Let's Make a Deal

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Copyright 1997 Adam Barnhart. All Rights Reserved. Fair use of this document.

The big fish got away. Mark McGwire, a Southern Californian, is headed off to rejoin Tony LaRussa. Two months ago, it seemed as though McGwire would rather die than head someplace other than Anaheim. And the match made sense -- the Angels have four excellent outfielders in Tim Salmon, Jim Edmonds, Garret Anderson, and Darin Erstad, along with a reasonably strong fifth outfielder in Orlando Palmeiro. This is defense strong enough that Tony Phillips, a better-than-servicable outfielder, is doing an awful lot of DHing for the Angels. After stealing two home runs from the Athletics in as many days earlier in the season, the Athletics seemed to be drooling at the most mercurial member of the Halos' outfield. It certainly looked as though Garret Anderson was headed north to hit .300 and cut one-third of the outfield butchery out of the A's diet. The press made the trade a month ago, possibly throwing in a young arm off of the Vancouver staff to sweeten the pot a little. If the trade wasn't going to exactly help both teams, the Athletics were, at least, going to pick up a player of some value for their slugger.

The Athletics, however, already have an offense. What they don't have is a pitching staff that's going to keep them in games unless Canseco, Giambi, and the remaining sluggers dial 8 three times a game. T.J. Matthews looks like someone who can help immediately, taking some of the heat off of the Chinese fire drill currently running in and out of the three-hour, 10-8 games the team's playing now (in the Oakland Coliseum, no less). Eric Ludwick and Blake Stein, at the moment, seem like garden variety pitching prospects, generic arms brought in to help with the next few years of pitching crapshoot.

The Angels didn't let the trade deadline pass without making a significant move, however. Jim Leyritz was a brilliant pre-season acquisition -- a first-rate hitter and a reasonable, if not spectacular, catcher. The best player the team has had at the position since Bob Boone's howitzer and the best offensive performer the team has had at the position since Brian Downing strapped the tools of ignorance on his .380 on-base percentage. Despite his ability and his scrappy, inspired play, with the development of Todd Greene (who really should have been playing from Day One -- was there really any reason to have him cooling his heels in Vancouver, breaking the club record for home runs in half a season when they were keeping the decent but unremarkable Jorge Fabregas with the parent club?) and the mid-season acquisition of Chad Kreuter, Leyritz basically duplicated other talent on the roster. The Angels wisely parleyed his hitting stroke and high profile into a legitimate staff anchor. Though Ken Hill has surely struggled this year, he's been a solid pitcher for several years now and a safe bet to eat some innings that have, to date, gone to minor leaguers who could use some seasoning. A rotation of a healthy Mark Langston, Chuck Finley, All-Star Jason Dickson, Ken Hill, and streaky knuckleballer Dennis Springer looks like a better bet than anyone else in the AL West, perhaps even matching the Yankees' staff should the Angels find themselves in the wildcard rather than divisional chase.

Better still for the Angels' chances, the team is scoring about six runs a game since the All-Star break with a lineup that doesn't include McGwire. Tony Phillips remains a wonder, doing his Rickey Henderson impersonation into his late-30's, appearing to be a lock to score 100 or 110 runs again this year. Tim Salmon, with Phillips and Darin Erstad hitting in front of him, should drive in his 100 to 120 runs. Edmonds, when he's even close to healthy, is an offensive force equal to Salmon, and Anderson, even without much in the way of plate discipline and only average power, is making a contribution, among the league leaders in hits and batting average. Todd Greene can only help -- he may not hit for average like Piazza, but he has almost as much power and will take a walk when it's offered to him. Until he goes out and does it, there's reason for reserving judgement, but he looks an awful lot like his cross-basin rival to my eyes.

Where McGwire is concerned, the Angels still have hope: he'll be more expensive on the open market, but the Cardinals have only two months to go out and convert McGwire to the ways of the NL and convince him that they're serious about winning. McGwire's family is still in Southern California and the Angels are running on Disney money now, which seems to be able to cure a few ills. They have four outstanding young outfielders and a quality fifth outfielder, Orlando Palmeiro, who is still in the "prospect" category and could probably play regularly for another team, leaving them with some decent trade bait to strengthen their hand still further. Combine this with a reasonably good pitching staff and the Halos can at least make the "contender" argument in batting their eyelashes at McGwire should he become a free agent.

Like the Angels, the Seattle Mariners seem to have done a good job in getting things lined up for a run at the pennant. Unlike the Angels, the Mariners seem to be willing to take a bite out of next year's pennant hopes to make the run. Mike Timlin had an impressive rookie season and has tailed off since, while Paul Spoljaric has been pretty solid since entering the league without the overtones of brilliance. In that sense, bringing these two and Bosox stopper Heathcliff Slocumb into the bullpen sounds like a good idea, plugging some holes that Charlton and Company have been poking in the sides of Mariner leads this year. On the other hand, for this honor you're going to give up Jose Cruz Jr. and Jason Varitek? Cruz already looked like one of the best hitters in the Mariner lineup. He'd been hitting in the bottom third of the order, sure, but he'd been as effective an offensive player as anyone in the lineup, short of Martinez, Rodriguez, and the other Junior. It isn't often that you get a crack at someone with that much promise at that price. I'd have traded the whole Blue Jay bullpen to get him. At this point in their respective careers, I'm not sure I wouldn't trade Clemens for him. He immediately walks in doing battle with Delgado as the best hitter in Toronto and he's only going to get better. The Varitek trade is less egregious a sin. Slocumb, at least, is a legitimate closer, and Varitek isn't quite the proven hitter Cruz is. On the other hand, Dan Wilson is probably the weakest link in the starting lineup, a so-so hitter whose assembled some awesome numbers (for a catcher) by hitting in the middle of a lineup that gets a ridiculous number of people on base. Varitek sure looks like a step up to me, and it is easier to replace a left fielder than a catcher who can swing the bat. These trades may help this year; they may even help propel the Mariners to the World Championship. If they don't, though, they have the makings of a disaster.

Brian Sabean seems to be 1997's Genius of the Year. He's gotten away with trading one of the two marquee names on the Giants' roster, Matt Williams, bringing in three players, reliever Julian Tavarez, second bagger Jeff Kent, and shortstop Jose Vizcaino, who have each made a big an impact on the success of the Giants as Williams has to the Indians tepid first-place performance through July. As told by the Bay Area press, his trade of six prospects to the White Sox for pitchers Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez, and Danny Darwin is an outright theft of talent from the Chisox's reviled owner, Jerry Colangelo. In reality, the trade is a little more even than it seems at first glance. Darwin's a marginal talent at this point in his career, a swingman who's no better than the pitching prospects the Giants already have on the roster. Alvarez and Hernandez are both quality pitchers who will strengthen the staff, but the Giants already have an effective closer in Rod Beck and a quality setup man in Tavarez, making Hernandez something of a redundant talent. Wilson Alvarez should make a larger impact still, but he's more of a two or three starter-type than a staff ace, although his 9-8 record this year is more a function of poor offensive support than any failings on Alvarez's part.

The real kicker in this deal isn't the quality of talent exchanged. The Giants have picked up three pitchers that will help them more through the rest of the season than the collection of talent sent East. But Alvarez and Hernandez are both in the final year of $4,000,000-plus contracts and the White Sox picked up six prospects for the honor of renting out three pitchers for the pennant chase. Michael Caruso, still playing only A ball, is the marquee name among the prospects. While it would be tough to tag someone who's only playing in the California League as a "can't miss" prospect, Caruso sure looks like one, hitting .333 with 50 RBI. He may already be better than Vizcaino, and with Ozzie Guillen currently manning short, Caruso looks like he could add a little punch to the position for the Sox. Among the remaining five, Keith Foulke should find himself in the big leagues next year, and AA Shreveport closer Bobby Howry should be able to contribute by '99 or '00 ('00?).

While the deal does make sense from a long-term perspective on the Sox side, what doesn't make sense is the numbers of chips Reinsdorf cashed in this early in a pennant race his team is still a part of. The pacesetting Indians are hardly burning up the league, the White Sox a staggering 3 1/2 games out of first. Sure, Chicago is only drawing 20,000 a game for a lineup that includes Frank Thomas and Albert Belle and they have been floundering around .500 all year, but with the offensive sock the team has, a few good pitching performances could have them leading the AL Central. It's still possible, of course, for Chicago to run off with the crown. Two days ago, however, their chances were hovering around 20%. Now they look like a 10-1 longshot, at best.

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