Orioles dealt out in stretch shuffle Henderson, now Smith, stack East deck

September 02, 1993|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,Staff Writer

The division-leading Toronto Blue Jays were the first to act, acquiring potential Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson in late July to improve an already impressive offensive lineup.

The other shoe dropped Tuesday night when the second-place New York Yankees picked up the most prolific relief closer in the history of the game and left Orioles fans to wonder why the big deals always seem to be taking place somewhere else.

How did all-time save leader Lee Smith slip through waivers untouched and end up in pinstripes? How come the other division contenders always seem to get super stars and the Orioles always end up with role players? Inquiring minds want to know.

In this particular case, it isn't complicated. Smith was put through waivers at the beginning of August. When he went unclaimed, the St. Louis Cardinals became free to trade him. They did so Tuesday night, just before the deadline for newly acquired players to be eligible for postseason play.

"He's one of those guys where waivers went through in early August," Orioles general manager Roland Hemond said yesterday. "If they had asked waivers on him this past week, then you might block it. But clubs ask for waivers on a lot of players early, and you can't block everybody."

No one claimed Smith because there was little likelihood at the time that the Cardinals would trade him. They were still alive in the National League East race at the time, but have since slipped far enough out of contention to justify the deal.

The Yankees had a need and they filled it. Right-handed closer Steve Farr had come up with a sore elbow and was placed on the disabled list Tuesday. Smith will move right into his role.

He could have done the same thing for the Orioles, who may be without Gregg Olson for the rest of the season. But the club was on the outside looking in once again.

Hemond said he did have a conversation with Cardinals general manager Dal Maxvill on Tuesday afternoon, but he would not say any more than that. The Orioles obviously expressed an interest in Smith, as they have in several front-line players during the past few months, but the outcome has been the same each time.

No Gary Sheffield. No Fred McGriff. No Chris Sabo. And no Lee Smith.

The Orioles did acquire third baseman Mike Pagliarulo on Aug. 15, and he has made a contribution, but he was not expected to be an impact player.

In every other case, the Orioles were either outflanked or outbid for a player who could have put them closer to the top of the AL East. McGriff in particular.

It's far from the first time this has happened.

The Blue Jays in particular always seem to strengthen themselves in the stretch, adding Mike Flanagan in 1987, Mookie Wilson in '89, John Candelaria and Bud Black in '90, Tom Candiotti in '91 and David Cone in '92. Hemond countered with Keith Moreland in '89 and Craig Lefferts in '92. Thus, it's no accident the Blue Jays have won the division title three of the past four years.

This time, however, the Orioles' divisional deficit is large enough to wonder if such a deal still would be prudent.

"You're still looking for ways and means to make yourself better," Hemond said. "It's just that sometimes, you have to determine if the player you acquire is worthy of the talent needed to get him."

Smith is 35 and he is at the end of his contract. The Yankees rented him for the final weeks of play for minor-league pitcher Richard Batchelor (1-1, 2.76 ERA), who had six saves in 15 games at Triple-A Columbus. They may be willing to re-sign him after the season, but the Orioles expect to have Olson back in the closer role next year.

If the deal appears to tilt the once-crowded division race more heavily toward the top two teams, it may have been unavoidable. The Orioles could not have foreseen the set of circumstances that led to the trade, at least not at a point when they could have done anything about it.

There was no reason to put a claim in on Smith in early August. Olson was ranked among the league leaders in saves and none of the other top contenders was in the market for a closer. The Blue Jays have Duane Ward and the Yankees were satisfied with Farr.

The Orioles could have claimed him and forced the Cardinals to withdraw his name from the waiver list, but the likelihood is that there were dozens of attractive players on waivers at that time.

The only thing they could have done was outbid the Yankees, but the Orioles may not have the organizational depth to afford the loss of a decent prospect. Hemond knows how this will be perceived in Baltimore, but says there is nothing to do but play out the season and hope for a dramatic change in fortune.

"You just keep moving," he said. "You can't do anything about it. You'd prefer that he'd gone to some club in the National League, but it doesn't always mean that because they got certain people that they'll get the results they were hoping to get."

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