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Trades offer no guarantees

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Aug. 1
There are no certainties or geniuses. Getting Randy Johnson was as close to a guaranteed ticket to the World Series as any trade deadline deal. And when the San Diego pitching duo of Kevin Brown and Sterling Hitchcock had finished with the Houston Astros in the 1998 playoffs, the Astros still hadn't won a postseason series -- and still haven't.

I really don't know what will happen. All I do know is that we have a better chance to get into the playoffs and go somewhere with Astacio and Williams.
Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker

That all makes the Braves' record of winning 11 postseason series in a decade and the Yankees' 12 in six years so remarkable.

"I really don't know what will happen," said Astros general manager Gerry Hunsicker. "All I do know is that we have a better chance to get into the playoffs and go somewhere with (Pedro) Astacio and (Mike) Williams."

Giants GM Brian Sabean said virtually the same thing, and so did the Cubs' Andy MacPhail.

"Rick Reed might go out and get hammered in his first start," said Minnesota GM Terry Ryan. "But as soon as we had a chance to get a pitcher of that quality, we had to do it, not only for this season, but for the fact that we've got Reed, Brad Radke, Eric Milton and Joe Mays tied up and together for three years."

Even Red Sox GM Dan Duquette seemed concerned about trading 19-year-old left-handed pitcher Rich Rundles in the Ugueth Urbina deal.

"We were scouting Urbina hard, and Dan make a heckuva trade without much notice, because (Urbina) is really throwing the ball well," said Ryan.

"With the state of left-handed pitching, I hate to give up a top prospect like Rundles," said Duquette.

"Look, the guy's in A ball," a friend told Duquette. "By the time he gets to the big leagues, if you don't make the playoffs, you might be watching him on DirecTV."

Those are the chances GMs take. In this hazy, crazy summer, perhaps the craziest thing is that the Red Sox got money out of the Expos in the Urbina deal ("We're just getting some of our revenue-sharing bucks back," says one Sox official), Murdoch/Fox got money out of Jerry Reinsdorf in the James Baldwin deal, and Arizona -- which has hit up the Central Fund to meet cash-flow crises -- came up with $600,000 to give Tampa Bay in the deal for Albie Lopez.

If you're trying to figure that out, think about the obvious: Sabean and Hunsicker are among a handful of the game's best general managers. Every time their teams are close to contention, they make deals to help their teams win. But they do it within the confines of a payroll in the mid-$60 million range, which puts them somewhere from 14th to 18th, depending on how one does the books. They do it every time with an eye on the present and the preservation of the future.

The way one should judge teams is as a season-ticket holder. A fan of the Yankees, Mets, Braves and Red Sox knows ownership will try to make the ticket worthwhile -- especially for a Braves fan, whose ticket has been a guaranteed admission to quality entertainment for 11 consecutive seasons.

But Hunsicker and Sabean have to walk a fine line. And when their teams are good enough to have a chance, anyone who buys Astros and Giants tickets knows they will try to reward the fan as a valued customer. So credit Astros owner Drayton McLane for stretching his pocket book this week. And give immense credit to the Giants' Peter Magowan, who in many ways is the best owner in the sport, not only because he invested his money -- not the taxpayers', but his money -- and understands what it is to be a paying customer because he and his partners sit in the stands, not in some luxury box.

Every year Magowan gives Sabean and assistant GM Ned Colletti a budget in the winter and spring, but he holds some money for when he needs it. Magowan had a partners' meeting after the All-Star break when the Giants opened in Seattle. Sabean and Colletti gave their report and told the owners what they needed and the costs. When Magowan walked by Sabean at the park, he told Sabean he had the $4 million if he thought they had a chance to win.

Andres Galarraga's arrival set them off to give the Giants a chance. And Sabean then got a starter (Jason Schmidt), three relievers (Jason Christiansen, Brian Boehringer, Wayne Gomes) and John Vander Wal, and he'll soon get a backup catcher. Sabean got money back from the Phillies, and the buzz is back in San Francisco. Between Sabean and A's GM Billy Beane, the Bay Area is a baseball fan's dream.

Is experience important at this time of year?

"I think to the degree that you can't get caught up in the emotion or the media hype," said Hunsicker. "You have to know what will work and what won't."

Running down the dreams
Houston Astros: All along, Hunsicker wanted Astacio, but didn't think he could afford him in terms of the contract or the players. He had feelers out on several pitchers, including Schmidt and Reed, but rated Astacio No. 1.

Hunsicker said, "(On Sunday) I really didn't think I was going to do anything."

Then he made a hard run at his first priority, middle man David Weathers, only to lose him to the Cubs, who traded Ruben Quevedo to Milwaukee. When Brewers assistant GM David Wilder worked for the Cubs in 1999, he got Quevedo from Atlanta.

On Monday, when Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd saw the Astacio market drying up and had to get his salary off the owners' books, he and Hunsicker started talking again. O'Dowd indicated he might have done the deal even-up for Daryle Ward. But Hunsicker wouldn't take the future out of his focus.

Moises Alou can be a free agent at the end of the season. He worries that his team is too right-handed and strikes out too much against good righties. And while some on the staff have suggested they trade Ward and get a center fielder, Hunsicker scanned the market and found few center fielders available. If he put Julio Lugo in center and Adam Everett at short, he'd be replacing Alou with Everett, not an even offensive swap. So he agreed to trade Scott Elarton and a prospect rather than Ward without a prospect.

Toronto had been pursuing Astacio for months. But when the Blue Jays told O'Dowd they were no longer interested, the deal with Houston was done.

"The (Mike) Williams thing came up even later, right at the end," said Hunsicker. "I loved the idea. There are a lot of high-scoring games in our park, and the deep bullpen is very important, but I worried about bringing a guy who is a closer into our mix. But Mike seemed great about it, and we met with the relievers to explain our thinking, and they were great, too."

Hunsicker did not touch Ward, outfielder Jason Lane, third baseman Morgan Ensberg or pitcher Carlos Hernandez -- for the future.

Oh, yes -- Houston got $1 million in the Astacio deal. Economics 2001: If you want me to take a contract, pay me.

San Francisco Giants: In '97, Sabean got five pitchers in one month, three from the White Sox. In '98, he got Ellis Burks, Joe Carter and Shawon Dunston.

"I had to be convinced that we were definitely in (the pennant race)," said Sabean.

But when Galarraga walked in the door, the players knew they were in it. He gave them their first clubhouse presence since Burks left and clearly thirsted for the opportunity. When Shawn Estes started throwing again in the 90s and the Giants swept the Diamondbacks, Sabean got Schmidt, Vander Wal and Christiansen.

Originally, the Giants were looking for Schmidt or Vander Wal, and Pirates GM Dave Littlefield wanted the Ryan Vogelsong-Armando Rios package for either one. This was very much like '97, when the Giants were trying to get Wilson Alvarez and Danny Darwin for three pitching prospects and White Sox GM Ron Schueler insisted on Mike Caruso. Finally, Schueler offered to throw Roberto Hernandez into the deal to get Caruso. This time, Littlefield made his 2-for-2 proposal. Deal done.

The Giants had Schmidt rated No. 1 off his last six starts (2.66 ERA, seven-plus innings each time). With agent Joe Sambito in San Francisco this weekend, they would like to get him signed to an extension so that they, too, will have their entire, young rotation signed through 2003. Just as important, Sabean did not touch any of his top three pitching prospects: Kurt Ainsworth, Jerome Williams and Boof Bonser.

Chicago Cubs: MacPhail and manager Don Baylor have preached that the old, lovable Cubs' loser days are over.

"It was incredible when Fred McGriff walked in that door," said Baylor. "The players were so keyed up that Monday they sent Fred's wife two dozen roses with a card that read, 'Thanks for letting us share your husband for a couple of months.' You could feel the lift."

So MacPhail got McGriff, Weathers, Michael Tucker and Delino DeShields and didn't touch what is now a very deep farm system. If you're a Cubs fan, you know the good old days are over.

Minnesota Twins: Duquette is obsessed with Boston winning this year. In fact, he prefaces many of his statements with "we hope our fans like ... " And Ryan, too, knows what it means for Minnesota to win the AL Central and make the playoffs.

"It's important to have a winning season, first, because it's been so long ('91)," said Ryan. "But it would be very tremendous for this franchise to make the postseason."

Remember, Ryan may be the world's most honest man; this spring, when someone lamented the fan turnout in Minnesota, Ryan said, "We haven't given the fans many reasons to spend their money on us."

When he traded Matt Lawton, Ryan hoped to do something else.

"Obviously, I thought we had a chance to do something else to help our offense," said Ryan, meaning a deal for Dmitri Young or Shannon Stewart. "But I'd have made the Reed deal even if I didn't think we had a chance to do something else. Our starting pitching has been struggling. I rely on my scouts, and they say Reed's been throwing very well. He's an All-Star-caliber pitcher.

"Now we need Cristian Guzman back, and we hope Bobby Kielty gives us some punch. He's a switch-hitter with power, and in the spring the coaches wanted to keep him. Remember, Lawton was going to be nearly as expensive as Reed next year after arbitration."

In terms of opponents' combined winning percentage, the Twins have by far the softest schedule of any AL contender the rest of the way. The Indians have the fourth-most difficult. And while Boston snacks on the soft underbelly known as the AL East in September, the A's have to play Seattle, Anaheim and Texas.

Pitching and defense will beat sub-.500 teams. The Indians, on the other hand, won't get Chuck Finley back Saturday as hoped because of recurring back problems.

At the deadline they decided they could not trade Einar Diaz for Shannon Stewart. They had a deal set up to send Russell Branyan to San Diego for Wiki Gonzalez and Cesar Crespo. Then Toronto had offered Stewart for Diaz, but Einar's energy and defense were deemed too important to the young pitchers Cleveland must develop in the next year.

So we know the A's, Giants, Astros, Cubs, Twins, Dodgers, Braves and Red Sox all tried to be better than they were at the All-Star break.

"You just don't know," said Ryan.

Ask Hunsicker. The Randy Johnson deal was the best deadline trade made since baseball went to three-division play, the Astros lost in the playoffs to the Padres, and Freddy Garcia and Carlos Guillen are major cogs on a Mariners team that swept the White Sox in last year's playoffs, came within two Arthur Rhodes vs. David Justice at-bats of the World Series, and now has the best record in baseball.

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