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2-year deal should get Martinez

Will this be the week that one of the contenders buys a division title?

The unrestricted trading deadline is Saturday night, and ex-Orioles right-hander Dennis Martinez is the biggest prize on the block -- and he's in a position to call his own shot. As a 10-year veteran with five years with his current team (the Montreal Expos), Martinez has veto rights over any trade.

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The word is that Martinez prefers to stay in the National League because he needs only five more victories to complete one of baseball's rare feats -- 100 wins in each league (he had 108 with the Orioles). That, however, may not preclude a return visit to the American League.

Martinez also has expressed a desire to finish his career in Florida, where he makes his home and is active in the community. He could accept a trade to the American League, then go back to the NL, possibly to Florida, as a free agent at the end of the year.

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The rumor mill says the San Francisco Giants are the strongest pursuers of Martinez, with the New York Yankees also showing interest. But don't rule out the Toronto Blue Jays, who desperately need an additional starter.

GM Pat Gillick demonstrated a year ago (in the deal for David Cone) that he's willing to trade prospects for a potential free agent -- and collect additional draft choices when the free agent leaves. The Orioles would be interested in bringing Martinez back to Baltimore under similar circumstances, but GM Roland Hemond is reluctant to part with blue-chip prospects.

The Cincinnati Reds' Tim Belcher is also available, and his situation is less complicated because he doesn't have veto power over any trade. It has been speculated for weeks that Belcher would end up with the Chicago White Sox, but the Yankees are said to be a strong contender, too.

Negotiations for Martinez could go right to the deadline. And the team willing to give him a two-year extension can buy an expensive chance at a division title.

Pop quiz

Quickie quiz: What former Orioles pitcher came within one victory of winning at least 100 games in both the AL and NL?

Jose who?

When the Texas Rangers packaged Ruben Sierra, Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell in last year's blockbuster deal for Jose Canseco, they figured they had solidified their offense for three years. But they hardly figured they'd be better without Canseco.

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Yet that's what the early returns indicate. Before Canseco went on the disabled list the Rangers had a 31-39 record. In 25 games since they are 18-7.

Canseco was supposed to team with Juan Gonzalez, Dean Palmer and Rafael Palmeiro to give the Rangers perhaps the most feared offense in baseball. The Rangers have managed to live up to the billing -- but without Canseco.

In the 25 games since the controversial slugger went on the DL (because of an arm injury suffered while doing mop-up duty as a pitcher in a game against the Red Sox), the Rangers have hit .290 as a team and scored 158 runs (6.32 per game).

Even Tom Grieve, the general manager who took the risk by making the trade, acknowledges that the Rangers have not as yet been hurt by Canseco's absence. "Having Jose out of the lineup had a settling effect [on the team]," Grieve said. "It's not that we don't want him, but now the uncertainty [about Canseco's availability] is removed."

Apparently the injuries that have tormented Canseco the past few years have taken a toll. He said that he was never completely healthy last year, and there is now a growing suspicion that his once awesome skills have deteriorated.

Considered a bargain at the time of the trade because he was signed for two more years, Canseco is now a huge question mark. The Rangers weren't going to sign Sierra or Russell, but in retrospect Grieve probably wishes he had the draft choices they would have provided as free agents.

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So-so HoJo

Dallas Green has seen enough to convince him that the New York Mets' top priority for next year is an improved defense. "We can't survive in this league giving up four or five outs an inning," he said.

Green is learning firsthand what others have been saying for years. The Mets' defense was atrocious even when they won the World Series in 1986, and it hasn't gotten any better.

One of the many disappointments for the Mets has been Howard Johnson, who can be a free agent at the end of the year but might not attract much attention. His numbers are way down, and they're not likely to come back up because Thursday night he suffered two chip fractures of his thumb while sliding into second base. He might be out for the season.

"People want to know which one is the real Howard Johnson -- is it the 30-30 [home runs and stolen bases] man or the one who has struggled the last two years?" said Green, who doesn't deal in smooth talk. "He says he doesn't have friends and nobody believes in him. The belief has to start with himself. Does he think he's still an impact player?"

Expensive mediocrity

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The San Diego Padres aren't the only National League team paring a payroll. The middle-of-the road Chicago Cubs don't have as high a profile in that department, but general manager Larry Himes is saddled with some expensive spare parts.

Candy Maldonado, batting .185 with 13 RBI and 34 strikeouts, has asked to be traded. He has a contract that calls for $1.6 million this year and next year, plus a $1.6 million option for 1995 that can be bought out for $500,000.

"If there's something I can do, I will," Himes said. "I understand his frustration, but we're frustrated too [by Maldonado's numbers]."

Adding to the Cubs' problems is the fact that catcher Steve Lake is their only potential free agent next year. Everybody else is either signed or can go to arbitration, which doesn't leave Himes with a lot of flexibility.

Upset stomachs in the Bronx

Last week was a tough one for Yankees fans to stomach. First George Steinbrenner said attendance would be used to gauge the club's future at Yankee Stadium, then came an unappetizing luncheon for some season-ticket holders.

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Saying a half-dozen games against the Seattle Mariners and California Angels would constitute a "Test Week," Steinbrenner hinted he might follow the lead of the football Giants and go across the Hudson River to New Jersey. All he found out was that the Yankees draw more (about 5,000 per game) in the daytime than they do at night.

The luncheon at a mid-Manhattan restaurant was supposed to provide season-ticket holders a chance to engage in a question-and-answer session with team personnel. But only bullpen catcher Jake Gibbs and former announcer Mel Allen were on hand to represent the Yankees.

What really made the luncheon tough to digest was the fact that it cost $40 per -- for chicken marsala, which was listed on the menu at $9.75.

Giants won't panic

San Francisco GM Bob Quinn says Atlanta's acquisition of Fred McGriff will have no bearing on his trade efforts.

"I don't believe in reactionary trades," he said.

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"That's like getting a divorce and turning around and getting married again. We knew what our problems were before they [the Braves] made the trade. To react to that trade would not be appropriate."

Express tour at Camden Yards?

That two-game series the Orioles played against the Rangers to open the season might turn out to be a blessing in disguise for those who were hoping to see Nolan Ryan.

The Express wouldn't have pitched in that series even if it had been four games because the Rangers were saving him for their home opener.

But, if he stays healthy, Ryan almost certainly will pitch in the four-game series here Aug. 20-23. If all games are played as scheduled, Ryan's turn will come up Saturday night, Aug. 21.

And the answer is . . .

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Quiz answer: Milt Pappas won 110 games for the Orioles and 99 for the Reds, Braves and Cubs.

IMPERTINENT QUESTIONS OF THE WEEK

* Wasn't that thoughtful of former Texas Rangers manager Bobby Valentine to pick his former team to win the AL West?

* When will George Steinbrenner officially enter the pennant race?

* Wouldn't Frank Robinson and Yogi Berra make excellent choices to fill the vacancies created by the deaths of Roy Campanella and Billy Herman on the Hall of Fame veterans' committee?

* Isn't Tony La Russa's latest gimmick (a 50-pitch limit) proof that it doesn't matter how many pitchers you have on a staff if most of them are, at best, mediocre?


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