Beware of gift horse from Tigers

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Cincinnati Reds got Ruben Sierra for about 11 cents on the dollar. This is not to say that they got themselves a bargain.

When a team as terrible as the Detroit Tigers is willing to swallow nearly $5 million in salary in order to rid itself of a particular player, problems are automatically presumed.

Caveat emptor, as they used to say on those road trips along the Appian Way. Let the buyer beware. If a famous outfielder is available at fire sale prices, it is prudent to inspect for structural damage.

Ruben Sierra has been traded four times since the summer of 1992 - three times in the past 15 months - and this is not because of any great demand for his services. He is a pricey player with declining skills who seems to outlive his usefulness about the time he finishes unpacking in a new place.

Sierra is not the slugger he once was, but that doesn't begin to explain Detroit's eagerness to dump him. He is a defensive disaster area whose range and baserunning ability have been eroded by a succession of hamstring pulls. His motivation has been an issue since he started making big money. And still, he has driven home 1,024 runs in the major leagues. He carries credentials.

Bowden hardly fooled

You wonder how a player who has been traded for such luminaries as Jose Canseco, Danny Tartabull and Cecil Fielder ends up in a deal for a couple of Class A players and a huge salary subsidy. You wonder how a 31-year-old star could flame out so soon.

You wonder what the Tigers know that Jim Bowden does not.

''We're going to have to live with some inadequacies,'' Bowden acknowledged Tuesday. ''People have called Ruben a little bit lax at times. Some of the reports say you've got to stay on him defensively.''

Other reports were not so charitable. Sierra started 22 games in the outfield after the Tigers obtained him from New York, and committed five errors.

''His defense ranged,'' a Detroit writer said Tuesday, ''from mediocre to indifferent.''

After a botched fly ball against the Yankees on Sept. 11, Detroit manager Buddy Bell confined Sierra to designated hitter duties for the remainder of the season. The results were equally distressing. In 40 games with the Tigers, Sierra struck only one home run.

''Trading him,'' said Tigers General Manager Randy Smith, ''does not adversely affect our club for next year.''

''We believe that part of the reason his power is down is because of a lack of flexibility from lifting weights,'' Bowden said. ''We told him that No. 1, we're going to get him on a flexibility program. We're going to play him in left field, and we want him to play 162 games.

''We told him he has more risk here than anybody involved. More than the Tigers. More than the Reds. He's in the fifth year of a five-year contract. 'If you ever want to sign another contract in that range, you're going to have to produce.

Sierra better fit than Mitchell

Bowden has become baseball's Bob Villa, the king of the fixer-uppers. He purchases distressed property with an eye toward turning a quick profit. He signed Ron Gant at a scratch-and-dent discount, hired Eric Davis out of retirement, and was handsomely rewarded both times. He views Ruben Sierra as another low-risk proposition, with the potential for high returns.

''Kevin Mitchell calling his teammates cowards and losers wasn't something we wanted to count on,'' Bowden said. ''No question we think Ruben's a better fit.''

Hand-to-mouth player development may not be the best way to build a contending ballclub, but it is very much the direction the Reds are headed.

Barring a late spending surge by Reds owner Marge Schott, the Reds' 1997 budget is not going to allow for big losses. The payroll must be slashed, and the roster will consequently consist increasingly of refugees.

Under the circumstances, Ruben Sierra may be as much as the Reds could reasonably expect.

''You always dream of trading for the perfect player,'' Mets executive Frank Cashen once said. ''But you can't, because if an excellent player isn't scarred in some way, you don't get a chance to trade for them.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published Oct. 30, 1996.