In a stunning gamble designed to bolster their pitching for September and beyond--and, perhaps, lower their $40-million payroll in time--the Oakland Athletics on Monday night traded right fielder Jose Canseco to the Texas Rangers for outfielder Ruben Sierra and pitchers Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell.
The A’s also received cash, believed to be $400,000, the maximum allowed.
The deal came on the final night for acquiring a player who would be eligible for postseason competition. Sierra, Witt and Russell join a team that leads the American League West by 6 1/2 games. Canseco is going the other way. The Rangers trail the A’s by 15 1/2 games.
“I’m in shock,” said the often-controversial Canseco, adding that he thought it was April Fools Day when he was removed from a game with the Baltimore Orioles shortly before his first at-bat Monday night and informed of the trade by manager Tony LaRussa.
“I guess the club figured it needed pitching or maybe the fans tired of Jose Canseco,” he said. “Maybe I wore out my welcome, but I hope they miss me as a player and person.
“I’ll definitely miss the players here.”
Said A’s General Manager Sandy Alderson:
“It was a difficult transaction in many respects. I mean, trading Jose, in a sense, represents the end of an era here that he personified, but we felt strongly going into the last month that we needed to improve our team. We needed to improve our pitching.”
Witt and Russell should contribute in that regard, but the gamble for the A’s rests in their ability to re-sign Sierra and Russell, both of whom will be eligible for free agency when the season ends.
The A’s now have 14 players in that category, including Dave Stewart, Terry Steinbach, Ron Darling and Mark McGwire.
Of the unsigned status of Sierra and Russell, Alderson said: “We’ll add them to our baker’s dozen and deal with it when the time comes.”
The A’s, of course, have another option. It would provide the payroll with a quick fix, but defuse the offense.
Canseco, 28, making $3.6 million this season, is signed through 1995 at salaries of $4.1 million, $4.4 million and $5.1 million. Sierra, who will turn 27 in October and is currently sidelined because of chicken pox that he caught from his son, had already rejected a Ranger offer of about $25 million.
General Manager Tom Grieve said he felt his chances of signing Sierra and Russell were diminishing.
“We had some reservations about giving up Bobby Witt,” he said, “but you have to give up more than just players for September to get an impact player who is signed for three more years. Jose Canseco gives us a fourth-place hitter who is going to the Hall of Fame. It was a trade that made sense for both sides.”
Sierra, batting .278 with 14 home runs and 70 runs batted in during an off-year that might stem from his contract problems, issued a statement in which he thanked the Rangers for his six years with them and said he was looking forward to making major contributions with the A’s.
Witt and Russell voiced similar sentiments.
“This comes as a total surprise,” said Witt, “but all I can tell you is that going to Oakland beats sitting here with a fourth-place team.”
Witt, 27, was a 17-game winner in 1990 before arm problems reduced him to 3-7 last year. With Bob Welch sidelined because of injury, the A’s rotation consists primarily of Stewart, Darling and Mike Moore. Witt joins it with a 9-13 record and 4.46 earned-run average and is signed through next year at $3 million, with a 1994 option at $3.5 million.
Russell, 31 today, is 2-3 with a club-leading 28 saves and a major league-leading nine blown saves. He becomes a set-up man for Dennis Eckersley, but said he hopes to be more than that.
“Eck is getting a little older. He might be ready for a rest now and then,” Russell said.
Canseco leaves Oakland with a .246 batting average, 22 home runs and 72 RBI. In his six seasons with the A’s, he hit 209 home runs and drove in 647 runs. Texas Manager Toby Harrah compared his power to that of Reggie Jackson.
Agent Dennis Gilbert said: “Jose is still the best player in the American League. What I don’t understand is how a team with weak pitching like that of the Rangers can give up its best two pitchers.”
Canseco also presents the Rangers with a problem. As a player traded with a multiyear contract, he can demand a trade after the first year. If the Rangers do not respond to the demand by the following March, Canseco could become a free agent.
Grieve said he was confident that Canseco would be comfortable in Texas and that the Rangers could replace Witt and Russell from within. He again cited Russell’s imminent free agency, the inconsistency that has plagued Witt’s career and the opportunity to get a hitter of Canseco’s stature at a time when Sierra seemed unsignable.
“I don’t think you can turn your back on a future Hall of Famer when you’re faced with a situation in which you have two players who are likely to become free agents,” he said.
At one time there seemed to be little doubt that Canseco was headed for Cooperstown, but his destination now isn’t as clear. Alderson wouldn’t say it, but Canseco’s behavior off the field is known to have slowly eroded the A’s patience.
They worried about his intensity and work habits, and he might have delivered the final blow two weeks ago when, unannounced, he left a game and the stadium during the eighth inning, citing injury. He was later criticized publicly by Steinbach and LaRussa, the manager who hugged Canseco when he told him of the trade Monday night. Canseco, the American League’s 1988 most valuable player and a two-time league home run champion, appreciated the warmth of La Russa’s gesture but had a tough time embracing the news.