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Potential star leaves Yanks in quandary at third

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The New York Yankees have been scrambling to assemble a list of candidates to replace injured Aaron Boone at third base, but it seems unlikely that they'll be satisfied with a stopgap solution for very long.

So, what do you do if you're owner George Steinbrenner? Do you instruct general manager Brian Cashman to spare no expense - in money or talent - to add a top-name player to fill such a big hole, or do you satisfy yourself with the winner of a spring competition that is expected to feature newly acquired Mike Lamb, Tyler Houston, Miguel Cairo, Erick Almonte and Enrique Wilson?

The answer could have long-term implications for the club, since the Yankees do have a promising young third baseman coming along in the low minor leagues.

Eric Duncan, the New Jersey kid who was selected by the Yankees in the first round of last year's draft, has impressed the team's player development staff so much that one unidentified executive told the New York Daily News that the 19-year-old infielder could be fast-tracked to the Double-A level by the end of the season. The organization apparent views him as a future star of the magnitude of Derek Jeter or Alfonso Soriano.

If that's true, the Yankees might be wise to buy some time with their stable of marginal third basemen and see if the kid can pop in the next couple of years. The team may have seemingly unlimited wealth, but there are times when a big-money acquisition just gets in the way of good player development.

The Boone injury was a significant blow to a team that also lost three starting pitchers from last year's rotation, but it isn't as if the Yankees are on the brink of becoming a second-division team. They acquired Kevin Brown and Javier Vazquez to replace Andy Pettitte and Roger Clemens, and they signed superstar outfielder Gary Sheffield to offset the loss of first baseman Nick Johnson (who was traded for Vazquez).

The Yankees will have their hands full with the much-improved Boston Red Sox and figure to face enhanced competition throughout the American League East, but they know the key to long-term excellence is in the development of star-quality young players. Jeter and Soriano are perfect examples of the winning formula that isn't going to be undermined by one potential soft spot in the lineup.

Of course, if their playoff prospects are in jeopardy at midseason, all bets are off. Steinbrenner isn't a wait-until-next-year kind of guy.

Erickson lands

Former Orioles pitcher Scott Erickson shopped his arm around the majors and landed with the New York Mets, where he'll compete for a place in the starting rotation if his rebuilt arm holds up.

Don't laugh. Erickson suffered the past three years with a pair of serious injuries, but no one works harder to get and stay in playing shape, and the Mets might be a perfect fit.

If he can replicate the velocity and movement that made him one of the winningest pitchers in the American League in the late 1990s, he could benefit from the switch to a new league and make a dynamic comeback. Stay tuned.

I-Rod's complaint

So much for those rumors that the Florida Marlins might seek to trade for Ivan Rodriguez after he signed with another team. Rodriguez held a news conference at his Miami home on Thursday and criticized the Marlins for low-balling him after the club won the World Series last season.

"I feel a little disappointed because I thought they would have treated me a little better," said Rodriguez, who signed a four-year contract with the Detroit Tigers earlier in the week.

Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria shot right back, defending the club's offer and chiding Rodriguez and agent Scott Boras for trying to squeeze the last possible dollar out of the free-agent market.

"When you look at the differences between what's guaranteed [in Detroit] and what we were prepared to do, and add in the [Michigan] state tax, and the fact he's not going to be living at home, it's practically equivalent offers," Loria told The Miami Herald on Thursday. "I thought he would have liked to have a lot of fun playing for a championship-caliber team."

The Orioles also felt they had something more to offer Rodriguez, but he held out too long and they opted for power-hitting catcher Javy Lopez.

Raising the roof issue

The Marlins continue to work toward a stadium deal that would guarantee the club's future in the Miami area, but the team's desire for a retractable roof could be a deal-breaker for local officials.

Club officials are pointing to March 15 as a target date for a decision, and team president David Samson told a local television station that the Marlins will not remain in South Florida without a covered ballpark.

Big raise due

St. Louis Cardinals slugger Albert Pujols is less than two weeks away from an arbitration hearing that will make him the highest-paid player in the history of his service class - whether he wins or loses.

Pujols, whose $900,000 base salary last year was a record for a two-year player, filed for $10.5 million in arbitration. The club countered with $7 million, which still would be a record for a three-year player.

The club would like to lock Pujols into a lengthy contract, and it offered him a six-year deal worth $72 million last month, but negotiations have stagnated. Look for the team to try to avert the Feb. 20 hearing with a compromise one-year deal and continue to discuss a long-term deal.

Maddux update

The Chicago Cubs still appear to be the team most likely to sign free-agent starting pitcher Greg Maddux. The Cubs are believed to be offering Maddux a two-year deal worth $10 million to $12 million, but there has been little public posturing by either side and relatively little speculation about competing offers.

The Cardinals have been restructuring their payroll, which has fueled the notion that they are trying to make room for Maddux, but rumors persist that a West Coast team - perhaps the San Francisco Giants - will come out of nowhere to sign him.

Some recent reports have mentioned the Orioles, but vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan said recently that Maddux and his agent (Boras) continue to keep East Coast teams at arm's length.

Dysfunctional Dodgers?

The Los Angeles Dodgers also have been mentioned as a possible suitor for Maddux, but they appear to be in a state of organizational limbo since Frank McCourt was approved as the club's new owner.

Dan Evans remains the general manager, but McCourt has made no secret of his desire to make major front-office changes. He already has asked for - and been denied - permission to talk to Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane. Evans is playing the good soldier and helping with the transition, but he deserves better.

Compiled from interviews, wire services and reports from other newspapers.

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