1999 Winter Meetings: All About Junior

This article was written by Steve West

This article was published in the Baseball’s Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016


Baseball's Business: The Winter Meetings: 1958-2016

The Winter Meetings of 1999 were held at the Marriott Hotel in Anaheim, California, just down the road from Disneyland. However, “I’m not coming to Anaheim to go to Disneyland,” Reds GM Jim Bowden said, stating that his sole goal for going to the winter meetings was to acquire Ken Griffey Jr.1 Indeed, Griffey was the top prize being offered at the meetings, where teams were expected neither to spend much money on a weak free-agent class nor make many trades until Griffey’s future was resolved.

Griffey was everyone’s focal point leading up to the meetings. Right after the 1999 season was over, Seattle management had asked his intentions when his contract expired after the 2000 season. Griffey told them he would probably move to a team closer to his home in Florida. When the Mariners said they would prefer to trade him instead of losing him to free agency, Griffey agreed to be traded to one of four teams: Atlanta, Cincinnati, Houston, or the New York Mets.2 With that, the Griffey deal became the linchpin of the meetings, with everyone expecting the outcome of that transaction to cause a cascade of other transactions.3

Although every team was represented at the meetings, not all general managers were there. “There are more lies told in the lobby of winter meetings than anywhere on the face of the earth at any one time,” said Braves GM John Schuerholz, which was perhaps the reason he attended for only a couple of days.4 White Sox GM Ron Schueler said he would skip the meetings because they were just a showcase for agents to bid up the price of their free agents.5 He sent the club’s vice president of player development, Kenny Williams, instead, leading to speculation that the White Sox were going to make a change in the front office, although that was denied by the team. And Yankees owner George Steinbrenner forbade his top lieutenants to go to Anaheim, saying that it was a waste of time, although GM Brian Cashman did work and make deals via the phone.

With a bumper crop of players scheduled to become free agents after the 2000 season — Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Mike Mussina, and Andy Pettitte among them — numerous teams were holding fire with their money, hoping to snag one of those superstars in a year’s time. Because of that, the free-agent market was slow, which in turn made trading a seller’s delight, with teams demanding a high price for their players. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Giants GM Brian Sabean said.6

On the other hand, agent Jeff Moorad had coined the term “accelerated free agency” to describe the case of teams trading their players a year before free agency, and those players signing long-term deals with their new team.7 With all those star players coming to the last years of their pre-free-agency deals, there was the possibility that the winter meetings could see a lot of activity. “It’s obviously preferred to make a trade in advance of free agency and presumably get something to help you in the future rather than let a player walk and get nothing in return,” said Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker.8 Agent Barry Meister took a different tack: “I don’t suspect a flurry of activity. There might be later, but probably not right now.”9

There had already been some blockbuster deals earlier in the offseason. At the start of November, the Rangers had jumped ahead of one of their own players with one year left on his contract, two-time MVP Juan Gonzalez, by trading the outfielder to Detroit in a nine-player deal.10 There was more activity at the general managers’ meetings, held in Dana Point, California, in mid-November. The Blue Jays traded OF Shawn Green to the Dodgers, who quickly signed him to a six-year, $84 million deal. The Blue Jays also sent right-hander Pat Hentgen, the 1996 Cy Young Award winner, to the Cardinals, while the Phillies acquired pitcher Andy Ashby from the Padres.11 But all that activity wasn’t expected to be repeated at the Winter Meetings.

In the days leading up to the Winter Meetings there was some movement. Early in the week first baseman John Olerud left the Mets, signing a three-year, $20 million deal with his hometown Seattle Mariners. The day before the meetings began, the Astros and Craig Biggio signed a three-year, $28 million contract extension, making him the highest-paid second baseman in baseball. “You are talking about a very special player. He probably means as much as any player in the history of this franchise,” Hunsicker said.12 That same day, the Rockies agreed a two-year, $4.15 million contract with catcher Brent Mayne, and the Red Sox signed outfielder Damon Buford for two years and $2.2 million. Then outfielder-DH Harold Baines, whom Baltimore had traded to the Cleveland Indians for the last couple of months of the pennant race, returned to the Orioles for $2 million on a one-year deal.

The Winter Meetings officially began on Friday, December 10, and they began with calamity for Philadelphia. The Phillies had done all their work early, and were headed to the meetings without plans for anything big. They had traded for starter Andy Ashby earlier in the offseason, and signed free agent right-handers Mike Jackson and Jeff Brantley. “Do we have to make a deal? Not necessarily. Do we want to make a deal? Yes, if it makes sense,” said GM Ed Wade.13 Those plans were disrupted on Friday, when the club announced that its top starter, right-hander Curt Schilling, would undergo shoulder surgery and miss the first couple of months of the 2000 season. The Phillies quickly moved to fill that hole, acquiring right-handed pitcher Chris Brock on Sunday from the San Francisco Giants for catcher Bobby Estalella.

Also on Friday, a couple of big deals were announced. In a switch of left-handed relief pitchers, Baltimore traded Jesse Orosco to the Mets for Chuck McElroy. Orosco was returning to the scene of his greatest triumph, having been on the mound when the Mets won the 1986 World Series. Orosco’s time in Baltimore came to an end because the Orioles had hired Mike Hargrove as manager. In 1991 while together in Cleveland, Hargrove hadn’t used Orosco enough to kick in some bonus money his contract called for, and Orosco was still sore about that. “I had a nice run in Baltimore. I just don’t want anything to be a controversy,” he said.14

Another of the accelerated free-agency deals occurred on Friday, but this time first baseman Carlos Delgado agreed to a three-year, $36 million deal to stay with the Toronto Blue Jays and forgo his free agency, which was a year away. However, Delgado negotiated a clause that allowed him to demand a trade after the 2000 World Series if he wanted, and if the team did not comply, then he could become a free agent.15

In other news, catcher Joe Girardi ended his four-year stay with the Yankees, signing with his original club, the Chicago Cubs, for three years and $5.5 million.16

The Griffey talks began heating up on Saturday. In the weeks leading up to the meetings, things had been falling apart between the Mariners and their star outfielder. Griffey had given the Mariners the list of four teams he would be willing to be traded to, but after the Mariners brought him several proposals from teams that were not on that list, Griffey decided that it would be Cincinnati — where he went to high school, and where his father was coaching — or nothing.17 Even so, Mariners GM Pat Gillick was still trying to move him, and not just to the Reds. “I’m optimistic we’ll be able to trade (Griffey) at the meetings,” said Gillick. “I wouldn’t say it’s definite, but I do think it’s possible.”18

Because Cincinnati was his hometown, the Reds figured they were in the catbird seat for Griffey, but on Saturday they gave up, breaking off talks between the two teams as they felt the Mariners’ demands were too high. “We have a better chance of bringing Goofy back than Griffey,” Bowden said.19 The Reds had tried hard but were frustrated with the Mariners. “We wouldn’t have wasted five hours a day for three months not trying to acquire him. But we didn’t move a centimeter, let alone an inch,” said Bowden.

The biggest obstacle to a deal was the Reds’ refusal to give up young second baseman Pokey Reese. Reese said he was flattered. “To get Ken home to Cincinnati, I’d have made the deal. I’m honored my name was used in the same sentence as his.”20

Mariners GM Gillick said he understood the Reds’ position, but indicated things weren’t completely closed between the two teams. “I don’t think you can ever shut the door on anything,” he said.21 For his part, Bowden’s frustration was clear: “I’ve made 12 to 15 offers. Pat and I have had dialogue almost every day.”22

Other teams were, of course, still interested in Griffey. The Braves had been on Griffey’s original shortlist, and had discussions with Gillick. The Mariners reportedly asked the Braves for both center fielder Andruw Jones and right-handed pitcher Kevin Millwood in return for Griffey. The Braves declined, with manager Bobby Cox saying “I think the price is a little steep.”23

In a sign that Gillick was working all the angles, he agreed to a deal with the Mets on Monday that sent right-handed pitchers Armando Benitez and Octavio Dotel and outfielder Roger Cedeño to Seattle for Griffey. This reportedly was the same transaction that the Mets had offered Cleveland for Ramirez, one that the Indians had rejected.24 This trade with the Mariners was also rejected, but this time by Griffey, who had the right to approve any swap as a 10-and-5 player (10 years in the majors, the last five with the same team). When the Mariners called Griffey’s agent, Brian Goldberg, to talk about the trade, he told them no. After the Reds had backed out of trade talks, Goldberg said, “I don’t know why Seattle is wasting its time talking to a bunch of teams. If he can’t go to Cincinnati, then he’s going back to Seattle for the final year of his contract.”25

In other news on Saturday, the Red Sox traded Buford — who just two days earlier had agreed to a two-year contract — to the Chicago Cubs for infielder Manny Alexander. Then, late Saturday night, infielder (and former catcher) Todd Zeile agreed a three-year, $18 million contract with the Mets. Zeile had spent the afternoon in the Rangers’ suite, trying to work out a deal to stay in Texas, and went to dinner with his wife and agent to discuss the contract offer, but late in the evening the Mets pounced and quickly got their man. “The fact is I have always wanted the opportunity to play in New York City,” Zeile said.26 The Mets wanted him to move from third base to first to replace Olerud. “That transition will not be a difficult one for him,” said Mets GM Steve Phillips. “He’s done it in the past.”27

Sunday was a day of rest, with plenty of talk but little action. The Diamondbacks re-signed infielder-outfielder Tony Womack for four years and $17 million. They planned to move Womack, who had led the National League in steals the last three seasons, from the outfield to become their full-time shortstop.

The Cubs made a move for the third straight day, pushing ahead with their plan to try to become a team made up of more than just Sammy Sosa. They traded right-handers Terry Adams and Chad Ricketts and a player to be named later to the Los Angeles Dodgers for right-handed pitcher Ismael Valdez and second baseman Eric Young. A few days after the meetings the Cubs sent another right-hander, minor-league pitcher Brian Stephenson, to the Dodgers to complete the deal. The Dodgers openly admitted their reasons for the trade — they were cutting payroll. “This is more than a talent issue, cost efficiency is what we’re trying to do,” said Dodgers GM Kevin Malone.28

On the business side of things not much was happening. The biggest story of the week was about third baseman Adrian Beltre. International players were ineligible to be signed until they were 16 years old, but Beltre claimed he was 15 when he originally signed with the Dodgers, and now his agent, Scott Boras, wanted him declared a free agent. Just before the meetings, MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations, Sandy Alderson, said there would be no ruling until the end of the week. This frustrated Boras, who felt that if Beltre was not set free until after the meetings, many teams would have already acted, reducing the potential market for his client.29 As it happened, Commissioner Bud Selig did not issue a ruling until a week after the meetings, when he penalized the Dodgers with fines and suspensions, and the closing of their Dominican Republic facility for a year. He also awarded Beltre compensation for signing too young, but did not make him a free agent, saying he had been complicit with the Dodgers in falsifying documents that showed him to be a year older than he was.30

On Thursday Jeffrey Loria was introduced as the new owner and CEO of the Montreal Expos. The New York art dealer paid $75 million for 35 percent of the club, and said that the Expos would stay in Montreal for the long term.31 Locals believed that if Loria had not gotten involved the team would have been sold and moved to the United States.32 Loria also said the team’s payroll would jump from $17 million to the mid-$40s by 2002.33

In other ownership news, a bid by Mike Prentice to buy the Kansas City Royals had been rejected at the general managers’ meetings in November, and Major League Baseball had said it would never approve him because he did not have the funds necessary to cover any potential losses. MLB was aware that the trend of teams wanting to win at any cost, rather than to make money, was a bad one for the future of the sport. “As big a problem as anything in the industry is that a lot of teams are not interested in operating at a profit. If people aren’t in business to make money then there’s no limit to what they are willing to spend,” said Astros GM Hunsicker before the meetings began.34 The Royals spent the whole winter trying to find local bidders for the team, with CEO David Glass eventually being approved as owner in April.35

A man named Socrates Babacus showed up at the Winter Meetings, bringing his personal circus to Anaheim. Babacus, a businessman from Massachusetts, had made several prior bids for professional sports teams, notably in the NFL, and now said he wanted to offer $120 million for the Minnesota Twins. Babacus might charitably be called a dreamer, floating plans for a $350 million retractable-roof stadium for the Twins, similar to other ideas he had for the Philadelphia Eagles and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His most notable baseball contribution might have been in telling the media at the meetings that Twins officials had told him the team had been taken off the market by owner Carl Pohlad.36

During the meetings, umpires were making news across the country in Philadelphia. The Major League Umpires Association had followed a disastrous plan during the 1999 season. Intending to force MLB to open negotiations on a new contract, almost all umpires submitted resignation letters in July, which to their surprise were accepted. After a flurry of activity, many of the umpires were allowed to rescind their resignations, but MLB held out on 22 of them, leading to lawsuits and arbitration, and eventually the decertification of the union, with a group of umpires forming a separate union. Now, the old union was in court fighting for survival and to retain jobs, but eventually the umpires would lose almost every fight and several would never umpire again.

Weekend talks bore fruit on Monday. The Yankees traded Chad Curtis — hero of Game Three of the 1999 World Series — to the Texas Rangers for minor-league right-handed pitchers Sam Marsonek and Brandon Knight. The Marlins swapped outfielders with Pittsburgh, sending Bruce Aven to the Pirates for Brant Brown.

A much bigger deal took place later in the day, with a rare four-team trade going down. Oakland sent right-handed pitcher Jimmy Haynes to Milwaukee. The Brewers sent cash to Oakland, and third baseman Jeff Cirillo and lefty pitcher Scott Karl to Colorado. Tampa Bay sent right-hander Rolando Arrojo and infielder Aaron Ledesma to Colorado. And the Rockies, centerpiece of all the action, sent right-handed pitcher Justin Miller to Oakland, catcher Henry Blanco and right-handed pitcher Jamey Wright to Milwaukee, and third baseman Vinny Castilla — the last of the original Rockies — to Tampa Bay. Even though it took all these moving parts to get the trade done, it could have been even bigger. “There almost was another team involved if I could have gotten another type of player,” said Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd.37 By the end of the Winter Meetings the Rockies had totally overhauled their roster, acquiring 15 players since the World Series.

From the Brewers’ perspective, it was a good day. “One of our primary goals at this meeting was to upgrade our pitching and catching situations,” GM Dean Taylor said.38 They did that in one fell swoop, receiving two pitchers and a catcher in the deal.

That same day the Devil Rays also signed outfielder Greg Vaughn to a four-year, $34 million contract. The addition of Vaughn and Castilla to a lineup that already contained Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff had the media calling them a new Murderers Row.39

In other news on Monday, Boston closer Tom Gordon had reconstructive elbow surgery, and the Red Sox said he would miss the entire 2000 season. Between 1998 and 1999, the right-hander recorded a major-league record 54 consecutive saves, but then struggled with arm injuries throughout the rest of the 1999 season.

Monday was also the day for the annual Rule 5 draft. Teams are able to take certain minor leaguers from other systems and add them to their major-league rosters. Of the dozen or so players taken each year, one or two occasionally stand out, and it was no different this year. Right-hander Chad Ogea was the rare case of a player with significant major-league experience being taken in the draft. Ogea had pitched six years in the majors, and had even won two games in the 1997 World Series, but had slumped the last couple of years, and been released by the Phillies after the 1999 season. Despite interest from the Rays, he had signed a minor-league deal with the Detroit Tigers. This made him eligible for the draft, and the Rays decided to bring him in after all, although as it would turn out, he would never pitch in the majors again.

It was not known at the time but that draft contained a much more significant pick. The Twins, drafting first, picked a right-handed pitcher named Jared Camp from the Indians’ minor leagues. In a prearranged deal, the Marlins then picked southpaw Johan Santana from the Astros, then sent Santana and $50,000 to the Twins for Camp, meaning the Twins essentially got Santana for nothing, as the money covered the draft fee. Camp never pitched in the majors, while Santana went on to win two Cy Young Awards, in 2004 and 2006.

On Tuesday, the last day of the meetings, very little took place as teams began to get out of town. The most notable event was Pittsburgh signing outfielder Wil Cordero to a three-year, $9 million deal. Cordero, joining his fourth team in four seasons, had missed three months in 1999 with a broken wrist, and had not received many offers since recent criminal incidents (a conviction for assaulting his wife in 1997 and an arrest for assault at the start of 1999). The Pirates, though, felt that his past was behind him, with GM Cam Bonifay saying “Since then he’s done everything asked of him. … We did a lot of research about it and we feel very comfortable with him.”40

A number of discussions begun in Anaheim came to fruition after the meetings were over. The day after the meetings ended, the Astros traded outfielder Carl Everett to the Red Sox for two minor leaguers, shortstop Adam Everett (no relation) and left-hander Greg Miller. The Red Sox had been hoping to delay the deal until they could sign Everett to a long-term contract, but with several teams waiting in the wings on Everett, they decided to go ahead and make the trade.41

On Wednesday the Astros also announced that southpaw Mike Hampton had told them he would not sign a contract extension and would become a free agent after the 2000 season. Although Hampton’s agent said that it was about opportunity and not a slam on the Astros, the move threw Houston for a loop. “Mike is signed for one more year,” said Gerry Hunsicker. “We have to decide if playing him another year makes more sense than trying to trade him.”42 It took them less than a week to decide as they sent Hampton and outfielder Derek Bell to the Mets on December 23, for Dotel and the just-acquired Cedeño, plus left-handed pitcher Kyle Kessel.

In free-agent moves after the meetings, first baseman-outfielder Jeff Conine decided to stay with the Orioles for two years at $5.75 million, right-hander Orel Hershiser returned to the Dodgers for a year and $2 million, and in one of the bigger deals of the offseason, lefty Chuck Finley ended his 14-year tenure with the Angels by signing a three-year, $27 million contract with the Cleveland Indians.

Looking back, the 1999 Winter Meetings were all about Ken Griffey Jr. There had been some big trades before the meetings, and there were several lesser deals and free-agent signings during the meetings, but for most it was just a matter of waiting for resolution on Griffey, which would cause a domino effect with other deals. As it was, nothing happened with Griffey, which in many ways made the 1999 meetings a dud. It took until February for the Mariners and Reds to finally get together and complete a trade. The Mariners sent Griffey to Cincinnati, and in return got outfielder Mike Cameron, infielder Antonio Perez, and right-handed pitchers Jake Meyer and Brett Tomko. Away from the white-hot spotlight of the Winter Meetings, it all felt a little anticlimactic. So many teams had held fire, waiting for the following year, which would prove to be much more explosive.

 

Notes

1 “Griffey Is Top Prize as Baseball Meetings Begin,” Walla Walla (Washington) Union-Bulletin, December 10, 1999: 17.

2 Jeff Horrigan, “Elder Griffey Understands Why Reds Won’t Part With Reese,” Laurel (Mississippi) Leader-Call, December 18, 1999: 6B.

3 “Few Moves Expected at Winter Talks,” The Capital (Annapolis, Maryland), December 10, 1999: D1.

4 “Quote, Unquote,” Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World, December 12, 1999: 2C.

5 Tracy Ringolsby, “More Teams Turning to Accelerated Free Agency,” Stars and Stripes, December 12, 1999: 34.

6 “Few Moves Expected at Winter Talks.”

7 Ringolsby, “More Teams Turning.”

8 Ibid.

9 “Few Moves Expected at Winter Talks.”

10 Catcher Gregg Zaun and right-handed pitcher Danny Patterson went to Detroit with Gonzalez, while the Tigers sent utilityman Frank Catalanotto, right-handed pitcher Francisco Cordero, left-handed pitchers Justin Thompson and Alan Webb, catcher Bill Haselman, and outfielder Gabe Kapler to Texas.

11 Green and infielder Jorge Nuñez were sent to the Dodgers for left-hander Pedro Borbon and outfielder Raul Mondesi, the 1994 NL Rookie of the Year. Hentgen and southpaw Paul Spoljaric were shipped to St. Louis in exchange for catcher Alberto Castillo and a pair of hurlers: righty Matt DeWitt and lefty Lance Painter. Ashby went to the Phillies and Adam Eaton, Carlton Loewer and Steve Montgomery — all right-handed pitchers — became Padres.

12 “Astros Make Biggio Second to None at Position,” The Capital (Annapolis, Maryland), December 10, 1999: D2. Biggio would be elected to the Hall of Fame in 2015.

13 Randy Miller, “Wade Will Tread Cautiously,” Doylestown (Pennsylvania) Intelligencer Record, December 9, 1999: 34.

14 “Orosco Traded to Mets,” Frederick (Maryland) News-Post, December 11, 1999: B1.

15 Ben Walker, “Schilling Set for Surgery, Delgado Stays With Jays,” Rockford (Illinois) Register Star, December 11, 1999: 6E.

16 Bruce Miles, “Baby Steps To Contending Start With Girardi,” Chicago Daily Herald, December 16, 1999: B-3.

17 Jeff Horrigan, “Elder Griffey Understands.”

18 “Griffey is Top Prize as Baseball Meetings Begin.”

19 “Reds, Mariners Break Off Talks,” Lethbridge (Alberta) Herald, December 12, 1999: A12.

20 “No New York State Of Mind for Junior,” Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune, December 15, 1999: B2.

21 “Reds, Mariners Break Off Talks.”

22 “Griffey Is Top Prize as Baseball Meetings Begin.”

23 “Griffey Jr. Price Tag Tough to Meet,” Lethbridge Herald, December 13, 1999: B3.

24 “Cubs Keep Busy, Swap for Valdes and Young,” Santa Fe New Mexican, December 13, 1999: B1.

25 Ben Walker, “Griffey Blocks Trade to Mets in Near-Miss,” Daily Sitka (Alaska) Sentinel, December 14, 1999: 6.

26 “Cubs Add Depth With Trade While Dodgers Cut Payroll,” Lethbridge Herald, December 13, 1999: B3.

27 “Mets sign Zeile; Cubs Make Trade With Los Angeles,” Hutchinson (Kansas) News, December 13, 1999: B1.

28 Ibid.

29 Ringolsby, “More Teams Turning.”

30 Murray Chass, “Dodgers Get to Keep Beltre, But are Penalized,” New York Times, December 22, 1999.

31 “Expos’ Saviour Making Plans for New Team,” Brandon (Manitoba) Sun, December 10, 1999: 11.

32 Ibid.

33 Ringolsby, “More Teams Turning.”

34 Ibid.

35 “Sale of Royals to Glass Approved,” Aberdeen (South Dakota) Daily News, April 18, 2000: 2B.

36 Ringolsby, “More Teams Turning.”

37 “Junior Says No to Mets,” Syracuse (New York) Herald-Journal, December 14, 1999: D5.

38 Ben Walker, “Castilla Traded in Four-Team Deal,” Estherville (Iowa) Daily News, December 14, 1999: 10.

39 Ben Walker, “Tampa Has Devil of Day With Trades, Signings,” Lethbridge Herald, December 14, 1999: B1.

40 “Cordero Signs Three-Year Deal With Pirates,” Sandusky (Ohio) Register, December 15, 1999: B1.

41 Jimmy Golen (Associated Press), “Astros Trade Everett for Two Minor Leaguers,” Galveston (Texas) Daily News, December 16, 1999: B3.

42 “Hampton Won’t Sign as Houston Trades Bat,” Amarillo (Texas) Daily News, December 16, 1999: 4E.

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