TO DEAL OR NOT TO DEAL?
That's the question facing some would-be contenders as the
trading deadline approaches
'Tis the season of the tweeners. With the trade deadline looming
at the end of July, the next two weeks are a critical time for
several teams stranded in baseball no-man's land, struggling to
decide if they should add talent (and more high salaries) for a
run at a postseason berth or trade away talent (and salaries) to
get prospects for the future.
The tweeners act like stressed-out traders on the floor of a
stock exchange, with just the slightest market fluctuations
transforming them from buyers into sellers and back again. "It's
a difficult position to be in," says the Orioles' Pat Gillick,
general manager of the most unpredictable tweener in a group
that includes the Rockies, Cardinals, Phillies and Blue Jays
(chart). "Over the next several weeks we'll monitor the progress
of our team and the teams ahead of us on a daily basis, create
blueprints to be buyers or sellers and then let our team dictate
which direction we go. Nobody wants to admit on August 1 that
the last 60 days of the season won't matter, but you've got to
be realistic. It's a gut call."
Baltimore began this season with baseball's highest payroll
($70.4 million) and had expectations to match, but the club was
just 37-45 at week's end. The O's are so volatile that in the
past six weeks they have negotiated to acquire Mike Piazza from
the Dodgers and Randy Johnson from the Mariners--both potential
free agents after the season--for short-term improvement, and
discussed deals to unload Rafael Palmeiro and Roberto Alomar for
prospects. In other words Baltimore has considered everything
from a cavalry charge to unmitigated surrender.
July 5, 1998
Gillick made his name as a shrewd buyer during successful
stretch drives as Toronto's general manager in the late '80s and
early '90s. In each of the past two seasons he helped get the
Orioles into the playoffs with July acquisitions: Todd Zeile and
Pete Incaviglia in '96, and Harold Baines and Geronimo Berroa in
'97. This year, however, Gillick finds himself with few enticing
prospects left to trade, though he does have the wherewithal to
absorb a large salary or to include cash in a deal for an
established star. Still, he harbors doubts about the wisdom of
spending more on a team that, through Sunday, was 11 1/2 games
out of a wild-card spot. The final decision will rest with O's
owner Peter Angelos, a man who is loath to give up on his
already considerable investment in this season. But how long can
any owner keep digging into his pockets to help an uninspired
team that is playing below .500?
The uncertainty is particularly disruptive for Baltimore's
players. "We could run off a five-game winning streak and be
right back in the wild-card race," says Palmeiro. "Or we could
lose five straight and I could be wearing a different uniform. A
lot is riding on the next two weeks."
If the Orioles decide to be buyers, they must jump-start their
ailing pitching staff with a significant acquisition such as
Johnson or a reliable closer to replace Armando Benitez.
"Ultimately we would like to try to win now and build for
tomorrow," says Baltimore assistant general manager Kevin
Malone. "All of the teams in our position are trying to kill two
birds with one stone, but I don't know if there is such a stone."
Marooned in Miami
NO ZEAL FOR ZEILE
Although contenders and teams on the bubble are discussing deals
to acquire help for the stretch drive, Marlins third baseman
Todd Zeile doesn't seem to be wanted anywhere, even though he
hit 31 home runs last season, yearns to be traded and plays for
a penny-pinching team desperate to get rid of him. On May 15
Zeile was completing a move into his new house just outside Los
Angeles when the Dodgers suddenly sent him and Mike Piazza to
Florida in a monumental seven-player deal. After being dealt
from a possible contender to a club that could finish with one
of the worst records ever, Zeile comforted himself with the
notion that he and Piazza were merely trade bait for the Marlins
and would soon move on. At first, Zeile thought the pair would
be moved together in a package deal to the Cubs or the Mets, but
on May 22 Piazza was dealt to the Mets by himself. Now Zeile,
who wasn't supposed to last a week in baseball purgatory, has
been there for six and counting. "I didn't hope to be here this
long," Zeile says, "but I was aware of the possibility."
Zeile has proved difficult to deal because his power numbers are
down (he had 10 homers at week's end) and his salary is high (he
will earn $3.2 million this season and again in '99). He didn't
help his cause by hitting just .182 in his first two weeks as a
Marlin. "I distracted myself to the point that my performance
suffered," Zeile says. "The only way to get through it was to
resign myself to the fact that I may be here indefinitely."
With his new and improved attitude, Zeile had hit .345 in his
last 16 games through Sunday, but Florida still hadn't been able
to deal him. Among contenders, only the Rangers and the Cubs
appear to need a third baseman. However, after hearing that a
couple of clubs had inquired about him as a catcher, Zeile has
started working out behind the plate, where he began his career
with the Cardinals in '89 before switching to third base in '91.
Zeile has recently caught Florida pitchers during some bullpen
sessions, and though he has yet to catch in a game, he is
willing to audition in one if it will seal a deal that would
send him to his seventh team in the past four seasons. Says
Zeile, "The light at the end of the tunnel is that I'll
hopefully have the chance to be with a contending team before
the year is out."
THE TRIBE'S SURPRISING ACE
As any high schooler who has just been forced to read The Iliad
and The Odyssey can tell you, an epic must have three basic
elements: seemingly interminable length, a fair amount of action
and a main character capable of performing physical feats of
mythic proportions. The most recent saga to meet those criteria:
the 10-minute, 20-pitch, 14-foul-ball confrontation between
Indians starter Bartolo Colon and Astros shortstop Ricky
Gutierrez that took place in one at bat in last Friday night's
showdown of Central Division leaders in Cleveland.
The hero of that epic tale turned out to be Colon. The
23-year-old righty threw 18 fastballs during the at bat, the
last of which dove straight at Gutierrez's shoe tops, causing
him to flail helplessly and finally strike out. More impressive
was the fact that even though he was facing Gutierrez in the
eighth inning on an unbearably hot and humid night, Colon hit 99
on the radar gun five times at Gutierrez.
Velocity is nothing new for Colon. Success--at least at the
major league level--is. As a rookie last year, Colon struggled
to a 4-7 record and a 5.65 ERA during five stints with the
Indians. After he picked up the victory in Cleveland's 4-2 win
over Houston last Friday, his '98 record stood at 8-4 and his
2.51 ERA was the second best in the American League. He had held
opponents to a .207 batting average, the lowest in the league.
"This year he's been more comfortable," says Indians pitching
coach Mark Wiley. "Even if you have great talent, you still have
to feel like you belong and feel relaxed at the big league
level. It takes young players time."
Colon, who packs 215 pounds on his six-foot frame and has legs
like oak trunks, has always thrown hard, but before this year he
always threw the ball straight. That was O.K. in the minors (he
went 7-1 and tossed a no-hitter for Triple A Buffalo last
season), but it didn't work against major league hitters. This
year he has mastered a two-seam fastball, which reaches the
plate almost as fast as his aforementioned 99-mph, four-seam
heater. But while the four-seamer comes right down Main Street,
the two-seamer takes some confounding detours. "We wanted to get
him something he could keep down in the strike zone to go along
with his higher fastball," says Wiley. "We didn't want him to
stay on one plane too much." The plan worked. During the Tribe's
recent 11-0 rout of the Yankees, in which Colon gave up just
three hits in eight innings, New York third baseman Scott
Brosius strolled over to Indians third base coach Jeff Newman
and lamented, "It's bad enough he throws so hard, but none of
his pitches is straight."
As for becoming more comfortable, the soft-spoken Colon, who
speaks little English, has benefited from spending the
off-season in Cleveland and getting acclimated to the town. He
has also worked extensively with Charles Maher, the Indians'
team psychologist. "I've learned how to put everything into
perspective," Colon says through an interpreter. "The key word
here is focus. In actual throwing time, you're talking about 10
minutes per game. So for those 10 minutes, we work on putting
everything into focus."
With his manager, Mike Hargrove, due to pick the American League
All-Star pitching staff this week, Colon appeared to be a
virtual lock to make the Midsummer Classic. Hargrove has even
said that Colon could be his starter, and the pitcher's stats
would put to rest any claims of favoritism. Pretty heady stuff
for a kid who was sent down to Buffalo five times last year.
GOING TO MARKET
The Orioles aren't the only team facing some tough decisions in
the weeks before the July 31 trading deadline. Here are the
other most notable teams on the bubble and a brief look at the
dilemma each faces.
TEAM PAYROLL* (RANK) SKINNY
COLORADO $47.4 (13th). Disappointing Rockies, 12 games back in
the wild-card race at week's end, are about ready to bail.
Barring a surge into contention, prime candidates to be traded
are outfielders Dante Bichette and Ellis Burks, both free agents
after this season.
LOS ANGELES $47.9 (12th). New Dodgers G.M. Tommy Lasorda has
already talked to Seattle in another attempt to add Randy
Johnson and to Cincinnati about acquiring closer Jeff Shaw or
shortstop Barry Larkin, but with the team falling further out of
the wild-card race (eight games back through Sunday) and
committing to young prospects, Lasorda is more likely to be a
PHILADELPHIA $36.1 (19th). Nobody, including Phillies
management, expected the organization to face this quandary, but
the team trailed the Giants, the wild-card leader, by only six
games at week's end. Philly could use a reliable starter to back
up Curt Schilling but will not trade a prospect for a quick fix.
If they decide to become sellers, the Phils will try to deal
closer Mark Leiter (or even Ricky Bottalico if he returns from
the DL in time), starter Mark Portugal and outfielder Gregg
ST. LOUIS $52.6 (6th). The Cards are in a bind. They trailed
five teams in the wild-card race through Sunday and might want
to get prospects for outfielder Brian Jordan and second baseman
Delino DeShields, who are on the trading block. But they can't
make a mockery of Mark McGwire's home run chase (and cheat the
three million fans who will come to see it) by abandoning the
race. To salvage the season they need a starting pitcher
(Toronto's Juan Guzman and Cincinnati's Pete Harnisch are
possibilities), and they've become interested in Larkin,
especially since shortstop Royce Clayton went on the DL on June
25 with a strained rib-cage muscle.
TORONTO $48.6 (11th). Just when it looked as though the Blue
Jays would be certain sellers, the team ran off a six-game
winning streak last week that pushed them back into playoff
contention. To stay in the chase the team needs another run
producer to supplement Jose Canseco and Carlos Delgado, and
perhaps a lefty setup man. If Toronto becomes a seller, Guzman
could go to the Cardinals, closer Randy Myers could go to
Atlanta, and third baseman Ed Sprague would be available to
anyone who would take him.
*In millions, based on Opening Day payroll.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
The Cardinals signed Stanford pitcher Chad Hutchinson to a
four-year, $3.5 million contract last week, the most money ever
given to a first-year player by the team that drafted him, even
though he was only the 48th pick. Why so much? St. Louis G.M.
Walt Jocketty admits he was motivated by time pressure because
Hutchinson, Stanford's top quarterback, was preparing to return
to school this week to get ready for football practice. (He'll
now give up football.) But the Cards also used the signing to
send a message to first-round pick J.D. Drew, who still isn't
budging from his $11 million contract demand. Jocketty believes
that with Hutchinson in the fold, the Cardinals can play
hardball with Drew because they've already signed a premier pick.
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