Mets, Reds come out of winter meetings as biggest winners

THE BALTIMORE EVENING SUN

The most telling moment of the baseball winter meetings occurred one morning outside the coffee shop of the headquarters hotel. Whitey Herzog cursed out Dennis Gilbert, the agent for Bobby Bonilla. Baseball executives, like citizens fed up with the riffraff on their block, took back the winter meetings this year.

Trades, not the peddling of free-agent flesh, dominated the meetings in Miami Beach, Fla. Teams completed 14 trades, the most at a winter meeting in eight years. An MVP (Kevin Mitchell) and a two-time Cy Young Award winner (Bret Saberhagen) were traded on the same day -- three days after a National League Championship Series MVP (Randy Myers) was dealt.

Fifty-one players, an all-time record, were involved in trades or or signings. But only eight of those players were free agents, marking the fewest free-agent signings since 1986.

Of course, it could be an aberrational year because it is such a weak free-agent market. Clubs are showing restraint about going after middle-level free agents. Players such as Mitch Williams, Kurt Stillwell, Dick Schofield, Brian Harper and Alvin Davis are finding few suitors. Even Steve Buechele wound up with only two offers, from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Chicago Cubs.

With few blue-chip free agents available, clubs reverted to old-fashioned trades. They realize that to sell tickets, you can't sit still. With the exception of the Cleveland Indians and Houston Astros, who have committed to rebuilding, teams at least must ** give the appearance they are trying to win.

Only two clubs have not added a major-league player (including re-signed free agents) since the end of the season: the Toronto Blue Jays and the hapless New York Yankees. Toronto is likely to sign Jack Morris or Frank Viola, with the Boston Red Sox getting the other pitcher.

On top of so many players moving on, there is the chance of franchises changing addresses, too. By 1993, the Seattle Mariners could be in St. Petersburg, Fla., the Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals could be in the NL West and the Reds and Braves could be in the East. Here's a look at the winter meetings that have continued an offseason of upheaval.

WINNERS

1. Cincinnati. The Reds needed to improve their starting pitching, add speed and find a leadoff hitter. Missions accomplished. In four deals since the end of the season, they added Tim Belcher, Greg Swindell, Dave Martinez, Bip Roberts and Scott Ruskin while giving up Eric Davis, Myers, Scott Scudder, Jack Armstrong and Bill Risley.

Their rotation is Jose Rijo, Tom Browning, Belcher, Swindell and Hammond. Those pitchers won 55 games last year -- nine more than the projected Mets' rotation of Dwight Gooden, Saberhagen, David Cone, Sid Fernandez and Pete Schourek. And the top of the order -- Bip Roberts, Bill Doran and Barry Larkin -- is as good as there is in baseball.

2. Mets. Saberhagen is one of the three best pitchers in the game. That kind of player is not supposed to be available. And yet the Mets acquired him and Bill Pecota by giving up an expendable outfielder (Kevin McReynolds), a talented player who never fit in on the field or in the clubhouse (Gregg Jefferies) and a useful utility player who can't stay healthy (Keith Miller).

"I can't look beyond two years," Mets general manager Al Harazin said. "I think Saberhagen gives us a chance to win two pennants."

The Mets' defense and bottom of the order are suspect. They have closed the gap on Pittsburgh, but don't underestimate the Pirates. They can make up for much of the loss of Bonilla by having Buechele for a full year at third base, Jeff King (if healthy) at first base and Orlando Merced in right field. They should keep Barry Bonds for one more year to make a run at a third straight division title.

3. Kansas City. Yes, it was a good trade for both clubs. The Royals knew they had no shot at re-signing Danny Tartabull, their only slugger, so their offense needed attention. They obtained three starting players from the Mets and added another, Wally Joyner, through free agency.

"We finished sixth three years in a row," general manager Herk Robinson said. "It would not have mattered if Saberhagen won four more Cy Young Awards if we didn't win."

Said K.C. manager Hal McRae, "This makes us a first-division team. We couldn't say that before."

Two warnings: Jefferies, a fly-ball hitter, batted .226 on artificial turf in his three full seasons with the Mets and McReynolds, 32, needs a better work ethic to revive his career. His hit total has declined four consecutive seasons.

LOSERS

1. Yankees. You know the story. Lousy pitching, no third baseman, inept front office. And with that hand they decide to stand pat? In their last 485 games, the Yankees barely are better than the Indians.

2. Angels. Vice president Whitey Herzog wanted Bonilla, Joyner and Otis Nixon. He offered them about $50 million. He went 0-for-3.

California's offense, which finished 13th in runs last year, could be even worse. The Angels lost Joyner and Dave Winfield, who totaled 49 home runs and 182 RBI, and added Von Hayes and Hubie Brooks, who totaled 16 home runs and 71 RBI.

The Angels have a long history of adding big-name players past their prime (Fred Lynn, Reggie Jackson, Lance Parrish, Gary Gaetti, Bert Blyleven). And yet they continue to repeat their sins with the acquisition of Hayes, 33, who hasn't hit a home run since September, 1990, and Brooks, 35, who is coming off neck surgery.

3. Giants. Is Al Rosen serious when he says Billy Swift can be the club's No. 1 starter? San Francisco traded one of the game's most feared sluggers, Mitchell, to the Mariners without getting a proven starting pitcher, which has been the team's most pressing need for years.

* BEST PROSPECT: Kenny Lofton, outfielder. He hit .308 and stole 40 bases for the Astros' Triple-A club last year. Astros assistant general manager Bob Watson called him "the fastest man in baseball." But Houston sent him to Cleveland in a four-player trade because it was desperate for a catcher (Ed Taubensee) to allow Craig Biggio to move to second base. If Lofton, flanked by sluggers Joey Belle and Mark Whiten in the outfield, is ready for the big leagues, the Indians could be a better club than the Yankees.

* MOST LIKELY TO BE UNHAPPY: Rickey Henderson, Oakland. Remember how he pouted last year because his $3-million annual salary wasn't enough? His average dropped 57 points as he helped drag the Athletics down to fourth place.

Now there are 46 players who make more money than Henderson, who's likely not to be in the top 50 by the time the season starts. This time, though, manager Tony La Russa

indicated he won't allow Henderson to poison the club.

"In spring training I probably gave too much slack to contractual problems," La Russa said. "I thought it was right at the time. But now I don't think that's the right way to go. We're going to be a more focused ballclub. Whenever there's any garbage I'll be all over it. I'm going to keep the garbage to a minimum."

* THE EMERGING TREND: Breaking up isn't hard to do. There is more player movement than ever. Not even championship teams stay together anymore. The Reds already have lost 12 players from a team that won a world championship only 14 months ago.

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