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Teams play waiting game with players

Vladimir Guerrero in a Pirates uniform. Cristian Guzman playing shortstop for the Rays next season.

(Pinch yourself here.)

If baseball owners maneuver their way through the legal webs on the path toward contraction of two teams _ commissioner Bud Selig thinks it can be done by the end of the month _ being the worst could bring the best for clubs like Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

But it's questionable whether either franchise could afford Guerrero, Guzman or somebody else of that caliber after a dispersion draft.

More than 140 players have filed for free agency, but expect clubs to proceed cautiously in the next few weeks.

"I think it's too early to say whether teams are holding off," said agent Alan Meersand, who represents the Rays' lone free agent, shortstop Chris Gomez.

Waiting might be the smart move.

At least 80 players on major-league rosters and possibly 200-plus minor-leaguers could be dispersed, though the union has called the possibility of contraction preposterous.

One rumored dispersion draft scenario has Expos owner Jeffrey Loria taking three major-league and five minor-league players to Florida and purchasing the Marlins. Florida owner John Henry then takes the Angels off Disney's hands in Anaheim.

The remaining teams would select in the same order they will pick in the June amateur draft. That means the Pirates would have the No. 5 choice; the Rays would go No. 6.

Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay both went 62-100 this season _ tying for the worst record in the majors _ but the Pirates would pick first because the NL has the first pick in June's amateur draft.

"I think there are 20-30 players _ top players _ with a chance to go to another team to compete for a world championship, just like we did this year," Arizona's Jay Bell said. "It should be a lot better."

Not for the average free agent, looking for a pay raise and instead forced to take a cut.

"If you've got a whole bunch of free agents on the market, it's going to depress the market for the Tino Martinezes, the Barry Bondses, the elite guys," Meersand said. "It's going to trickle down the second and third tier free agents like Chris Gomez."

GOING NOWHERE: Apparently some involved with the Diamondbacks are livid about the idea of Arizona being moved to the American League to accommodate the contraction.

"Baseball founds itself on tradition," second baseman Craig Counsell said. "I don't know how you can move the World Series champion to another league."

Managing general partner Jerry Colangelo called the notion "an abomination."

Besides could Bob Brenly really manage against his players in the All-Star Game next year?

THE FIRST UNIT: Randy Johnson might be getting his ring finger sized, but he's still not No. 1 in the eyes of the Elias Sports Bureau.

That distinction went to Colorado's Todd Helton.

The first baseman was rated the best player in the majors.

"That's amazing," Helton said. "They may want to go back to the computer and do a recount."

Elias comes up with the rankings based on stats from the previous two seasons. Helton, who hit .354 with 113 doubles, 91 home runs and 293 the past two seasons, scored 99.13 out of a possible 100 points. Johnson got 98.25.

CHARITY GAME: Rays pitcher Wilson Alvarez hosted his first charity softball game Saturday in Maracaibo, Venezuela.

Among the 30 players expected to participate were Dennis Martinez, Quilvio Veras, Javy Lopez, Richard Hidalgo, Magglio Ordonez and Julio Franco. Profits go to the Wilson Alvarez Foundation, which provides food, water and clothes to the needy in the pitcher's home country.

TRIPLE NO-NO: Two Rays helped combine on a no-hitter in the Arizona Fall League on Monday.

Jason Standridge and Delvin James, along with Brewers prospect Brian Mallette, combined on a seven-inning no hitter in Maryvale's 3-0 win against Mesa.

Standridge, who threw 19 innings with a 4.66 ERA for the Rays this season, started and went four innings, striking out seven and walking one.

THE LAST WORD: "Gerry (Hunsicker, Astros general manager) called last night offering me the job. I told him I'd sleep on it.

"I called him back in 45 minutes and told him I sleep fast." _ new Astros manager Jimy Williams on the hiring process.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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