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At this point in the game, trailers point toward '97

THE BALTIMORE SUN

About half of the teams in the majors are involved in pennant races. The other teams are preparing for 1997, in one way or another. Some of the places where Wait 'Til Next Year means Wait For September:

The Cincinnati Reds have moved to re-sign three members of their pitching staff, reportedly reaching oral agreements with starter John Smiley (three years at $3.75 million per year), closer Jeff Brantley (three years at $2.8 million per year) and middle reliever Jeff Shaw (two years at $650,000 per year).

"With Jeff Brantley assured of being a big part of our bullpen for the next three years," said Smiley, "we have a chance to be a great team."

Chicago Cubs president Andy MacPhail said the club intends to give a "significant bump" to its current payroll level of $32 million. "That doesn't automatically translate into a better team," MacPhail said, "but it should if we do our jobs."

The Kansas City Royals are wondering if Bob Hamelin's offensive woes are tied to an eye problem that could require corrective surgery. Hamelin has said he'd like to be released so he can play in Japan. He may have declined faster than any rookie since Joe Charboneau.

The Royals also are considering making Jamie Bluma, who had 25 saves at Triple-A Omaha, the closer of the future.

Paul Molitor can leave the Twins after this year, but he wants to return, with a little more money kicked in by Minnesota.

The Colorado Rockies are mulling their options now that they have 21-year-old middle infielder Neifi Perez waiting in the wings. Perez hit .316 with 28 doubles, 12 triples and seven homers at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and has a reputation for fielding brilliance.

"He's like a vitamin pill -- one a day," said Colorado Springs coach Tony Torchia. "One good play a day. I've been in the game a long time. He's the best shortstop I've ever been around. I never did get to see Mark Belanger much, but I guess he's probably close."

What the Rockies may attempt to do is trade incumbent shortstop Walt Weiss, who will make $2.05 million next year and has a 1998 option for $1.5 million. Weiss knows he may not last with Colorado. "I love playing in Denver," he said. "I'll just deal with whatever I have to deal with next year."

If Colorado decides to dangle Weiss, it may find a market in Baltimore. The Orioles' brass was prepared to move Cal Ripken to third base in July, and while Ripken's defense was solid in midseason, he has appeared a step slower and his arm a little weaker over the last month; the Orioles could again look to move Ripken to third next spring. The Orioles also may have an interest in Oakland shortstop Mike Bordick, a potential free agent generally regarded as one of the best infielders in baseball.

The Rockies have told pitcher Bret Saberhagen they aren't going to pick up his $5 million '97 option. Saberhagen declined to accept a minor-league assignment: "I'm not a minor-leaguer anymore. I want to be able to take part in the [union] licensing money. I want the medical and dental benefits for my family."

More future considerations

Jose Canseco, recovering from back surgery, says his future is at first base. "I'm only 32 and I think I've got eight good years left," said Canseco. "In the long term, I'd like to play first base. I know I could play there. I came into pro ball as a third baseman and they saw my arm and speed and said, 'You'd better get to the outfield.' "

Canseco will never be a regular first baseman as long as Boston has Mo Vaughn and Reggie Jefferson.

The Red Sox may try to deal John Valentin this winter, paving the way for Nomar Garciaparra to take over at shortstop. Or they could move Valentin to third and let potential free agent Tim Naehring walk away, despite the fact that Naehring is a team leader.

New York Mets center fielder Lance Johnson has approached the team about a contract extension beyond 1997.

Philadelphia Phillies president Bill Giles has told general manager Lee Thomas and manager Jim Fregosi to resolve their differences, with the implied threat that if they don't, someone must go. Fregosi's name is thick in the rumor mill regarding the California managerial job.

Extra Hentgen work?

Toronto's Pat Hentgen may start on the final day of the season on three days' rest against the Orioles, possibly depending on his chances of winning 20 games and/or winning the Cy Young Award.

Manager Cito Gaston isn't sure what he's going to do.

"He'll get that start if we feel it's worth it," said Gaston. "I wouldn't like us to go to spring training next year with Hentgen on the disabled list because he pitched too much."

This is pure conjecture, but if Gaston has a chance to make things tough for Baltimore -- a city that has been rough on him ever since he declined to use Mike Mussina in the '93 All-Star Game -- do you think he'll do it? Conventional wisdom says: absolutely.

Magnanimous Griffey

Ken Griffey deserves a whole lot of credit for the way he's dealing with young teammate Alex Rodriguez, who appears to be the front-runner for the AL MVP. "What Junior [Griffey] has done for me -- does every day for this team -- really isn't known," said Rodriguez. "How can anyone like me be considered most valuable player in the league when I'm not even most valuable player in the room?"

Griffey has accepted Rodriguez, teasing him good-naturedly and joking about how Rodriguez's presence has made him a has-been. "That used to be me," joked Griffey. "No one gets no ink but Young Buck anymore. And to think he does it all stealing from my bat rack. By the time I get my bats back, he used up all the hits. I get nothing."

Bonds, La Russa duel

After Barry Bonds beat the Cardinals with two two-run homers Wednesday night, he started a war of words with St. Louis manager Tony La Russa.

"It's fun playing against big egos like La Russa," said Bonds, who was surprised La Russa decided not to pitch around him.

"You don't want to keep challenging me in certain situations. I thought he would change a little bit. But his ego's too big. Sometimes you can't beat the laws of physics."

Bonds went on to say he thought La Russa had forbidden ex-Giants to speak to Bonds. "It's bull," Bonds said. "People are grown men. We're not babies."

La Russa responded in kind: "I know [Bonds is] good. If he's good enough to play left field and manage the other club. . . . He ain't that good. . . . I'm surprised he knows I manage the club. Really. He's so into himself."

DeShields keeps sliding

Dodgers second baseman Delino DeShields, having a terrible year, is getting worse, not better, hitting .178 in the second half. "I don't know what it is," he said, "but I can't hit anymore. I've tried basically everything. I've turned into Mark Belanger." Except that DeShields isn't that great defensively, either.

Harold Baines wants to play at least another year for the White Sox.

Uniforms and suits

The Indians have given away Carlos Baerga's old No. 9, to rookie shortstop Damian Jackson. They haven't passed on Eddie Murray's No. 33, however.

Bonds is contemplating a lawsuit against the producers of the "The Fan," the movie about a Giants star, played by Wesley Snipes, who is stalked. The character strongly resembles Bonds. "I haven't seen the movie, but I know what it's about," Bonds said. "Do you think it's coincidence that the guy wears my number, was graduated from high school in 1982 and is divorced?"

Padres owner John Moores loved the series in Monterrey, Mexico, so much he's thinking about making another trip there next year. Might want to check with his players beforehand; there was a lot of private grumbling about the trip.

It's over for Martinez

It's now official: Dennis Martinez's season is finished. The 41-year-old right-hander with the injured elbow said he'll remain with the team for the rest of the season, but that the playoffs are out of the question for him.

From July 25 to Sept. 12, Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn has hit .283 with nine homers and 29 RBIs. For Vaughn, that's a notable slide in production. For Mario Mendoza, it would've been enough offense to retire on.

Short-circuiting Pirates

Pittsburgh manager Jim Leyland, on the fading Pirates: "There's a lot of static left, but there's not a lot of electricity."

Yankees third baseman Wade Boggs and Orioles reliever Jesse Orosco are the only players who haven't gone on the disabled list, among those whose careers started before Ripken's streak began.

The Braves are in a slump, and you know that isn't going to last; their starting pitching is too good. But Atlanta's bullpen has some problems. Left-hander Pedro Borbon is out for the year, after reconstructive elbow surgery, and Greg McMichael has a tender elbow and his outing on Thursday was his first since Sept. 2.

Should the White Sox make the playoffs, there will probably be a lot of empty seats at Comiskey Park. "Tell you what," said third baseman Robin Ventura. "If we make the playoffs and fans still don't show up, then we know it's not our ballpark that's the problem." Frank Thomas said: "Fans back in Chicago don't like us. What else could it be?"

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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