Canseco-less A's set for last hurrah Deal aids stretch run, '93 rebuilding plans

OAKLAND, CALIF. — OAKLAND, Calif. -- The dust is still settling after one of the biggest trades in major-league history, and a number of questions remain unanswered.

Why, for instance, would the Oakland Athletics trade one of the ** biggest drawing cards in the sport for a chronically erratic pitcher and two potential free agents?


Why would the A's give up Jose Canseco in the heat of the pennant race for a bedridden Ruben Sierra, a bullpen stopper they don't need and a right-hander who can't throw strikes?

"I'm probably more confused now than when this started," said Canseco, who returned to the Oakland Coliseum yesterday to clean out his locker. "I was up all night just thinking about everything. I'd step into their shoes and it probably made sense, but you keep asking yourself, 'What did I do to bring this on myself?' "


The official answers already have been given. The A's were desperate for pitching depth, and they were setting themselves up for the postseason by adding reliever Jeff Russell and pitcher Bobby Witt. Sierra may have the chickenpox, but he's younger and healthier than Canseco, and he will be available for the final weeks of the regular season and for postseason play.

"The key focus for us was improving the club to give us the best possible chance to succeed in the next five weeks, to win the division and to make us more competitive if we win the division, in the postseason," Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson said.

The reality of the situation may be a little more complex. The A's have -- many times -- expressed their exasperation with Canseco's eccentric behavior. He has quarreled with teammates, turned his tumultuous marriage into a media event and even been charged with carrying a loaded firearm during his seven-year big-league career.

The club is in the midst of a payroll crisis and faces the prospect of losing half of the team to free agency at the end of the season. This could be the last hurrah for a while, so the three-for-one swap makes sense over the short term, and very well may make sense in the long run.

The motives of the Texas Rangers are a bit easier to understand. Their ongoing contract squabble with Sierra had reached the point where he was going to be impossible to sign as a free agent, and they figured to have almost as much trouble re-signing Russell. They dumped nearly $10 million in salary, and they got the most exciting player in baseball in return at an average salary of $4.5 million over the next three years.

They weren't going anywhere this year, but the arrival of Canseco almost certainly will boost attendance in September and improve the club's chances of attracting more season-ticket buyers for 1993. Canseco can demand a trade at the end of the season because he was traded in the middle of a multiyear contract, but the Rangers saved enough money in the deal to work something out to his satisfaction.

Most eyes were on the A's front office, which moved decisively again at a pivotal juncture in the season. Alderson has made a habit of raising eyebrows at this time of year, though he never had pulled off anything like this.

"I don't think there's any question that it helps our chances to win this year," said manager Tony La Russa. "So, the next question is what about next year? When we get to the winter, we'll talk about next year. I totally agree with the philosophy -- they've had it here before and I've seen it other places and admired it -- when you have a chance to win, don't look forward. You take your best shot, and this improves our shot. It would have been great to do this and have Jose, but it wasn't possible."


The usual questions arose again. How did Canseco and Sierra get through waivers? How is it that the A's always seem to be able to make a major deal when other clubs can't? Why didn't the Orioles or the Blue Jays get a shot at Canseco?

The waiver situation is not as big a mystery as it seems. Players of the caliber of Canseco and Sierra routinely clear waivers because they so rarely are traded. If general managers blocked every top-name player who was sent through waivers, there would not be any trade market at all.

The A's always seem to make the clutch move -- Harold Baines and Willie McGee in 1990, Ron Darling in 1991 -- and there is a good reason. Alderson is not afraid to make a bold move. He has never seemed concerned about the possibility that a deal might come back to haunt him.

The reason that Canseco was not offered to the Orioles or the Blue Jays is twofold. Neither team had the pitching depth to offer in exchange, and the A's weren't about to put Canseco on a team that might meet them in the playoffs.

The reactions to the trade were mixed. Conventional wisdom said that it was a good trade for the A's if they are able to re-sign Sierra and Russell at the end of the season. If not, they rented those two players for a few weeks and -- in effect -- traded one of the most dynamic players in the game for Witt and some cash.

Alderson doesn't think it's quite that simple.


"It's not a straight-line equation," Alderson said. "You can't say, if Sierra's not here, it's a bad deal. You have to look at it as, if we don't sign Sierra, that money will go to somebody else."

Then there is the one possibility that no one in the Bay area wants to think about -- the rebuilding scenario. It is very possible that the A's organization, which is sagging under the weight of its payroll, already has conceded the breakup of its 5-year-old American League West dynasty.

The team has 14 potential free agents, including Sierra, Russell, first baseman Mark McGwire, Baines and starting pitcher Dave Stewart. The A's already have re-signed stopper Dennis Eckersley to a multiyear deal and figure to re-sign McGwire, but there is little doubt that the club will be significantly altered by the opening of spring training next year.

While the Canseco deal allows that club to make a strong push at one more pennant and world championship this year, it also allows the A's to position themselves to dominate next year's June draft. They stand to get two draft choices for every Type-A free agent they lose during the off-season. They could get four high draft choices in compensation for Sierra and Russell alone, plus several more if they lose Stewart and a handful of other players.

In effect, they would be able to make up for the five years that they have spent at the wrong end of the inverse drafting order, restocking the minor-league system for an accelerated turnaround. Plus it takes a very large chunk out of one of baseball's biggest payrolls.

That is not the kind of thing that you tell your spoiled fans until after the turnover takes place, but it is a possibility that cannot be ruled out.