By Ronald Blum
NEW YORK Juan Gonzalez seemed set to sign with Cleveland, while Johnny Damon, Ben Grieve and Roberto Hernandez were dealt yesterday in the biggest trade of the offseason.
The nine-player trade sent Damon from Kansas City to Oakland, moved Grieve from the Athletics to Tampa Bay and sent Hernandez from the Devil Rays to the Royals.
"This is a dimension that this team hasnt had for the last two years," Oakland general manager Billy Beane said of the speedy Damon. "We havent had this type of player probably since Rickey (Henderson) was in his prime."
Catcher A.J. Hinch and reliever Cory Lidle were the only other major league players in the deal.
Gonzalez let pass a midnight deadline to re-sign with Detroit, and five other free agents also failed to re-sign with their former teams: second baseman Craig Grebeck (Toronto), first baseman Wally Joyner (Atlanta), right-hander Bobby J. Jones (New York Mets), right-hander Scott Kamieniecki (Atlanta) and left-hander Scott Radinsky (St. Louis).
Only one free agent facing the deadline agreed to return: designated hitter Harold Baines accepted a minor league contract offered by the Chicago White Sox, a deal that would pay him $1 million if he makes the major league roster.
The free agents were offered salary arbitration by their former teams on Dec. 7 and they rejected the offers 12 days later. By offering arbitration, teams extended the negotiating period through Jan. 8.
Detroit, which acquired Gonzalez from Texas after the 1999 season, ended negotiations with the two-time American League MVP last month. Gonzalez, who last year rejected a $143 million, eight-year extension offered by the Tigers, has been discussing a one-year contract with Cleveland worth about $12 million.
Gonzalez arrived in Cleveland last night and was to be examined by team doctors today, according to a baseball management source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"There are still a couple of hurdles left to get over," Indians assistant general manager Mark Shapiro said yesterday. "Were making progress. Its not a foregone conclusion, but were getting a lot closer."
Shapiro said the Indians would need assurances Gonzalezs back is OK before terms of a contract can be finalized.
"Ive been working very hard on my back in Puerto Rico and my back is ready," Gonzalez told WUAB-TV upon his arrival in Cleveland. "Im positive."
Scott Boras, Gonzalezs agent, did not immediately return a telephone message seeking comment.
Damon, one of the most sought-after players on the trade market, is eligible for free agency after the 2001 season and has said he would test the market before signing a contract extension.
Damon hit .327 with 16 homers and 88 RBIs last season for the Royals. He also led the AL with 46 stolen bases and 136 runs scored.
Several teams, including the Mets and Los Angeles Dodgers, wanted the 27-year-old Damon.
Grieve, the 1998 AL Rookie of the Year, hit .279 with 27 homers and 104 RBIs last season.
Grieve, 24, struck out a career-high 130 times and grounded into a major league-leading 32 double plays. He signed a $13 million, four-year deal last March.
Hernandez, 36, was 4-7 with a 3.19 ERA and 32 saves last season. The Royals also acquired Hinch, 26, minor league infielder Angel Berroa and cash from the As.
The Athletics got Lidle, 28, from Tampa Bay. He was 4-6 with a 5.03 ERA in 31 games. Oakland also acquired minor league infielder Mark Ellis and a player to be named from Kansas City.
Tampa Bay got a player to be named or cash from the Athletics.
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