MIDNIGHT MADNESS WITH DIVISION RACES HEATING UP, SEATTLE WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF A FLURRY OF CURIOUS LAST-MINUTE TRADES

August 10, 1997

Less than 10 hours before baseball's trading deadline last
Thursday, the Seattle Mariners could have cured their bullpen
woes by acquiring righthanded closer Roberto Hernandez from the
Chicago White Sox for highly touted rookie outfielder Jose Cruz
Jr. "Yes, that was attractive to us," Chicago general manager
Ron Schueler says. But Seattle declared Cruz "untouchable."
Earlier in the day the Mariners also rejected the notion of
exchanging Cruz for Philadelphia's righthanded closer, Ricky
Bottalico--a deal the Phillies would likely have made--partly
because the Seattle brass feared a National League pitcher would
need time to adjust to American League hitters. Yet by the
stroke of midnight Cruz, as well as Triple A catcher Jason
Varitek, another first-round draft pick of the Mariners, was
gone, and Seattle was left with three underwhelming relievers,
each of whom is inferior to Hernandez and Bottalico.

"In a few hours," said an American League executive, "Cruz
suddenly became very touchable."

"Panic," said another league executive, "is the right word."

The turnabout involving the 23-year-old Cruz, who was shipped to
the Toronto Blue Jays for righthander Mike Timlin and lefthander
Paul Spoljaric (combined major league record: 25-29), ranked as
one of several oddities in a mild shopping spree that left the
pennant races stirred but not shaken. In addition to the
concession speech by White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf and the New
York Yankees' uncharacteristic restraint, some teams built for
the future without knowing what division they will be playing in
next season (pending the possibility of realignment) or if they
will be using the DH.

The Baltimore Orioles added a left-handed bat two days before
the deadline when they acquired DH Harold Baines (.305, 12 HRs,
52 RBIs) from the White Sox, but the St. Louis Cardinals were
the only contending club to land a major slugger--and even
mighty first baseman Mark McGwire may be too little too late for
the Cardinals, who were 8 1/2 games behind the Houston Astros in
the National League Central at week's end.

The clear winners after the deadline were the San Francisco
Giants, who picked up Hernandez, southpaw Wilson Alvarez and
righty Danny Darwin from the White Sox, and the Texas Rangers,
who signed catcher and free agent-to-be Pudge Rodriguez (page
40) to a contract extension instead of trading him. The big
loser? Seattle, which slightly upgraded its awful bullpen but at
a steep price.

The freewheeling Mariners were acting more like the Yankees than
the Yankees, giving up a top prospect the way New York did in
1988, when it sent rightfielder Jay Buhner to Seattle for first
baseman-DH Ken Phelps. (Mariners manager Lou Piniella was the
Yankees' skipper at the time.) In fact, in the past three
seasons the Mariners have traded seven first-round picks (box)
who were between 22 and 28 years old: Varitek, Cruz, Shawn
Estes, Ron Villone, Roger Salkeld, Marc Newfield and Tino
Martinez. The worst bullpen in baseball (6.20 ERA and 15 blown
saves by deadline day) had scared Seattle into parting with
Cruz, especially with the Anaheim Angels on a 20-6 tear that
ultimately put them in the American League West lead by a half
game over the Mariners at week's end.

In his first 52 major league games Cruz looked like a potential
impact player for years to come, with 13 home runs and 36 RBIs.
He needs to improve defensively, but it appeared he was going to
be the last man in the conga line of 48 leftfielders the
Mariners have tried next to centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. since
1989. However, the trade for Timlin (3-2, 2.87, nine saves) and
Spoljaric (0-3, 3.19, three saves) wasn't enough to calm
Piniella's jangly nerves, so at the last minute the Mariners
sent Varitek and righthander Derek Lowe to the Boston Red Sox
for inconsistent righthanded closer Heathcliff Slocumb (0-5,
5.79, 17 saves in 22 opportunities).

"We didn't want to trade Cruz," Piniella said. "[But] we
couldn't do anything else."

In the American League Central the front-running Cleveland
Indians benefited not only by third-place Chicago's surrender
but also by the acquisition of veteran southpaw John Smiley
(9-10, 5.23) from the Cincinnati Reds and righthander Jeff Juden
(11-5, 4.22) from the Montreal Expos. The Indians, who are
hoping to win their third straight division title, improved
without trading any of their top prospects. They appear only
mildly threatened by the injury-wracked Milwaukee Brewers, who
were 3 1/2 games behind through Sunday.

Other than San Francisco, only the Cardinals made a bold move
among National League contenders. St. Louis gave up three
righthanded pitchers, including valuable setup man T.J. Mathews,
to the Oakland Athletics for what figures to be a 55-game rental
of McGwire, who--like Alvarez and Hernandez--will be a free
agent following the season. Through Sunday the weak-hitting
Cardinals had scored two or fewer runs in 44 games, including
three straight (two of them losses) against the awful Phillies
after McGwire arrived.

"There will be a period of adjustment," Cardinals general
manager Walt Jocketty said of McGwire, who hit 34 homers and
drove in 81 runs for Oakland. "We can't expect Mark to come to a
new league and know all the ballparks and pitchers. There will
be some pressure on him, I'm sure. But he's a big boy. He can
handle it."

Said Astros first baseman Jeff Bagwell, "I don't think there's
any question that the Cardinals are the most talented team in
our division, but I'm surprised by the way they've played. I
thought they would put it all together this year."

If the Cardinals are to get past the second-place Pittsburgh
Pirates and push the Astros, they'll need help not just from
McGwire but also from other clubs. The argument for an
unbalanced schedule, in which teams would play a preponderance
of intradivisional games, never seemed more persuasive than at
the trading deadline. Clubs were scrambling to close the gap in
pennant races against teams they won't play again this season.
For instance, the Cardinals are done playing the Astros, and the
Brewers are finished with the Indians.

Ah, but the shopping season didn't really end. Teams still can
trade for players who sneak through waivers without being
blocked by rivals, as happened last August with lefthander Denny
Neagle (acquired by the Atlanta Braves), third basemen Todd
Zeile (Orioles) and Charlie Hayes (Yankees), and righthander
John Burkett (Rangers). Seattle, having already tried 18
pitchers in its bullpen, just may be among those teams rummaging.

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Although Seattle paid a high price for Timlin (left) and Spoljaric, it felt the need to pick up Slocumb too. [Mike Timlin pitching] COLOR PHOTO: MATT CAMPBELL [Jose Cruz Jr. batting]

EASY COME, EASY GO

Last week Jose Cruz Jr. (above, right) became the seventh
first-round draft choice of the Mariners to be traded by Seattle
in the last three seasons. Here's how the other six were doing
at week's end.

PLAYER YEAR DRAFTED ORGANIZATION

TINO MARTINEZ 1988 Yankees

1997 PERFORMANCE

With 36 homers and 100 RBIs, he's an MVP candidate

[PLAYER YEAR DRAFTED ORGANIZATION]

ROGER SALKELD 1989 Reds

[1997 PERFORMANCE]

Had arm problems; now 2-7 with a 7.11 ERA in Triple A

[PLAYER YEAR DRAFTED ORGANIZATION]

MARC NEWFIELD 1990 Brewers

[1997 PERFORMANCE]

Injury-plagued and hitting .229 in 50 games

[PLAYER YEAR DRAFTED ORGANIZATION]

SHAWN ESTES 1991 Giants

[1997 PERFORMANCE]

14-4 with a 3.09 ERA and an All-Star Game appearance

[PLAYER YEAR DRAFTED ORGANIZATION]

RON VILLONE 1992 Brewers

[1997 PERFORMANCE]

Reliever has 5.28 ERA; has blown both save opportunities

[PLAYER YEAR DRAFTED ORGANIZATION]

JASON VARITEK 1994 Red Sox

[1997 PERFORMANCE]

15 HRs but 71 strikeouts in 307 at bats in Triple A

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)