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Saturday, December 9
Opening day of winter meetings puts free agents in spotlight

By Anthony Mormile SportsTicker Baseball Editor

DALLAS (Ticker) -- These are supposed to be the winter meetings, where general managers meet to talk trade. But while some teams looked to swap, most were content to spend.

Mike Hampton agreed to the richest contract in the history of the game, an eight-year deal worth a reported $121 million. The free agent lefthander left the defending National League champion New York Mets and joins the revamped starting rotation of the Colorado Rockies.

The 28-year-old Hampton was 15-10 with a 3.14 ERA for the Mets last season but earned Most Valuable Player honors in the NL Championship Series and is known for his teancity. It is that toughness that makes the Rockies believe Hampton can thrive in the rarified air of hitter-friendly Coors Field.

The stunning contract is the longest for a free agent since Wayne Garland signed a 10-year deal with Cleveland before the 1977 season. His signing comes just four days after the Rockies inked fellow lefthander Denny Neagle to a five-year, $51 million contract.

While Hampton was the biggest name to come to terms, he was far from the first. The day began with the long-rumored deal between the Arizona Diamondbacks and slick-fielding first baseman Mark Grace. The sides agreed on a two-year, $6 million deal that includes a mutual option for the 2003 season.

Grace, who had more hits and doubles in the 1990s than any other player, is a lifetime .308 hitter. The 36-year-old Grace spent 13 seasons with the Cubs but hit just .280 with only 11 homers and 82 RBI last season.

A three-time All-Star and four-time Gold Glove Award winner, Grace earned $5.3 million in 2000. He has hit at least .300 nine times but has never hit more than 17 homers or driven in 100 runs. What Grace has been is remarkably consistent, recording more hits than games played in every season but 2000, when he had 143 hits in 143 contests.

While Chicago lost one of its most popular players, it continued to tinker with a team that was last in the NL Central Division. The Cubs signed former closer Tom Gordon and starter-reliever Jeff Fassero today, further strengthing a staff that has undergone dramatic turnover since the season's end.

Gordon, who missed all of 2000 after elbow surgery, has a chance to be the closer. The hard-throwing 33-year-old agreed to a two-year contract, reportedly spurning interest from the New York Yankees and Kansas City Royals.

Fassero, an Illinois native, signed a two-year contract after putting together a solid season for the Boston Red Sox. The 37-year-old lefthander was 8-8 with a 4.78 ERA in 38 games for Boston. He was 8-7 with a 5.07 ERA in 23 starts but was particularly effective in the bullpen, going 0-1 with a 2.76 ERA in 15 outings out of the pen.

Since the season ended Chicago has added another swingman, Julian Tavarez, outfielder Matt Stairs and third baseman Bill Mueller. The Cubs have also cut loose closer Rick Aguilera.

The Cubs reportedly also had interest in free agent first baseman Andres Galarraga but he opted to sign a one-year contract with the Texas Rangers. The 39-year-old Galarraga missed all of 1999 while undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin's lymphoma but rebounded in a big way in 2000, hitting .302 with 28 homers and 100 RBI for the Atlanta Braves.

He now teams with fellow veteran slugger Rafael Palmeiro to form a platoon at first base and designated hitter. Rangers general manager Doug Melvin also reiterated that he remains in the hunt for superstar shortstop Alex Rodriguez and third baseman Ken Caminiti.

With Hampton gone, the free agent spotlight intensified on Rodriguez and sluggers Manny Ramirez and Juan Gonzalez. The Rangers met with Rodriguez's agent Scott Boras on Friday night while Ramirez reportedly spurned an offer from the Boston Red Sox.

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