The Orioles' blunder wasn't in failing to block the David Cone trade, it was failing to land a pitcher like Cone themselves. Postseason rosters freeze at midnight Monday, but don't hold your breath waiting for a trade to match Toronto's.
Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick is always one step ahead of his peers, and this time Roland Hemond was one step behind. Allowing Cone to slip through the waiver process was not as inexcusable as it might seem. Still, Hemond should have seen this coming, and countered with a bold stroke of his own.
He still might, but he won't get the major-league strikeout leader now, will he?
The Orioles constantly fret over trading prospects, but the Blue Jays lost only reserve infielder Jeff Kent and a player to be named, believed to be minor-league outfielder Ryan Thompson.
Cone, of course, is eligible for free agency at the end of the season, so the Jays might only be renting him for six starts, then the postseason. They'll assume approximately $1 million of his $4.25 million salary, but that's a small price if it means a pennant.
Hemond took comfort knowing his club forced Toronto to act, and added the fighting words, "It doesn't mean we concede anything."
Indeed, the Jays' pitching is in such bad shape, Cone might not be enough. The starters had a 7.85 ERA in 22 games before Todd Stottlemyre's one-hitter Wednesday night.
Still, Cone was 13-7 with a 2.88 ERA with the New York Mets, and Juan Guzman pitches for the first time since July 23 on Sunday. The Jays are 34-13 when Guzman and Jack Morris start, 38-41 when they don't. Cone gives them a third quality starter, and Stottlemyre is no slouch.
No one in the Orioles' front office should be surprised Gillick traded for a pitcher on the verge of free agency -- he pulled the same trick with Mike Flanagan in 1987, John Candelaria and Bud Black in 1990 and Tom Candiotti in '91. Only Flanagan re-signed, and Cone already is dropping hints about becoming a New York Yankee, as if Gillick cares.
Knowing Toronto's recent trading pattern, the Orioles would have been wise to lodge a waiver claim on every potential free-agent pitcher. But the process is not that simple, and one National League general manager staunchly defended Hemond yesterday.
"It's not falling asleep at the switch, I can tell you that," said the National League GM, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "We don't just sit here spitting into our spittoons saying, 'How'd that guy get by?' "
The system, you see, is full of subtle nuances. Starting Aug. 1, players must clear waivers before they can be traded. Clubs routinely pass most of their players through at the beginning of the month, at a maximum of seven per day.
If a claim is made, the club must pull back the player, or risk losing him for the $20,000 waiver price. At that point, the club can negotiate a deal with the claiming team. If no agreement is reached, the player is no longer eligible to be traded.
Not long ago, clubs operated under an archaic gentlemen's agreement in which no one ever made a claim. But in recent years, the contenders have become more aggressive, blocking potential deals by claiming players coveted by their rivals.
Hemond acknowledged that the Orioles filed claims on certain players, but Cone obviously was not one. NL teams got the first crack at Cone, in reverse order of their standing. Hemond took a "calculated risk" that Cone would be claimed.
Why not eliminate the risk? Because a team that becomes overzealous claiming players can provoke its rivals into doing the same. "You set up a real aggressive hand-tying mechanism," the National League GM said. "And general managers already have their hands tied a lot."
So, Hemond picked his spots, knowing if every player got claimed, no one could ever make a trade. In theory,the Orioles might get lucky with a deal the same way. So could Milwaukee, the other AL East contender that failed to act on Cone.
As the National League GM said, "It's very unusual for a player of that caliber to be traded." In fact, Cone isn't the only superstar to clear waivers in recent weeks. Texas' Ruben Sierra, another potential free agent, became available the same way.
Hemond, then, is forgiven, but trailing by 2 1/2 games, he'd better move. As Gillick said, "There is some responsibility management owes to the players to do everything possible to win, and that's what we're trying to do. I think you don't worry about the long-term now, you focus on the short-term."
No doubt Hemond is trying, but trying is no longer enough. How is it that Gillick always gets the player he wants, from Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar one year to Dave Winfield and Jack Morris the next? How is it that the Blue Jays always contend?
Enough trying, enough waiting, enough plotting.
Get it done.