If the Price Is Right
Last week the Orioles asked the Expos about the possibility of obtaining Montreal rightfielder Larry Walker in a trade. The week before, it had been the Reds who asked, and earlier in the season the Red Sox and the Yankees had made inquiries. The interest is understandable: Walker, 27, is a talent "second to none," says Expo manager Felipe Alou.
Walker has power (eight homers and a National League-leading 26 doubles through Sunday), he hits for average (.288), he has speed (eight steals in 10 tries), and he's a Gold Glove fielder with one of the best arms around. What's more, his instincts for the game are amazing, especially considering that he played more hockey than baseball while growing up in Maple Ridge, B.C. One National League advance scout says he has a harder time filling out reports on Walker than on any other player because Walker hits to all fields and there's no safe way to pitch him.
Still, there are several reasons Montreal would consider dealing Walker: 1) The Expos are operating under a tight budget, his 1994 salary is $4 million, and he can be a free agent after this season; 2) Montreal must make room for outfielder Rondell White, perhaps the best player in the minors; 3) there's a concern about Walker's willingness to play hard in every game: and 4) his preference for being one of the guys rather than a team leader suggests that he may be too easygoing. Although he has been the Expos' top run producer so far this year (and was in '92, as well), Walker doesn't seem to embrace that role, which may help explain why he has yet to hit 25 homers in a season or drive in 100 runs or steal 30 bases—all marks believed to be well within his reach.
"He's a young player, and Canadian players and Latin players are even younger emotionally because they didn't come through the American baseball program," says Alou. "I've seen him around other players, and he's still a kid. Sometimes he looks like he's just glad to be here. To be great, you have to kick yourself in the pants almost every day and stay focused. You can't change the inside of a player—there's no time for that. He's a happy-go-lucky person, but he might turn into a lion next year."
Walker has heard the talk that he's not always playing hard. "I don't know where that comes from," he says. He also disputes those who say he's an underachiever: "People say I should be a 30-30 guy, but I just got to 20-20 last year, and now people want 30-30, even 40-40. I don't know what my potential is."
The Reds didn't see the lion in Walker, so instead they focused their trade efforts—successfully, as it turned out—on centerfielder Deion Sanders of the Braves. In fact, none of the teams that approached the Expos about Walker had made a proposal that came close to completing a deal. "I really don't want to trade him unless I'm told to by ownership," says Montreal general manager Kevin Malone. "If I am told to, I have to be in a position to know what I'll get in return."
Malone concedes that Walker's perceived value isn't as high as it should be for someone so gifted, but he says that the shortfall is mostly the result of the stagnant trade market brought on by the threat of a players' strike that might occur as early as next month. "I feel bad for Larry," says Malone of the persistent trade rumors that go all the way back to spring training. "I'd like to end all the talk, or do something."
Last winter the Expos started negotiations with Walker on a contract extension, but the talks didn't go far. "I have no idea what's going on," Walker says. "I'm waiting for someone from the front office to pull me aside and tell me that the trade rumors aren't true. I wish they would fill me in. But the longer it goes, the more I think they're about to trade me."
He's No. 1