Kirk Gibson is still a Dodger. Teddy Higuera is a Brewer. Dave Smith, Mike Scott and Danny Darwin remain with the Astros, and Kevin Gross continues to pitch in the Expos' rotation. Why? Partly because the waiver system no longer operates in the manner of a gentleman's agreement among baseball's general managers. The gentlemen have gotten nasty.
One American League general manager says that 25 players were claimed on waivers after this season's July 31 trading deadline, effectively blocking a number of trades. Last year at this time, he says, only 10 players were claimed, and the year before it was only five or six.
"It's clearly more difficult to get players through waivers than it was four or five years ago," says A's general manager Sandy Alderson. "There's more intense competition in that area. The philosophy in our organization is that the front office must play as hard as the players do on the field. It would be indefensible to allow the players to play their hardest for four or five months, then have the front office not do whatever it can to improve the team or to prevent another team from improving itself."
In a nutshell, the waiver system works this way: From Aug. 1 through Nov. 10, a player on the 40-man roster must clear waivers before a team can trade him. If only one team makes a claim on a player, the team that placed him on waivers has 48 hours to decide whether to let him go, try to get something of value in return for him or simply withdraw his name. If the player is withdrawn, he can't be placed on waivers again for 30 days. If a player is placed on waivers a second time during a waiver period and is claimed, the claiming team must put him on its 25-man roster and pay his former team a $20,000 waiver fee. If two or more teams claim a player, a trade cannot be made, but the player can still be sent to the team that is lowest in the standings, for the waiver fee.
Several years ago, it was relatively easy to get waivers on a player because, as a sort of professional courtesy, many general managers would not claim a player whom they knew was being included in a trade. But general managers have begun playing rougher in the past few years.
"Now, if there's a question about [where a player might be traded]," says Alderson, "you err on the side of the best interest of your team."
Waiver information is supposed to be confidential, but White Sox general manager Larry Himes has admitted that he was the one who claimed Gibson on waivers, perhaps fearing that a long-rumored deal with the A's might go through. Boston was interested in the Astros' Smith after Red Sox closer Jeff Reardon was lost for the season with a back injury. An American League source says that the Orioles claimed Smith and a number of other pitchers in order to prevent Boston from improving its staff.
So how was it that the Pirates were able to pick up a much-needed lefthanded starter in Zane Smith, whom they got in a trade with the Expos on Aug. 8? Well, Smith's career 45-66 record isn't exactly Koufaxian. Plus, he will make $660,000 this year, and the Pirates will have to pay the last two months of that. Also, Smith can be a free agent after this year. And besides that, even Pirate general manager Larry Doughty admits, "We were held up." He gave up three young players for Smith—pitcher Scott Ruskin and two top minor league prospects, outfielder Moises Alou and shortstop Willie Greene—in an all-out effort to win the division from the Mets this season.
The pressure to win now is greater than ever in baseball. And even though 25 players were claimed, there are still many more who have cleared waivers. There may yet be more shortsighted trades before the playoff rosters are set on Sept. 1.