Saturday, August 21, 1999

GM trying to walk high waiver wire




BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jim Bowden is bluffing. He is playing waiver wire poker without the cash to take on another big contract. He is determined to block any deals that would bolster his rivals, but he must be careful not to claim a player he actually might have to take.

        “It can get tricky,” the Cincinnati Reds general manager said before the Reds' 5-3 loss to Montreal Friday night. “But I think it's safe to say there won't be a starting pitcher who makes it through. Or a relief pitcher. If you wanted to make a deal, the time to do it was at the trading deadline.”

        Baseball grows increasingly cutthroat as the pennant race proceeds, especially now in the age of wild-card playoff berths. In olden days, the priority at this point in the season was to prevent division rivals from improving themselves through last-minute acquisitions. Now, the Reds must concern themselves not only with Houston getting help, but with the roster maneuvers of the New York Mets and Atlanta Braves.

        So many players are on waivers at this stage of the season that it can be tough to tell which are being dumped, which are being dealt and which are just decoys. A good GM can earn his keep this time of year. A bad one can blow his budget.

Postseason poker
        “In today's market, it can get dangerous,” Reds manager Jack McKeon said. “Sometimes, some of these guys, they think they're going to outsmart everybody, and they outsmart themselves. San Diego thought they were blocking Atlanta from getting Randy Myers and they got stuck with a $12 million contract. When I was in San Diego, I always said, "If you want to claim one of my guys, claim 'em. You might get 'em.'”

        Many players are put on waivers simply as a way to test the market. If enough clubs show interest, the waivers are revoked and the trade talks begin. In other cases, clubs are trying to unload big contracts, hoping some team chasing a pennant will suffer a lapse in judgment.

        “I used to get waivers on everybody,” said McKeon, formerly the general manager of the San Diego Padres. “I put Tony Gwynn through. I knew he wasn't going to get claimed because they (other teams) knew I wasn't going to trade him.” Sometimes, McKeon said, he'd put three or four "'untouchables” on the waiver wire to camouflage the presence of another player he wanted to deal. In those days, few insincere claims were made because of an unspoken “gentlemen's agreement” among club executives. Few deals were blocked.

        “It's a different breed today,” McKeon said.

Careful, careful
        Bowden says he starts his scoreboard-watching on Opening Day. He watches the transaction wire the way a mother hovers over a newborn child. Should some player of consequence be placed on waivers before the end of the season, Bowden can be expected to put in a claim in order to block a deal that might disrupt baseball's delicate balance of power.

        His problem is that he would be hard-pressed to pay for the player if some other GM should call his bluff. Among the problems of the Reds' attendance shortfall is that it limits Bowden's financial flexibility to protect his flanks. Bowden thinks the resourceful Braves may have one more move left to make. He suspects the resource-poor Reds probably will have to make do with the players at hand.

        Happily, the other clubs that might be disposed to block deals are equally diligent and have deeper pockets. Neither the Mets nor the Braves want to see any of their potential wild-card rivals reinforced. Both of these teams can afford to thwart any potential trade the other might make, an indirect benefit to the cash-conscious Reds. Pennant races sometimes make stranger bedfellows than Tequila at closing time.

        Right now, the Reds' main interest is overcoming Houston. Next month, it may be more important to subdue New York or Atlanta. So long as Bowden can be sure no star player sneaks through waivers, the Reds figure to go down to the wire.

        Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your e-mail at tsullivan@enquirer.com.

        SULLIVAN ARCHIVE