Trading at winter meetings has frozen over

BASEBALL

December 08, 1991|By PETER SCHMUCK

MIAMI -- It's time for a little conventional wisdom. The winter meetings are, after all, baseball's annual trading convention, even if free agency has turned the art of the deal into something of a blank canvas.

There used to be intrigue. There used to be suspense. There used to be a trading deadline, which allowed the meetings to build to a crescendo and close with a flourish. This used to be fun.

It was a hot stove festival -- a week when a rumor could incubate for 20 minutes in a smoky hotel room and blossom into a three-way deal. The game has changed, perhaps even for the better, but the winter meetings definitely have taken a turn for the worse.

Oh, there was some excitement last year. The Toronto Blue Jays and the San Diego Padres got together for an old-fashioned bull session and somebody said, "What if we traded you Tony Fernandez and Fred McGriff for Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar?" and it actually happened.

That used to happen regularly before the agents took over. Now, it happens about as often as a 4-13 pitcher takes a cut in pay. Now, the winter meetings are where frustrated general managers gather to slobber over anyone who has completed six years of major-league service and is still breathing.

Last year, a handful of clubs sat around all week waiting for Franklin Stubbs to decide where he wanted to play. No offense to Stubbs, who probably is a very nice guy, but he wasn't exactly going to change the balance of power in the American League East.

The Baltimore Orioles were one of the teams that made a play for Stubbs. They also made a run at left-handed pitcher Matt Young. Stubbs batted .213 with 38 RBI for the Milwaukee Brewers, the "winner" of the Franklin Stubbs Derby in 1991. Young was 3-7 with a 5.18 ERA for the Boston Red Sox. The Orioles were lucky to end up a day late and a million dollars short in each case, but they apparently didn't gain anything from the experience.

Once again, they are trying to weigh performance and price as they scan the market for a cost-effective free-agent pitcher. Their interest has centered on Bob Walk, Joe Hesketh and Kirk McCaskill, none of whom is a lock to win 15 games next year. They also have been beating the bushes hoping to find another (( Todd Frohwirth. This year's model is six-year minor-league free agent Eric Hetzel.

Conventional wisdom says that you get what you pay for, but the Orioles seem determined to find a different route to the World Series. That's why this week could be an important one for general manager Roland Hemond, who never met a winter meeting he didn't like. He seldom comes home empty-handed.

If only the rest of baseball would cooperate. If only there were a team looking to trade front-line pitching for every five teams looking to acquire it. If only there were as much to motivate trading activity (a deadline, for instance) as there is to discourage it. If only there were a first baseman shortage instead of a glut. Then, and only then, would this be an exciting week to be an Orioles fan.

Instead, it will be another adventure in lobby sitting. Hemond will talk to a dozen teams and then treat the fruitless trade discussions as if they were atomic secrets. The Orioles will negotiate with a half-dozen free agents only to find that they aren't really free -- an annual revelation. Most of what you read will be rumor or speculation, but it will be more exciting than anything that really transpires. So enjoy it.

In the meantime, here's some more conventional wisdom to ponder:

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Conventional wisdom: Many of the top-quality free agents have signed, so the free-agent logjam will not be as pronounced as it has been in past years.

Unconventional wisdom: Many general managers still haven't been informed that Stubbs signed with the Brewers last year, so trading activity will again be slow to develop.

Conventional wisdom: Signing free-agent pitchers to long-term contracts is a bad idea, since statistical analysis shows that performance generally declines in the third, fourth and fifth years of a multi-year deal.

Unconventional wisdom: Mediocre pitchers don't command long-term contracts, so payroll-conscious teams can see a decline in performance right away.

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Conventional wisdom: Everyone knows the Orioles do not have much to trade, so they will have trouble making any significant moves.

Unconventional wisdom: The Orioles' talent shortage has been greatly exaggerated. According to one respected supermarket tabloid, third baseman Craig Worthington has drawn interest from teams on three planets.

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Conventional wisdom: First baseman Randy Milligan is the only Oriole valuable enough to bring a decent pitcher in trade.

Unconventional wisdom: Nobody trades decent pitchers for decent first basemen, not when there is a baseball-wide first baseman glut. If the Orioles trade Milligan for a marginal pitcher, they run a very real risk of getting nothing for something.

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