Big Unit remains in limbo

While Troy Glaus and Russ Ortiz are now on board, the big question remains: will the D-Backs keep Randy Johnson?

Originally Published: December 10, 2004
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Just as we all expected, the Arizona Diamondbacks found themselves at the podium Friday for a major winter-meetings press conference.

Just as nobody expected, this was a press conference that had absolutely nothing to do with any 6-foot-10 left-handers with the initials "R" and "J."

Or did it?

Randy Johnson
Randy Johnson could soon be joining a star-studded lineup in the Bronx.

For the record, this bash was to announce the signing of Russ Ortiz, a day after the Diamondbacks' signing of another high-profile free agent -- Troy Glaus.

And since you're no doubt wondering, the official explanation for why this team just laid out 78 million bucks for Ortiz and Glaus in two days is: "We're going to be competitive."

The 412 follow-up questions, however, could be pretty much summed up this way: "So you did all this to convince Randy to hang around, right?"

In other words, what the Arizona Diamondbacks are finding these days is that, no matter what they do, they're a team with only one offseason storyline:

Are they trading Randy Johnson or not?

Everything else? That's just subplots.

On innumerable occasions Friday, GM Joe Garagiola Jr., incoming CEO Jeff Moorad and general partner Ken Kendrick swore -- cross their hearts and hope to lose another 111 games -- that the signings of Glaus and Ortiz had no connection whatsoever with the Unit and his future employment plans.

But whether they did or not, the ripple effects still seem to find their way right to Johnson's front door.

As ESPN.com's Jerry Crasnick reported Friday, one of Johnson's agents, Alan Nero says the Diamondbacks' furious spending spree hasn't changed anything. Johnson still wants out. And, from all indications, he still wants to be deposited somewhere near the 161st Street exit on the Major Deegan Expressway.

But if the Bronx, N.Y., is where this tale is eventually leading, it sure isn't taking Mapquest's shortest possible route.

It's now a week and a half since the Diamondbacks and Yankees last talked. You can't beat that for a furious pace.

The Yankees are in you-know-where-to-find-us-if-you-change-your-mind mode. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, are in you're-not-going-to-tell-us-how-to-run-our-team mode.

It's turned into such a fun little game of chicken, these teams now seem to take turns going out of their way to show how they're concentrating their efforts on everyone except each other.

So if you were reading those tea leaves logically, you couldn't help but conclude that this deal must be deader than King Tut.

Except that, when given a million opportunities to say that Friday, the Diamondbacks' head honchos tapdanced like Gregory Hines.

"We want Randy to be part of this," said Kendrick. "But ...

"We'd like nothing better than to have Randy Johnson take the ball for us on Opening Day next season," said Moorad. "But ...

"I think we have a pretty good grasp of who and what we have in Randy Johnson, and we're very happy to have him," said Garagiola. "But (if he is asking to be traded) we owe it to our team and, frankly, to Randy, to consider other situations."

And by "other situations," it's fair to say he didn't mean: "So maybe we'll trade him to the Brewers, just for fun."

If Johnson will only go one place, then they're pretty much stuck. But if the team that plays in that place is refusing to play this game, then they're pretty much paralyzed.

Unless, of course, the Yankees aren't really out of it.

"You know," Garagiola mused, "if Yogi didn't say this, I'm sure he wished he'd said it: You're never out of it until you're out of it. Opening Day is a long ways away. If Yogi had been a GM, I'm sure that's exactly what he would have said."

Of course, if Yogi had been a GM, he might have also said: "You spent 78 million bucks on what?" But that's another story.

So no matter what the Yankees are saying, the Diamondbacks apparently still consider them to be verrrrry interested.

But if the Yankees' strategy in pulling out -- then letting the world know that Arizona had asked for everyone in pinstripes except Joe Torre and Lou Gehrig -- was to force the price down, well, that hasn't worked too hot, either.

Garagiola pretty much made that clear. And not just to us inquiring media minds.

Another guy doing some inquiring was Russ Ortiz himself. Ortiz admitted Friday that before he signed, he did manage to sneak in a question about whether this rotation he was joining might include any five-time Cy Young winners.

"And the answer," Garagiola said, "was: 'If Randy Johnson isn't here, it will be because other impact players are here.' Which is another way of saying we're not going to do an all-prospect deal. We wouldn't do it last summer. And we won't do it now."

So the only possibility for this deal to somehow get done is for a third team to get involved.

If Randy Johnson isn't here, it will be because other impact players are here. Which is another way of saying we're not going to do an all-prospect deal. We wouldn't do it last summer. And we won't do it now.
Joe Garagiola Jr., Diamondbacks GM

Our buddy Peter Gammons reported this week that the teams are considering reviving a dormant three-way trade with the White Sox. But an AL executive with knowledge of those talks reports the White Sox and Yankees haven't spoken in more than a month.

And one baseball man who has talked with the Diamondbacks says they're not trading Johnson without getting a top-of-the-rotation starter back -- and the pitcher they were supposed to get in that White Sox three-way, Jon Garland, wouldn't qualify.

Well, if there's a better variation of that trade out there, someone had better start looking for it fast -- because, in the meantime, the Yankees are making other plans.

They continue to work on signing either Carl Pavano or Eric Milton, while saving lots of pennies for Carlos Beltran. And once they add another impact pitcher, which could happen any day now, then it will be too late for Arizona to come knocking on their door.

But even if this trade does get revived in time, and all the player pieces somehow fall into place, sources say the Yankees could gum this up another way -- by refusing to kick in the $12 million or so they originally had agreed to send to Arizona in the deal.

Why? Well, for one thing, that money has now been, essentially, spent -- on Jaret Wright.

For another thing, the Yankees are wondering, why do they need to make a financial contribution to a team that was last seen spending more than a million bucks an hour on free agents these last two days?

And they're not the only team asking that question. How come, people are asking, one minute the Diamondbacks were rumored to be close to Chapter 11 (not to be confused with Chapter 111) -- and the next, they were signing every free agent who passed through the room?

But the Diamondbacks, it turns out, have a different spin on their financial health.

Kendrick claimed Friday that there has been "a lot of misinformation in the press" about the financial distress this team was supposedly in.

He said the club has taken a number of steps to climb out of that distress: Taking in $250 million in working capital from new investors. Immediately implementing a policy to include no more deferred money in contracts. And adding one-time All-Stars like Glaus and Ortiz to the mix in an effort to reassure its fans that it has no plans to live through another 111-loss nightmare.

"All we're trying to do is put a team on the field with a chance to win every night," Garagiola said. "And there were a lot of nights last year where we didn't feel that way."

Yeah, or to be more specific, all the nights that Johnson didn't pitch, they tended to feel that way.

But will these two signings this week get them into the playoffs? Uh, no 111-loss team in history ever made that kind of turnaround.

And will they cause the Unit to want to become a Diamondback for life? Uh, doesn't look like that plan is working, either.

But will it catch the attention of the other free agents on the Arizona shopping list -- starting with Royce Clayton and David Dellucci? Now that figures to work. After all, just imagine what had been going through the mind of your average free agent when a 111-loss juggernaut called before these signings.

"With two front-line players on board, I don't know if the questions from guys like that will get a lot easier," Garagiola laughed. "But at least the answers will get a lot easier."

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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