'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 Marinersboth potential
free agents after the seasonfor 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