NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Houston Astros abruptly pulled out of trade talks with the Toronto Blue Jays yesterday afternoon, citing what general manager Gerry Hunsicker called the "mind-boggling" contract demands of superstar pitcher Roger Clemens.
The Blue Jays are attempting to trade the five-time Cy Young Award winner for a package of quality major-league players, but their ability to get full value in exchange has been compromised by Clemens' desire to join in the off-season gold rush that has sent baseball's top salary to $15 million.
Toronto general manager Gord Ash insists that there still are several teams willing to make a deal, but the Astros' very public announcement -- in front of the national media attending Major League Baseball's Winter Meetings at Nashville's Opryland Hotel -- may signal a dramatic change in the tenor of the multi-team trade talks.
If other teams also drop out of the bidding, the Blue Jays could back off their desire for a package of quality major-league players and become amenable to a deal for prospects, which could bring a new set of potential suitors -- including the Orioles -- into the picture.
The Texas Rangers emerged as the clear front-runner last night, conducting evening meetings with both the Blue Jays and Clemens' agents, Alan and Randy Hendricks, but it remains unclear whether anyone is willing to go all the way to satisfy both the team and the future Hall of Famer.
Clemens is believed to be demanding that any team that acquires him must extend his current contract and upgrade the total value to increase his average annual salary to about $14.5 million. That might not be a problem for a large-market club such as the Orioles, but it appeared to be a deal-breaker for the Astros.
"Philosophically, we are opposed to trying to acquire someone via trade and look at it as a potential free-agent situation where you have to negotiate with the player as if he were a free agent," Hunsicker said. "Frankly, we were stunned and outraged at the demands made by his agents.
"We are not in a financial position to consider them, and even if we were, the talent we would have to give up to stay within our payroll limits would leave us with a team I don't think Roger Clemens would want to be on."
Randy Hendricks responded angrily to Hunsicker's public diatribe and indicated that negotiations were continuing with the Astros above the general manager's head.
"The Astros' front office is jealous of the fact that I've been dealing directly with their owner," Hendricks said, "so they took the opportunity to call a news conference to try to trash me because their feelings were hurt, that they weren't part of the loop. Their owner has already called me and apologized for their unacceptable conduct."
Clemens is understandably eager to take advantage of the sudden upsurge in the salaries of top-name free-agent players, which escalated on Saturday when the Los Angeles Dodgers signed pitcher Kevin Brown to a seven-year deal worth $105 million. But unlike Brown, Clemens is not a free agent.
He is under contract to the Blue Jays for two more years, but has convinced the club to honor a handshake deal to trade him to one of the two Texas teams -- or an acceptable contender -- if it became apparent that the Blue Jays were not going to be a strong postseason candidate in 1999.
Ash has acknowledged the informal agreement and is trying hard to put together a suitable trade, but he probably did not anticipate the degree to which Clemens and his representatives would use the promise as a pretext to join in this year's free-agent bonanza.
"I've stayed away from that part of the deal," Ash said, during a news conference yesterday to announce a separate pitching deal in which the Blue Jays sent right-handers Woody Williams and Carlos Almanzar along with outfield prospect Peter Tucci to the San Diego Padres for right-handed starter Joey Hamilton.
Ash said yesterday that there is a possibility that Clemens could remain with the Blue Jays in 1999, insisting that he will not accept a lesser package of players just to get a deal done before spring training.
Three teams still are considered the most serious contenders to acquire Clemens. The Rangers, Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees all remain prominent in trade speculation.
Orioles general manager Frank Wren continues to express doubt that Baltimore would be a good fit for Clemens or the Blue Jays.
"I'm not so sure that, even if we are interested -- and you have to be interested in a pitcher of that quality -- that we're a club that he would go to," Wren said.
Of course, the dynamics of the situation may be changing. The Blue Jays originally were insistent that they receive up to three quality major-league players in return for Clemens, but may be recognizing that the contract situation has limited their choices.
The Orioles do not have three major-league players available that would fit the personnel needs of the Blue Jays, but Wren said over the weekend that the club might be willing to put together a package of top prospects to make a deal for Clemens.
Though Clemens may not be eager to pitch in a hitter's ballpark such as Camden Yards, his desire to tap into baseball's rapidly expanding salary structure may force him to reassess his options.
Pub Date: 12/14/98