Word circulating among Angel players is that Anaheim is a “lead-pipe lock” to land free-agent pitcher Randy Johnson. Fact or wishful thinking? The answer should come today when the 6-foot-10 left-hander is expected to choose which team makes him some $50 million richer over the next four years.
The Arizona Diamondbacks are just as confident as the Angels, the Dodgers remain highly optimistic, and the Texas Rangers are clinging to fading hopes of acquiring the ace whose decision will go a long way toward determining who wins the West, either in the American or National League.
“If I were to rate the teams, Arizona would have to be the hometown favorite,” agent Alan Nero said, alluding to Johnson’s home within a half-hour of Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.
“The Angels and Dodgers would be a coin toss, and then there’s Texas. Los Angeles has a lot going for it with [Manager] Davey Johnson and [General Manager] Kevin Malone, and Anaheim has a lot going for it because it’s in the A.L. West, and Randy is comfortable there.”
Johnson spent more than eight seasons with the Seattle Mariners, leading them to division titles over the second-place Angels in 1995 and ’97 before being traded to Houston last July 31.
Johnson wants to play for a contender near his Phoenix home, preferably one with a spring-training complex in Arizona, and has told players he would prefer to return to the American League.
The Angels, who signed first baseman Mo Vaughn to a six-year, $80-million contract Wednesday, would seem to be a perfect fit--filling just about all of Johnson’s criteria.
But the expansion Diamondbacks have come on strong with the recent signings of free-agent pitchers Todd Stottlemyre and Armando Reynoso and owner Jerry Colangelo’s aggressive approach.
“Arizona has done everything it can do to show Randy it wants to win now,” Nero said, “and that makes the decision even tougher.”
Manager Terry Collins spoke with Johnson by phone Sunday but said he did not get a feel for which way “the Big Unit” was leaning.
“I just threw my two cents in and told him we’d love to have him,” Collins said. “He said one of the reasons he came to Anaheim [Nov. 20] was that he wants to play there, and he hoped he could get a deal worked out. He also said he thought it was great we signed Mo.”
Vaughn spoke to Johnson before signing with the Angels and vowed to continue his recruiting efforts over the Thanksgiving weekend but, as of early Sunday evening, he was unable to reach Johnson.
“I left him several messages, but he hasn’t gotten back to me--he’s probably got a lot on his mind,” Vaughn said. “I think we have a good shot of getting him because of the way the Angels were with me.”
Colangelo also spoke to Johnson Sunday and said: “I’m still very positive. We’ve been in the finals all along.”
Malone, the Dodger general manager, has been in constant contact with Johnson’s agents and believes his team is “right in the thick of” the Johnson sweepstakes.
“Until I get a yea or nay, I will stay optimistic,” Malone said. “I think we’ll win with or without Randy, but he would definitely help us achieve our goals. We’re going to win no matter what. I hope he wants to be a part of it.”
The Dodgers are in need of an ace to replace Ramon Martinez, who missed much of 1998 because of rotator cuff surgery and is questionable for 1999. The Angels need a dominant starter to prop up a rotation that is currently led by aging left-hander Chuck Finley and injury-plagued right-hander Ken Hill.
The future of Angel outfielders Jim Edmonds and Garret Anderson could also hinge on Johnson’s decision. Vaughn’s signing will push first baseman Darin Erstad back to the outfield, and if the Angels don’t land Johnson, they will likely dangle Edmonds as trade bait for a dominant starter.
The Angels, according to baseball sources, have discussed a potential deal with the Pirates that would send Edmonds, their Gold Glove center fielder, to Pittsburgh for pitcher Francisco Cordova, a 26-year-old right-hander who was 13-14 with a 3.31 earned-run average last season, and speedy second baseman Tony Womack, who hit .282 with 58 stolen bases, 85 runs and 45 runs batted in.
They have also discussed potential deals with the Toronto Blue Jays, who have been interested in Edmonds for years and appear willing to part with Pat Hentgen and, possibly, Roger Clemens.
But if the Angels sign Johnson, eliminating their need for an ace, they would be more inclined to keep Edmonds and attempt to trade Anderson for a No. 3 or 4 starter, adding depth to their rotation and replacing Anderson in left field with Erstad.
Staff writer Steve Springer contributed to this story.