The business has turned cutthroat this season. In past years general managers often gave winking approval to August trades. The 1990 Oakland Athletics, for instance, obtained the National League batting leader, Willie McGee, en route to the American League pennant. The Toronto Blue Jays solidified their '92 club by trading for righthander David Cone and went on to win the world championship. And in what typified the common practice of courtesy calls, one American League general manager telephoned a National League counterpart last year upon seeing a relief pitcher on the waiver wire and said, "I won't claim him as long as you promise not to trade him to" the American League team's division leader. (Names omitted to protect parties from the waiver police.) "Agreed," said the National League guy.
All that changed after the last-place Pittsburgh Pirates, having announced they would not conduct a fire sale, sneaked lefthander Denny Neagle through waivers last August before trading him to the team with the best record in baseball, the Atlanta Braves, much to the embarrassment of everyone else. "After that," Lynch says, "it got harder to get people through. Now it seems that every left-handed pitcher alive is claimed."
The Player Transfer Sheet reports whether a player has passed through waivers with a simple Y or N typed next to his name. According to one general manager, the list last August included between 50 and 59 no's; this year the number of players claimed, or "blocked," soared past 100 through Sunday. Teams still try to sneak a player through by placing the per-club maximum of seven players per day on waivers (the Player Transfer Sheet could thus contain up to 196 names)—a worn-out trick called masking. Further complicating matters is the fact that some waivers are irrevocable, meaning they cannot be recalled. That distinction escaped the Pirates seven years ago, when they lost outfield prospects Julio Peguero and Wes Chamberlain to the Philadelphia Phillies by mistakenly putting them on irrevocable waivers, rather than on major league waivers.
The escalation of salaries, as well as the wild-card playoff format that keeps more teams in contention through August, has ratcheted up waiver diligence. New York Mets rookie general manager Steve Phillips is so intent on preventing competitors from obtaining pitching help, for instance, that he claimed VanLandingham, whom the Giants were trying to option to the minor leagues. Infuriated, Sabean pulled the pitcher off waivers and then released him outright rather than work out a trade with New York, or release him to the Mets. At week's end, VanLandingham was a free agent.
"Phillips went nuts, claiming everyone," says one National League general manager. "And it seemed like those he didn't claim, Dombrowski did."
Phillips and Dombrowski—who says he had never claimed a player in four previous years, while his Marlins were out of contention—have succeeded in preventing the Braves from getting help for their bullpen while fortifying their own. (The Mets obtained righthanders Mel Rojas and Turk Wendell from the Cubs; the Marlins nabbed southpaw Ed Vosberg from the Texas Rangers.)
"These things go in cycles, and this is an aggressive one," says Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz, who knows better than to complain. He may have clinched the heated '93 pennant race with San Francisco when he blocked the Montreal Expos from sending righty Dennis Martinez to the Giants. Not all general managers, however, find blocking so palatable.
"I still think the rule should be, If you want him, claim him. And if not, don't," Philadelphia general manager Lee Thomas says. "All this claiming is bad for baseball, because without it, you'd have more trades, which is fun for the fans and good for the game."
There is a caveat to the strategy of claiming players to prevent trades: Blocker beware, you might wind up with that player yourself. Such a fate befell the Giants on Aug. 8, when they claimed Mulholland to keep him from going to the Braves, the Marlins or the Mets. The Cubs, who needed to open a spot in their rotation after acquiring Mark Clark from the Mets, tried to negotiate a trade with San Francisco. The Giants had no interest in giving up any value for Mulholland, so Chicago said, "Fine, take him." The Cubs let him go for the $20,000 waiver claiming price—and the remainder of his $2.3 million contract. The move left Giants manager Dusty Baker with 13 pitchers and only four reserves on his bench.
Getting stuck with big salaries is another reason clubs are squeamish about blocking, which is why the Chicago White Sox's Belle, who is guaranteed $44 million for the next four years, went unclaimed. Says Milwaukee Brewers general manager Sal Bando, "That's why, with Rickey Henderson [whom the San Diego Padres traded to the Anaheim Angels last week and whose contract calls for him to make $5,000 per at bat], teams didn't want to put in a claim."