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To Deal or Not to Deal?

That's the question facing some would-be contenders as the trading deadline approaches

by Tim Crothers

Posted: Wed July 1, 1998

Sports Illustrated '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 (see 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.

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."

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Issue date: July 6, 1998

To Deal or Not to Deal?

No Zeal For Zeile

Colon: The Tribe's Surprising Ace

Going to Market

What were they thinking?

The Little Show: On the Firing Line

Spotlight: Ben Grieve

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