Padres, Yankees, A's all appear improved via trades, free-agent signings

Trying to assess the ramifications of baseball's off-season wheeling and dealing is an imprecise science at best, since too many variables enter into the equation to make anything but a wild guess. It's an annual tradition, though, so now that all the big-name free agents have been signed and the winter-meeting trade mart is over, it is time to take stock. The four biggest names changing uniforms were Eddie Murray (Baltimore to Los Angeles), Jack Clark (New York Yankees to San Diego), Steve Sax (Los Angeles to the Yankees), and Bruce Hurst (Boston to San Diego).

Since half of this quartet wound up with the Padres, it's pretty obvious which team helped itself the most. Inserting a slugger like Clark (who has averaged 32 homers and 100 RBIs the last two years) into the lineup behind three-time National League batting champion Tony Gwynn should give a big boost to the offense. And Hurst was the prize free-agent catch among pitchers this year. Reliable left-handed starters are always in demand, and Bruce not only had been a solid performer in Boston for a half dozen seasons, climaxed by two clutch victories over the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series, but was coming off a career-best 18-6 campaign.

Whether this will be enough to lift San Diego to the top of the National League West is another question. The Padres finished third last season, 11 games behind the victorious Dodgers, so they have some ground to make up. The addition of Clark and Hurst, without giving up any key players in return, represents a couple of big steps in the right direction, but they lost 14-game-winner Andy Hawkins to the Yankees via free-agency and had to part with two more pitchers - Lance McCullers and Jimmy Jones - in the deal for Clark.

For the Dodgers, where offense was a problem anyway, the loss of Sax to the Yankees via free agency seemed at the time a tough one to overcome. But the switch-hitting Murray is one of the best offensive players in the game - a .295 career average with 333 homers and 1,190 RBIs in 12 years as a fixture with the Orioles. So L.A. actually comes out looking improved offensively, and the defending world champions go into 1989 appearing just as strong as, if not stronger than, the team that won it all last October.

The Yankees also should get a boost from the free-agent signing of Sax, an excellent leadoff hitter and baserunner who was the Dodgers' offensive catalyst for the last several years. But that is somewhat offset, of course, by the loss of Clark, who even in an off year when he had injury problems and batted only .242 still managed to hit 27 home runs and drive in 93 runs.

Meanwhile, New York moved strongly to shore up the pitching staff that has been its main problem in recent seasons, signing Hawkins and veteran left-hander Dave Lapoint as free agents and adding Lance McCullers and Jimmy Jones in the San Diego trade. And owner George Steinbrenner still may not be through waving his checkbook around if he can find any more sellers.

The American League champion Oakland A's, following the dictum that even a pennant-winner can't afford to sit still, went out and signed Mike Moore, the second most sought-after pitcher on the free-agent list after Hurst. The big right-hander pitched much better than his 9-15 record with a weak Seattle team indicates, and was particularly effective in the latter part of the season. With the A's, he beefs up an already imposing starting rotation that includes Dave Stewart, Bob Welch, Storm Davis, and Curt Young, with Dennis Eckersley heading up the league's best bullpen.

The biggest losers in terms of parting with key talent were clearly Boston, and Baltimore. The Red Sox may rue the day they let Hurst get away, as most observers think they will find it difficult to defend their American League East title without him. The Orioles, though, are in a different category. As the losingest team in the majors last season (54-107), they weren't going anywhere right away, so it made sense to trade a 12-year veteran star like Murray for three young players who they hope can help them climb up the ladder - pitchers Brian Holton and Ken Howard, plus 20-year-old shortstop Juan Bell, brother of Toronto slugger George Bell.

Veteran catcher Bob Boone signed with Kansas City after his old team, California, picked up former Philadelphia receiver Lance Parrish via the free-agent route. Rick Mahler, a longtime workhorse in Atlanta, moved on to Cincinnati. And Jesse Orosco, former New York Mets bullpen ace who pitched last season for the Dodgers, signed with Cleveland, as did reserve infielder Luis Aguayo of the Yankees.

What does it all mean?

The A's look like repeaters in the AL West, as do the Mets in the NL East, where there was little significant player movement. San Diego and Cincinnati may have closed the gap on the Dodgers in the NL West, while the Yankees could be the most improved team in the AL East, which looks like the most competitive division once again.

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