Cruz Deal: A Save Situation? -- Trades For Closers Overshadow Loss To Brewers, 2-1

MILWAUKEE - An eerie sense of uneasiness settled over the Mariners from the minute they arrived at County Stadium for the final stop on an interminable road trip. Change was most definitely in the air.

"It was just a very weird day," first baseman Paul Sorrento said. "We all knew something was going to happen. We just didn't know when or who."

The answer came last night in the top of the fifth inning of Seattle's eventual 2-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, when reserve outfielder Rob Ducey was told to loosen up. He batted for Jose Cruz Jr.

The larger meaning was clear: The Mariners had ended an agonizing internal debate by concluding that the club's desperate need for relief pitching required them to trade Cruz, their most prized prospect.

Cruz, 23, was sent to the Toronto Blue Jays for two relievers - right-hander Mike Timlin, who saved 31 games last year but had lost his closing job this year to rookie Kelvim Escobar, and Paul Spoljaric, left-handed setup man.

The Mariners were just getting started. Waiting until the final minutes before the midnight (EDT) trade deadline, they picked up another short reliever, Boston's Heathcliff Slocumb. This cost them two more top prospects - pitcher Derek Lowe, who made nine starts for the M's this year before returning to Class AAA Tacoma, and catcher Jason Varitek, Seattle's No. 1 pick in the 1994 draft.

"The toughest part was giving up Cruz," Mariner General Manager Woody Woodward said from his Seattle office at the end of the dizzying day. "I've said it before: If I had to give up young players to keep us in the pennant race, I'd do that. I did it the last two years, and I did it this year.

"I didn't want to break up the middle of our offense or our starting rotation. The only part I didn't want to do and ended up doing was Cruz. But it needed to be done. We needed to make a change. It was obvious to everyone."

The Mariners thus completed an overhaul of their bullpen on the same day that only a pitching collapse by Anaheim kept them from falling into second place.

It was an all-too-familiar breakdown by the Mariners a day earlier against Boston that gave them the final impetus to deal Cruz, a star in the making who had 12 homers and 34 runs batted in, in only 49 games. It was their 15th blown save.

"If we didn't do something, we ran a risk of letting this season go to waste," a Mariner official said.

The Mariners had hoped to get White Sox closer Roberto Hernandez without giving up Cruz, but that hope expired yesterday when Hernandez was sent by Chicago to San Francisco in a nine-player deal. "There was interest (in Hernandez), but obviously they were looking at things we couldn't provide," assistant general manager Lee Pelekoudas said.

The Mariners also contacted San Francisco after the trade to see if they could swing a deal for Hernandez, but the Giants were intent on keeping Hernandez and closer Rod Beck.

That reduced the Mariners' viable options for a closer to Timlin, Slocumb and Philadelphia's Ricky Bottalico. The latter deal also would have required Cruz, but Woodward said Manager Lou Piniella and vice president Roger Jongewaard, in particular, preferred an American League pitcher.

Piniella, however, clearly didn't savor having to inform Cruz he was no longer a Mariner.

"We didn't want to trade Cruz," Piniella said. "We waited until the last possible second. We couldn't do anything else. . . . "

The inclusion of Spoljaric was a deal maker. Toronto had been offering Timlin, left-hander Dan Plesac and outfielder Joe Carter. Seattle could not take on one-third of Carter's $6.5 million salary and wanted Spoljaric as the left-hander. Late yesterday, Blue Jays GM Gordon Ash relented and added Spoljaric.

Piniella had left County Stadium before the Slocumb trade was consummated, but it's clear that the Mariners' "bullpen by committee" has two new chairmen: Timlin and Slocumb.

"We have four people who have had closing experience, and, although you'd have to ask Lou, I would think, if the situation called for it, he would go to any of these men if he had to save a game," Woodward said.

Piniella said left field would be shared by Ducey and Rich Amaral. With three pitchers coming and only one major-league player leaving, the M's must trim two players from their roster, most likely relievers Edwin Hurtado and Mark Holzemer.

Woodward stressed that this wasn't a "rent-a-player" deal, as probably would have been the case with Hernandez. Timlin is making $800,000 this year and is signed for next year at $2.25 million. Spoljaric, who makes $185,000 this year, is in his first full major-league season. Slocumb, earning $2.975 million this year, is eligible for arbitration but not free agency after the season.

And it wouldn't, had not the Mariners included Cruz, whom 24 hours earlier - before the Boston meltdown - they intended to keep.

"It came down very close to the 12th hour," Woodward said. "It's true, I did not want to make that deal. There were some suggestions within our baseball office that we may have to do that and include Cruz in a deal earlier. I avoided that, and then as we got closer to the deadline, we realized that to get the help we need to win this year, we were going to have to put a good young player like Cruz in the deal."

Asked if he feared Cruz would make them regret the trade, Woodward replied, "I'm sure he will. He's a good player.

"You could say we were damned if we do and damned if we don't because we gave up some real quality. But we've got a shot this year and we've got to go for it."

The deal with the Red Sox, which Woodward actually expected to make first, nearly died as well. "We had several discussions with Dan Duquette (Boston GM)," Woodward said. "I thought the deal was not going to come down. At the very end, he called back."

Despite blowing a save last night - his fifth of the year - Slocumb has a 1.47 ERA and 11 saves in 19 games since June 14.

Timlin's biggest moment in Toronto came when he retired Atlanta's Otis Nixon on a bunt with the tying run on third to clinch the 1992 World Series for the Blue Jays. But Manager Cito Gaston appeared to lose confidence in him when he blew a save on Opening Day by giving up a ninth-inning homer to Chicago's Norberto Martin. He eventually lost the job to Escobar.

"It's definitely a new start," Timlin said. "It's a chance to get back to the playoffs and World Series. This is the only team I've ever been on. It's like leaving home."

Spoljaric, a native of Kelowna, B.C., said he was "happy to go but sad at the same time. I just built a house in Toronto. I have some big decisions to make."

So did the Mariners, and they arrived at one undeniable conclusion: Go for it now.

Seattle Times staff reporter Bob Finnigan contributed to this report.