December 2, 2000
Wendell Re-Signs, to 9's, With Mets
By TYLER KEPNER
Turk Wendell is a native of New England, a Boston Red Sox fan by birth, and he had never wanted to play in New York. But in his three and a half seasons with the Mets, he enjoyed himself so much that he never wanted to leave. Wendell has mentioned this often, something that complicated his recent free-agent negotiations.
Wendell could have re-signed a few days after the 2000 season ended, when the Mets offered him a three- year, $6.6 million deal. But he entered the free-agent market, just to see what setup relievers could command. As the contract figures climbed toward $10 million, Wendell realized he could accomplish another goal.
"If I could ever get all nines, let's do it," he told his agent, Gregg Clifton. Wendell has a preference for the number nine.
When the Mets acquired him from the Chicago Cubs in General Manager Steve Phillips's first trade in August 1997, they issued him No. 10. Wendell asked instead for No. 99, which he immediately received. Yesterday he received a contract loaded with his favorite number.
The 33-year-old Wendell signed a three-year contract with the Mets that will pay him $9,999,999.99 if he pitches 70 games in each of the next three seasons. The guaranteed value of the deal is one penny under $9.4 million.
The Chicago Cubs and the Baltimore Orioles also pursued Wendell. The Orioles offered him a three-year package that could have been worth about $14.5 million if Wendell had become their closer.
"The Orioles put together a really good deal," said Wendell, speaking by cell phone from Des Moines, where he is on a hunting trip. "But I really wanted to show loyalty to the Mets, and that was one of the key factors."
Wendell was 8-6 with a 3.59 earned run average in 77 games last season. He pitched in 223 games in the last three seasons, with a 3.20 E.R.A.
Wendell wanted to sign for a fourth year and donate his salary to charity, but players are prohibited from taking more than a 20 percent pay cut from one year to the next in the same contract. He said he would still like to play for charity in 2004.
Phillips, like Wendell, encountered another shift in the market this winter: setup relievers are making big money. When the Philadelphia Phillies signed Rheal Cormier to a three- year, $8.75 million deal this week, it was a good sign for Wendell, who has had more success than Cormier in recent years.
Clifton was concerned that the Mets would not extend a comparable offer because they knew Wendell wanted to return.
"When players are so open about remaining with an organization, it gets a little tricky," Clifton said.
"You want to maximize his value while accommodating his desire to stay there. Turk always said he wanted to be a Met, and it's a credit to the Mets that they were willing to adjust his contract to reflect the change in the marketplace from when our negotiations started."
Phillips, who re-signed another setup reliever, John Franco, for $10.5 million over three years last week, said it was comparatively inexpensive to construct a strong bullpen. While the Mets still have three open spots in their starting rotation, they have all of their relievers coming back next year.
"With starting pitchers, a guy might win 12 games and another guy might win 15, and the difference in their salaries can be close to $5 million at times," Phillips said. "You can get more for your money, quality-wise, with the bullpen."
Now that Franco and Wendell are signed, Phillips can turn more attention to acquiring starting pitchers. Mark Rodgers, the agent for Mike Hampton, said yesterday that the Mets were on Hampton's short list of teams he would negotiate with over the next week.
Rodgers said Hampton would probably finish making the list this weekend. Ten teams have shown interest in Hampton; Rodgers said five or six would make the final list.
Teams believed to be the leaders in the chase for Hampton include the Atlanta Braves, the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs. The Cubs and the Colorado Rockies are expected to be especially aggressive with their offers.
One team has been officially eliminated from the Hampton chase: Houston Astros General Manager Gerry Hunsicker told The Associated Press yesterday that his team, which traded Hampton to the Mets last December, had been turned down. Hunsicker said the rejection had nothing to do with money and everything to do with Hampton's concern that the Astros might not be competitive in the coming seasons.