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Free agent Delgado waits for new digs

by Jerry Crasnick
October 7, 2004

NEW YORK—Carlos Delgado was a catcher/outfielder when he made his first appearance in a Blue Jays uniform in 1993. He had awesome raw power and a smile to light up a stadium, and he seemed to embody the future on a Toronto roster dotted with Paul Molitors, Joe Carters and Dave Stewarts.

A decade sure flies. Delgado is now 32 years old, with two All-Star Games on his resume, and he's the franchise leader in homers, RBIs, doubles, total bases, walks and strikeouts. He also ranks up there in charitable endeavors, autographs signed and concession stand visits delayed or postponed.

The physical signposts of time are unmistakable. The flecks of gray in Delgado's two-day growth give him a distinguished elder statesman look, and it's hard to tell which has absorbed a greater pounding—his knees or the SkyDome restaurant windows when he's hot.

Barring a surprise, he's also history in Toronto. Delgado's nine full seasons in a Blue Jays uniform coincided with six third-place finishes, a fourth and two fifths. Since 1996, the team finished below .500 five times in nine tries.

And the 2004 season, almost certainly Delgado's last as a Jay, was the most disappointing yet. Toronto entered spring training with legitimate hopes of making life uncomfortable for the Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East. Six months, a managerial firing, a passel of injuries and far too much bad baseball later, the Jays were last in the division, 33 games behind the Yankees.

It's not all Carlos Delgado's fault, of course. But when you personally account for $18.5 million of a $50 million payroll, you're both an expendable commodity and an inviting target.

Goodbye, Carlos

Blue Jays general manager J.P. Ricciardi has rankled some of the media and the scouting community with his forcefulness in executing his vision for the Toronto franchise, but at least he's not wishy-washy about it. Ricciardi's gameplan for the organization revolves around moderately priced veterans and kids like Russ Adams, Alexis Rios and David Bush. And team president Paul Godfrey, the man who signed Ricciardi to a five-year contract extension in 2002, is firmly on board with the plan.

The Jays managed to find room for starter Roy Halladay, signing him to a four-year, $42 million deal in the spring, but Delgado doesn't appear to be a fit.

"Carlos has been a quality guy, and he's still a very good player, but I look up and we're in last place," Ricciardi said in the waning days of the regular season. "We'd love to keep him here, but it has to be at a number that works and allows us to address all the things we're not good at right now."

How much time do you have? The Blue Jays tied for 11th in the league with a 4.91 team ERA this season and were 12th in runs scored. Rios, the organization's new face of the future, hit one home run and had a .383 slugging percentage in 426 at-bats. It's almost scary to think how lame the team's offense might be without Delgado in the lineup.

Sentiment-Free Farewell

For a guy who refused to waive a no-trade clause in July because he wanted to stay in Toronto, Delgado wasn't very emotional during his farewell tour. As he prepared to enter the SkyDome home clubhouse for perhaps the final time on Oct. 3, he seemed neither anxious nor angry nor wistful—any of the emotions you or I might feel if we were leaving our professional home for the past decade.

Before his last at-bat in the season finale against the Yankees, Delgado received a standing ovation. He rewarded a SkyDome crowd of nearly 50,000 with a double, then began looking to the future.

Sometime in November, Delgado will file for free agency. He'll go home to Puerto Rico, and his agent, David Sloane, will begin calling to let him know who's interested.

"I'll just sit on the beach, hang out and wait for the phone to ring," Delgado said. "What else am I going to do? I'm pretty hands-on, but I'm not going to get crazy over things I can't control."

Delgado's final year in Toronto was an ordeal. He tried to play through a rib cage injury and missed the entire month of June, then caused a flap with his anti-Iraq War stance and refusal to stand for the playing of "God Bless America."

In July he invoked his no-trade clause, preventing Ricciardi from exploring a deal with the Marlins, Dodgers or Red Sox. Delgado said he made the decision because he was coming off an injury and didn't want to leave Toronto to be a two-month rental someplace.

It probably wasn't fair, but some front-office executives used Delgado's decision as a rationale to question his competitiveness. Baseball's group-thinkers branded him as a player who's content in his "comfort zone," putting up numbers for a middling team with no real chance of beating the Yankees or Red Sox.

"It raised a red flag," said an American League executive, "if only because he's a guy who hasn't been in a playoff type environment. You wonder how he'd handle the pressure, or why he'd turn down an opportunity to go to a team like the Dodgers. Maybe he had some satisfactory answers, but teams are going to want to do some digging to make sure."

Where To Next?

Still, lefty power hitters of Delgado's magnitude don't come around often on the free-agent market. "He won't have to clear any space on his mantel for a Gold Glove," said a National League scout. "But his bat sure hasn't slowed."

The consensus is that Delgado would be best served staying in the American League, where he'd benefit from the opportunity to DH here and there. The Orioles are one possibility. Even though they need pitching, owner Peter Angelos might love the thought of Delgado taking aim at the Camden Yards warehouse.

The Mariners need a replacement for Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, and the Tigers and even Devil Rays will at least inquire. In the National League, the Dodgers, Marlins and Giants could be interested, and the Diamondbacks might be a candidate depending on what happens with Richie Sexson.

If Delgado is suffering emotional pangs over the prospect of leaving Toronto, he doesn't show it.

"This city was great to me," he said, inadvertently slipping into past tense as the season wound to a close. "They took me in like it was my second home. The people are really polite and respectful, and obviously you appreciate that. But we're in the business of playing baseball. This isn't the tourism board."

No, it isn't. Decades pass and even civic treasures are expendable. At the crossroads of tradition and fiscal restraint, there's only so much room for sentiment.

Jerry Crasnick is a contributing baseball writer for ESPN.com. You can contact him by sending e-mail to jerrycrasnick@baseballamerica.com.

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