Trade stretch drive is here Deals made by July 31 go a long way toward writing October lineup; O's are among 14 shoppers; 'Window of opportunity there very short while'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Considered a grandmaster, Atlanta Braves general manager John Schuerholz sees the next handful of days as a chess match, its final hours the end game.

What contending teams do, or don't do, between now and the July 31 trade deadline will help determine who reaches the postseason and commands the October stage. Three times in the past seven years, the Braves found themselves trailing in July. Three times they made significant acquisitions. Three times they emerged from a hole to win their division.

"The window of opportunity is there for a very short while. After July 31, there are no guarantees you can acquire a particular player to a fill a need," said Schuerholz, signature architect of the decade's longest-running success story.

"If you miss your chance, you may have to pay."

As one of 14 teams that consider themselves a playoff contender, the Orioles are prepared to move for a hitter before the trade deadline, much as they did a year ago for Eddie Murray.

For the next six days, a treasure trove of trade possibilities exists. Afterward, a team must obtain waivers on any player it seeks to deal. Waivers once were considered a formality within baseball's gentlemen's club. No more.

This year Schuerholz's Braves share a similar position to the Orioles: confident but not complacent. "You try to sniff out the validity of rumors circulating about the availability of players. That's part of the chess game," Schuerholz said. "There are offensive moves and defensive moves. One might be as critical to the game as the other. With the acquisition of players, your defensive move might be the most important move of all."

Schuerholz put his theory to good use in 1993 with the Braves involved in an epic chase of the San Francisco Giants. Desperate for starting pitching, Giants general manager Bob Quinn waited too long to obtain Montreal Expos pitcher Dennis Martinez.

The July 31 waiver deadline came and went before Quinn finally agreed on a deal in early August. To complete the deal, the Expos first had to clear Martinez through waivers. Every National League team passed except one. Schuerholz interceded with a claim. A 5-and-10 player, Martinez exercised his right to veto the Braves' claim, forcing the Expos to abandon the deal. The Braves earlier had traded several prospects for San Diego first baseman Fred McGriff, pressing their advantage.

In perhaps the decade's most compelling finish, a race involving the league's top two teams ended on the final weekend with the Braves out-kicking the Giants by one game.

"There's a need to be hooked up, to be prepared in case of something becoming available," Schuerholz said.

The Braves enter the weekend with baseball's best record but are trying to complete the most significant deal of the next two weeks. Free of financial restrictions and armed with a still-credible list of prospects, Schuerholz is among the handful of teams negotiating for Philadelphia ace Curt Schilling. The Orioles, Houston Astros, Florida Marlins and Cleveland Indians are also in contention. With fewer prospects, the Orioles are considered long shots against the favored Indians and Braves.

The Orioles' pursuit of Schilling is for obvious reasons. The club is frustrated with the failure of its No. 5 starters, uncertain about .. the return of Rocky Coppinger, and unsure about Scott Kamieniecki's ability to handle an October start.

For the Braves, who possess a 13-game winner as No. 4 starter, Schilling represents immediate insurance against another postseason meltdown by their bullpen. After the playoffs, his presence would allow the club to absorb the loss of free agent Greg Maddux.

Losing Schilling would be doubly hurtful to the Orioles if he lands in Cleveland. At present, the Indians' pitching makes them vulnerable. With Schilling, the Tribe would immediately become a viable World Series team.

The Orioles see no reason for panic. A move for another hitter is expected, but the club may look internally (Rick Krivda, Esteban Yan) to improve its pitching.

Although general manager Pat Gillick used the last 10 days before the trade deadline last year to acquire Murray, it didn't stop there. In August, the Orioles traded for Marlins reliever Terry Mathews, signed catcher Mark Parent as a free agent and traded for third baseman Todd Zeile and outfielder Pete Incaviglia.

But with 14 teams in contention this year, post-deadline shopping could be far more difficult. And, at least in the case of the Orioles, the need may not be as great.

On July 26 last year, the Orioles were 11 games behind the Yankees and below .500 for the first time all season.

"Last year, we felt at that point that we had really underachieved," assistant GM Kevin Malone said. "We tried to make moves not only to help us in the long term, but to initiate some enthusiasm within the current club to help us catch the Yankees. Just the fact that we tried made the team aware that we were committed to winning."

The moves reignited a pennant race and catapulted the club into a wild card that carried the eventual World Series champions five games into the ALCS.

The approach is less clear this year. The Orioles have held first place every day, proved themselves a capable road team and possess possibly the AL's best rotation and bullpen.

A .500 finish over their final 64 games -- though satisfying to no one -- would leave the Orioles a near-certain playoff entry at 93-69.

However, owner Peter Angelos expects more from a $55 million payroll than wild-card status, and there is tangible pressure within the organization to trample the Yankees en route to the playoffs. Indeed, it is Angelos' stated desire to construct a modern-day dynasty to equal the pinstriped tradition.

Manager Davey Johnson also has made clear his need for another starting pitcher and another hitter to free up his bench. To some within the front office, the requests border on disrespect for a roster that has accomplished much and may merely be experiencing temporary offensive blues. Even last month's acquisition of Oakland right fielder Geronimo Berroa struck certain team members as ill-thought tinkering.

Comparing this year and last, Malone said, "It's a little different right now. We're considered one of the best teams in the American League. Our record indicates that."

The Orioles continue to trawl for a left-handed bat. Chicago White Sox DH Harold Baines, Kansas City DH Chili Davis and Montreal Expos first baseman David Segui would fill the role.

"What we accomplished over the winter and the most recent acquisition of Berroa has made us better," Malone said. "We'd like to do something more and we're working at it. But you've got to find the right club. We're wanting to make it better."

They have plenty of company. The next six days promise to be the busiest of the season with talent such as Mark McGwire, Dante Bichette, Ivan Rodriguez, Ricky Bottalico and Joe Carter available.

The Yankees will seek to address the loss of Cecil Fielder by landing Davis, Jose Canseco or Mike Stanley. They'd also like to improve a bullpen that represents their biggest shortfall against the Orioles.

Athletics general manager Sandy Alderson recently upgraded the possibility of McGwire being traded to "about 50-50." The AL home run leader has made it clear he will not approve a trade to a National League team or any club that plans to use him as its designated hitter rather than its first baseman. The Anaheim Angels appear most prepared to work a deal.

Desperate for bullpen help, the Seattle Mariners are hoping to help the Phillies clean house by pursuing their closer, Bottalico.

Some contenders, such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, are not financially equipped to participate. Others, such as the White Sox, Expos and Texas Rangers, must determine whether they are buyers or sellers, kings or pawns.

The trading market

With the trading deadline July 31, these 14 playoff contenders are looking to strengthen their position.

American League

Team, Position, Needs, Resources*

Orioles, AL East leader, Starting pitcher, left-handed bat, Strong

Yankees, Wild-card leader, Bullpen, right-handed power, Strong

Indians, AL Central leader, Starting pitcher, second baseman, Exceptional prospects

White Sox, 3 1/2 GB in AL Central, Pitching, a direction, Limited

Mariners, AL West leader; 2 GB wild card, Bullpen, Strong

Angels, 2 GB in AL West; 4 GB wild card, Starting pitcher, Limited

National League

Braves, NL East leader, Bullpen help, bench, Exceptional

Marlins, Wild-card leader, Starting pitching, infield pop, Overextended

Mets, 5 1/2 GB in NL East, .002 B wild card, Bullpen help, Strong

Astros, NL Central leader, Economical offense at 3B or SS starting pitcher, Weak

Pirates, 4 1/2 GB NL Central, An infusion of cash, power, Extremely weak

Giants, NL West leader; 1 GB wild card, Starting pitching, Limited

Dodgers, 4 GB NL West; 5 1/2 GB wild card, A professional hitter, In flux

Cardinals, 5 GB NL Central, Power, Strong

*-Includes finances and minor-league prospects.

Orioles tonight

Opponent: Minnesota Twins

Site: Metrodome, Minneapolis

Time: 8:05

TV/Radio: Ch. 54/WBAL (1090 AM)

Starters: Orioles' Scott Kamieniecki (6-4, 4.04) vs. Twins' Brad Radke (13-5, 3.68)

Pub Date: 7/25/97

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