at an unstable position.

The projected lineup includes five players who hit 25 or more home runs last year and five players who were not with the team on opening day in 1997.

"Call up any player who was on our team last season and ask them if they don't feel good about the moves we've made," said General Manager John Schuerholz, who may not be finished.

The Braves are still talking to San Diego outfielder Steve Finley and could be a sleeper in the Kevin Brown sweepstakes. They have even shaken up the coaching staff, replacing hitting instructor Clarence Jones with Don Baylor. Clearing the table, suggests Schuerholz: "New linen, new china, even new crystal."

2. New York Yankees: Seldom does a World Series champion remain intact, but the Yankees will bring back the entire cast, having re-signed free agents Bernie Williams and Scott Brosius while picking up the renegotiated option on David Cone.

The Yankees handed archrival Boston another beating by winning the battle for Williams, a Gold Glove center fielder and American League batting champion who seems to fit best in the New York lineup, but they took a financial drubbing in the process. Victimized by the market and their previous hesitancy in the Williams negotiations, the Yankees ultimately pulled out of escalating negotiations with the dreaded Albert Belle and opted to match Boston's seven-year offer to Williams, closing the deal at $87.5 million, more than a 50% increase from their previous offers over the course of a year.

Said Boston General Manager Dan Duquette: "What it came down to is that I'm not sure Bernie ever really wanted to leave the Yankees, and when George Steinbrenner realized that one of the best all-around players the Yankees have had since Joe DiMaggio was ready to leave, he wouldn't let that happen."

3. Anaheim: The Angels acquired proven power and presence in the $80-million signing of Mo Vaughn, heralding Disney's new commitment. The signing of Randy Johnson would further elevate the Angels' status on the winners list, as well as their playoff potential, clearly distancing the team from its division rivals.

General Manager Bill Bavasi has major work to do if Johnson signs elsewhere, but Vaughn's arrival provides the manpower flexibility to get it done. The Angels did not ask Vaughn to accept weight and character clauses, as the Red Sox did, but Vaughn does have a limited no-trade clause, which the Red Sox refused to give him. He can veto any trade during the first two years of the contract. In subsequent years, he has the right to name six and then eight teams to which he would accept being traded.

4. Cleveland: The Indians' major need would seem to have been a Brown or Johnson, a No. 1-caliber pitcher to match the No. 1s of their playoff rivals, given that the Indians are certain to rout the AL Central again. Instead, General Manager John Hart elected to improve the pitching by improving both the offense and defense with the $32-million signing of free-agent second baseman Roberto Alomar, who puts an end to the revolving door that has seen the Indians employ 16 second baseman since trading Carlos Baerga in midseason of 1996.

There were questions about Alomar's intensity last year in Baltimore, but he should be invigorated playing with his brother, Sandy, and he has a new obligation with his engagement to tennis player Mary Pierce.

"The Braves have three or four number one starters and haven't made it to the World Series in either of the last two years," said Hart, who did improve the bullpen by trading outfielder Brian Giles to Pittsburgh for left-hander Ricardo Rincon. "We've been to the World Series in two of the last four years. I'm very comfortable with our pitching. There are a lot of ways to put together a championship club."

However, owner Richard Jacobs, who sells out his namesake ballpark before the season begins, insists the payroll can't go higher.

"We won't make any money, but we'll have a damn good team," he said of the Alomar addition. "We've got our blocks in place, but a lot of it is luck. Things always look good on paper. Like a marriage certificate."

5. Tie between St. Louis and Arizona: The Cardinals lost two potent bats in free agent Jordan and Ron Gant, who was traded to Philadelphia, but the primary need was to get bullpen help for Juan Acevedo, who blossomed down the stretch, converting 15 of 16 save chances.

Ricky Bottalico came in the Gant trade, and Scott Radinsky was signed as a free agent. The $8-million signing of Eric Davis should help compensate for the Gant/Jordan loss, as should J.D. Drew, who arrived with a bang in September. The Cardinals are vying with the Mets for third baseman Robin Ventura and are lurking in the shadows of the Orioles and Colorado Rockies, who are leading the pursuit of Brown.

The second-year Diamondbacks have a long way to go, of course, but have the financial resources to get there in a hurry. Bank One Ballpark is just that, a cash machine. The signings of Todd Stottlemyre for $32 million and Armando Reynoso for $5.5 million are a significant boost to a rotation that might soon be joined by the Big Unit for about $50 million. A rotation that includes Johnson, Stottlemyre, Andy Benes, Reynoso, Omar Daal and Brian Anderson would be deeper--and better?--than any in the division, particularly if San Diego loses Brown.

LOSERS

1. Boston: The Curse continues. The Red Sox refuse to go beyond five years and $63 million for bellwether Vaughn, then drive up the market for Williams by offering seven years and more than $80 million--only to end up with neither.

Is this a strange operation, or what?

The Red Sox give Pedro Martinez $75 million for six years, sign Jose Offerman for four years at $26 million (no other signing has caused as much industry consternation this winter) and make a big deal of their multiyear commitments to players like Troy O'Leary, Reggie Jefferson and Jeff Frye, but it's adios to the popular Vaughn and Roger Clemens, who has won two straight Cy Young Awards since Duquette said he was in the twilight of his career.

At least Williams remembered to say thanks and that the Red Sox had impressed him before he re-signed with the Yankees. "We impressed him?" Duquette said sarcastically. "That's nice to hear."

2. Baltimore: The Orioles are one of baseball's richest teams but have been encountering a difficult time getting anyone to take their money.

They did sign a potential closer by going to $16 million over four years for Mike Timlin, but Alomar went to Cleveland, Davis to St. Louis and reliever Alan Mills to the Dodgers. Jordan snubbed their five-year offer to sign with Atlanta, and outfielder B.J. Surhoff may leave to join the Mets or Pirates.

The result is that the Orioles likely will overpay to retain Rafael Palmeiro and threaten clubhouse sanity by signing Belle for $13 million per over five years. Belle is not exactly the athletic type that new General Manager Frank Wren had hoped to rebuild the outfield with, but he could challenge Mark McGwire's home run record in Camden Yards.

The Orioles also could escape the loser list if they sign Brown. Money should be no object.

The Orioles had baseball's highest payroll last year and owner Peter Angelos, who recently made a $500-million offer for the Washington Redskins, reportedly will receive a $600-million minimum fee for representing Maryland in its $2.4-billion legal victory over the tobacco industry.

3. Houston: The Astros added a gamer and strengthened an already strong lineup by reacquiring Ken Caminiti as a free agent, but any team losing a No. 1-caliber pitcher who was 10-1 in half a season in a new league has to feel the loss. The Astros offered Johnson three years in the range of $33 million to $36 million but bowed out when the Diamondbacks, Rangers, Angels and Dodgers went to four years.

General Manager Jerry Hunsicker says the Astros will not try to replace Johnson with a big-ticket pitcher, relying on the pre-Johnson unit of Shane Reynolds, Mike Hampton and Jose Lima.

"We were on our way to winning a division championship without Randy," Hunsicker said. "Certainly he added excitement and a significant piece to our club. But as we all found out in the postseason, one person does not make the difference between winning and losing."

Not everyone in Houston, however, is shutting their mind to the addition of a big-ticket pitcher. Should Toronto decide to trade Clemens for financial reasons, his hometown Astros will be on the phone, which is why Caminiti, who wore No. 21 in San Diego, chose No. 29 in Houston, leaving No. 21 for the possible acquisition of the Rocket.

Whether it's the uniform or paycheck, baseball is strictly a numbers game.

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Free-Agent Market in Major Leagues

REMAINING FREE AGENTS

The 109 remaining free agents (x-club option for 1999; y-player option for 1999; r-may revert to previous contract through Wednesday:

AMERICAN LEAGUE

* ANGELS (7)--Mike Fetters, rhp; Gregg Jefferies, of; Chad Kreuter, c; Jack McDowell, rhp; Craig Shipley, ss; Randy Velarde, 2b; Trevor Wilson, lhp.

* BALTIMORE (5)--Doug Drabek, rhp; Jimmy Key, lhp; Rafael Palmeiro, 1b; Pete Smith, rhp; B.J. Surhoff, of.

* BOSTON (6)--Steve Avery, lhp; Dennis Eckersley, rhp; Butch Henry, lhp; Mark Lemke, 2b; Tim Naehring, 3b; Pete Schourek, lhp.

* CHICAGO (4)--Jim Abbott, lhp; r-Albert Belle, of; Wil Cordero, of; Robin Ventura, 3b.

* CLEVELAND (6)--Pat Borders, c; Jeff Branson, 3b; Joey Cora, 2b; Doug Jones, rhp; Jim Poole, lhp; Mark Whiten, of.

* DETROIT (2)--Geronimo Berroa, of; Frank Castillo, rhp.

* KANSAS CITY (7)--Tim Belcher, rhp; Ricky Bones, rhp; Scott Leius, 3b; Shane Mack, of; Jeff Montgomery, rhp; Hal Morris, 1b; Terry Pendleton, 3b.

* MINNESOTA (4)--Paul Molitor, 1b; Otis Nixon, of; Terry Steinbach, c; Bob Tewksbury, rhp.

* NEW YORK (2)--Tim Raines, of; x-Darryl Strawberry, of.

* OAKLAND (6)--Mike Blowers, 3b; Rickey Henderson, of; Mike Macfarlane, c; Dave Magadan, 3b; Bip Roberts, of; Ed Sprague, 3b.

* SEATTLE (5)--Rich Amaral, of; John Marzano, c; Joe Oliver, c; Heathcliff Slocumb, rhp; Bill Swift, rhp.

* TEXAS (7)--Scott Bailes, lhp; Greg Cadaret, lhp; Will Clark, 1b; Royce Clayton, ss; Bill Haselman, c; Xavier Hernandez, rhp; Roger Pavlik, rhp.

* TORONTO (4)--Jose Canseco, of; Juan Samuel, 2b; Benito Santiago, c; Dave Stieb, rhp.

*

NATIONAL LEAGUE

* DODGERS (3)--Jim Eisenreich, of; Mark Guthrie, lhp; Tom Prince, c.

* ARIZONA (1)--Andy Stankiewicz, ss.

* ATLANTA (4)--Rafael Belliard, ss; Norm Charlton, lhp; Ozzie Guillen, ss; Dennis Martinez, rhp.

* CHICAGO (8)--Mark Clark, rhp; Gary Gaetti, 3b; Chris Haney, lhp; Glenallen Hill, of; Orlando Merced, of; Mike Morgan, rhp; Henry Rodriguez, of; Scott Servais, c.

* COLORADO (2)--Kirt Manwaring, c; Mike Munoz, lhp.

* HOUSTON (4)--Sean Berry, 3b; Tim Bogar, ss; Randy Johnson, lhp; Mike Magnante, lhp.

* MILWAUKEE (2)--Darrin Jackson, of; John Jaha, 1b.

* NEW YORK (3)--Carlos Baerga, 2b; Tony Phillips, of; Armando Reynoso, rhp.

* PHILADELPHIA (3)--Mark Lewis, 3b; Mark Parent, c; Mark Portugal, rhp.

* ST. LOUIS (5)--Delino DeShields, 2b; Pat Kelly, 2b; Tom Lampkin, c; Willie McGee, of; Bobby Witt, rhp.

* SAN DIEGO (4)--Kevin Brown, rhp; Steve Finley, of; Carlos Hernandez, c; Mark Langston, lhp.

* SAN FRANCISCO (5)--Joe Carter, of; Danny Darwin, rhp; Shawon Dunston, ss; Orel Hershiser, rhp; Rey Sanchez, ss.

FREE-AGENT SIGNINGS

The 26 free agents who have signed, with name, position, former club if different, and contract. The contract information was obtained by The Associated Press from player and management sources. For players with minor league contracts, letter agreements for major league contracts are in parentheses:

*

AMERICAN LEAGUE

* ANGELS (1)--Signed Mo Vaughn, 1b, Boston, to an $80-million, six-year contract.

* BALTIMORE (1)--Signed Mike Timlin, rhp, Seattle, to a $16-million, four-year contract.

* BOSTON (1)--Signed Jose Offerman, ss-2b, to a $26-million, four-year contract.

* CLEVELAND (1)--Signed Roberto Alomar, 2b, Baltimore, to a $32-million, four-year contract.

* DETROIT (1)--Signed Dean Palmer, 3b, Kansas City, to a $36-million, five-year contract.

* NEW YORK (3)--Re-signed Scott Brosius, 3b, to a $15.75-million, three-year contract; re-signed David Cone, rhp, to an $8-million, one-year contract; re-signed Bernie Williams, of, to an $87.5-million, seven-year contract.

* SEATTLE (1)--Signed Jose Mesa, rhp, San Francisco, to a $6.45-million, two-year contract.

*

NATIONAL LEAGUE

* DODGERS (2)--Signed Alan Mills, rhp, Baltimore, to a $6.5-million, three-year contract; signed Devon White, of, Arizona, to a $12.4-million, three-year contract.

* ARIZONA (4)--Signed Todd Stottlemyre, rhp, Texas, to a $32-million, four-year contract; signed Greg Swindell, lhp, Boston, to a $5.7-million, three-year contract; signed Greg Colbrunn, 1b, Atlanta, to a $1.8-million, two-year contract; signed Armando Reynoso, rhp, New York Mets, to a $5.25-million, two-year contract.

* ATLANTA (1)--Signed Brian Jordan, of, St. Louis, to a $40-million, five-year contract.

* COLORADO (2)--Signed Lenny Harris, of, New York Mets, to a $2.2-million, two-year contract; signed Brian Bohanon, lhp, Dodgers, to a $10-million, three-year contract.

* HOUSTON (1)--Signed Ken Caminiti, 3b, Houston, to a $9.5-million, two-year contract.

* NEW YORK (1)--Re-signed Dennis Cook, lhp, to a $6.6-million, three-year contract.

* PITTSBURGH (1)--Signed Mike Benjamin, 2b, Boston, to a $1.4-million, two-year contract.

* SAN DIEGO (1)--Re-signed John Vander Wal, of, to a $1.75-million, two-year contract.

* SAN FRANCISCO (2)--Re-signed Mark Gardner, rhp, to a $5-million, two-year contract; re-signed Ellis Burks, of, to a $10-million, two-year contract.

* ST. LOUIS (2)--Signed Eric Davis, of, Baltimore, to an $8-million, two-year contract; signed Scott Radinsky, lhp, Dodgers, to a $5.5-illion, two-year contract.

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