Let's Make a Deal: Baseball Winter Meetings Revive the Art of the Trade

MIAMI BEACH, Fla.--No-hitters and triple plays are good. Pennant races and the World Series are great. Still, nothing in baseball gets everyone going like a big trade.

Bret Saberhagen to the Mets--a super swap, but for which team? Kevin Mitchell to the Mariners--a steal, but for who?

And the ol' hot stove sure is heating up fast these days. After a prolonged absence, trading is back in style.

In just one week, there were 14 trades, the most at the winter meetings since 1983. There had been a total of only five deals in Nashville in 1989 and just six last December in Rosemont, Ill., but there were seven swaps alone on Wednesday.

"This week revived the winter meetings," Boston general manager Lou Gorman. "There were trades every day, and that gets people talking. It's just too bad we couldn't get something done."

Rest assured, the Red Sox aren't finished yet. There are almost four months left before opening day, and that's plenty of time for Boston to maybe move Mike Greenwell or Ellis Burks, and for other clubs to do something else.

So, why the sudden surge in swaps? After all, the meetings in recent years had been dominated by free-agent signings; this year, though, only eight free agents signed, the fewest since 1986.

"Long-term contracts made it awfully hard to trade players," Gorman said. "There haven't been so many long-term contracts in the last few years, and that's made it easier to make trades."

Plus, teams are using trades in different ways. Instead of a checkers game, where a team makes a trade to fill a specific need, now it's more like a chess match, where deals are made to set up other moves.

Reds on a Tear

Cincinnati, which has made four trades in a month, got pitcher John Wetteland on Nov. 27 in a deal that sent Eric Davis to Los Angeles. Then, the Reds turned around and traded Wetteland to Montreal on Wednesday in a five-player swap that brought outfielder Dave Martinez to Cincinnati.

"Our goal going into the winter was to improve our pitching staff," Reds general manager Bob Quinn said. "But after we got Tim Belcher and Greg Swindell in trades, our needs changed and we looked at some other areas."

Also, with so much money at stake and winning at an all-time premium, losing teams are less likely to sit around and wait for improvement.

Kansas City, the most active team at the winter meetings, traded away Saberhagen, a move that seemed as unlikely to Saberhagen as everyone else.

"I was kind of shocked," Saberhagen said. "I've won two Cy Youngs and you kind of think of yourself as one of the main reasons the team has had some success."

"You like to think of yourself as a fixture," he said. "But, the bottom line is it's a business."

So, after two disappointing seasons, the Royals made a move, sending Saberhagen and Bill Pecota to the Mets for Kevin McReynolds, Gregg Jefferies and Keith Miller.

"When you finish in sixth place for two straight years, you do things and take risks that you might not ordinarily do," Royals general manager Herk Robinson said.

As it turned out, the Mets-Royals trade, just like the Seattle-San Francisco swap that sent Mitchell to the Mariners, had been in place for weeks. The star players were already set and agreed upon, but the role players--would it be Pecota or Terry Shumpert?--are what held it up.

The Royals made their first move of the meetings Monday when they signed free agent Wally Joyner. He's expected to fill some of the offensive void left by Danny Tartabull, who became a free agent and is expected to sign with either the Chicago White Sox or San Diego.

Tartabull, Jack Morris and Frank Viola are the top free agents left, and a team that gets one of them might still make more moves.