Waiver deals offer teams options

On Sunday afternoon, the San Diego Padres retired the No. 51, honoring baseball’s all-time save leader, Trevor Hoffman. Hoffman earned 552 of his record 601 saves during his 15-1/2 seasons in a Padres uniform.

On Monday, the Padres put Hoffman’s replacement, Heath Bell, on waivers. In the midst of his fifth year in the organization, and the third year he has spent as Hoffman’s ninth-inning replacement, Bell has become an elite closer, having earned 126 saves, including 35 in 39 opportunities this year.

On Wednesday, the defending world champion San Francisco Giants, in the midst of a two-game series against the Padres and Bell, were awarded the waiver claim. Speculation began as to whether a deal could be finalized by the Friday deadline for a decision on the claim to be made.

And Thursday, word surfaced that the Padres had decided to keep Bell, at least until season’s end. The Padres likely feel the offseason promises a potentially better return, even if means draft-choice compensation for losing Bell to free agency, rather than what the Giants can offer.

By Friday, the talks will officially end.

That’s baseball in the 21st Century.

There are moments to embrace the past, but they are fleeting because the reality of the challenges facing franchises today can’t be ignored. Major League Baseball has rules against teams discussing players placed on waivers, even after they are claimed, but word regularly leaks out. With the new world of social media, word spreads in a hurry.

Here’s how waivers work. A team places a player on waivers, and other teams have two working days to decide whether to place a claim. If multiple teams claim the player, the team with the worst record, regardless of league, is awarded the player. The two teams then have 48 hours to work out a deal or the original team is allowed to withdraw the player from the waivers. A claiming team cannot withdraw its claim.

That’s part of the hang-up with Minnesota moving Jim Thome. Thome has a no-trade clause and can block any deal he doesn’t like. Speculation is Thome would want to move only if he could be reunited with Charlie Manuel, the manager in Philadelphia, but the Phillies have baseball’s best record, which means the other 28 teams all would have had to pass on Thome for him to wind up in Philadelphia.

Now, a team can put a player back on waivers a second time in August, but if it does, the player is automatically awarded to a team with the proper waiver claim.

It’s not like Bell was an isolated case this week, much less this month.

At the same time that Bell was wearing a Padres uniform, staring across the field at AT&T Park, wondering if he were about to swap dugouts and the uniforms, Wandy Rodriguez was starting for the Houston Astros at Coors Field against the Colorado Rockies, wondering if he were about to face his future team.

The Rockies were awarded the waiver claim on Rodriguez on Wednesday and were willing to assume the $37 million contract obligation for the left-hander, but unwilling to give up the quality of prospects the Astros also demanded. And so when the Astros flew from Denver to San Francisco, where they open a four-game series Thursday night, Rodriguez was aboard the plane.

Understand, far more players are claimed on waivers than are ever dealt following the July 31 deadline to trade players without needing waivers, and the gyrations teams go through during the waiver period have been complicated in recent years by the high-dollar, long-term contracts players receive.

A claiming team has to beware.

That lesson was drilled home back in 1998. Teams have not forgotten the lesson of then San Diego general manager Kevin Towers, who claimed left-handed reliever Randy Myers from Toronto because he wanted to block postseason rival Atlanta from adding a lefty. Towers got stuck with Myers, who turned out to have a bad arm, and the Padres got stuck with more than $15 million in salary for Myers, who worked 14-1/3 innings in the final weeks of 1998 and never threw a big-league pitch again.

There, however, also are stories that have happy endings.

A year ago, for example, the Giants were blocking San Diego from acquiring Cody Ross in a waiver claim from Florida. The Marlins, however, didn’t care where Ross went as long as they cleared his salary off their books, so they allowed the Giants’ claim to go through. It wound up being a godsend for San Francisco. Ross was a key to their world championship, earning MVP honors in the NLCS.

What teams are hoping to do when they put a player on waivers during August is take advantage of a saturation of names on the waiver wire, slip a player through waivers, and then have flexibility later in the month in case a contender has an unexpected need.

In placing a waiver claim, teams are either making pre-emptive bids to block a player from going to a rival, or trying to take advantage of a team’s desire to move the player.

Detroit got what it wanted earlier this month when it acquired outfielder Delmon Young from a Minnesota team that could no longer live the lie that it could get back into the American League Central race.

For the Giants, the claim of Bell turned into a dual-purpose gamble. The Giants did want to block him from Arizona, who went into the week with an edge on the Giants in the NL West. Kevin Towers, the general manager who brought Bell to the Padres from the Mets, is now the Diamondbacks general manager, and has an uncanny knack for building a bullpen. In the meantime, though, the Giants also lost their own closer, Brian Wilson, because of an inflamed right elbow.

The Padres had no problem making a deal within the division, but the Giants, never shy to make a deal with the intention of winning now instead of worrying about the future, have drained the top quality out of their farm system. Remember, the Giants dealt their No. 1 prospect, pitcher Zach Wheeler, to the Mets last month for outfielder Carlos Beltran.

Colorado, meanwhile, saw the chance to claim Rodriguez as a means to filling a rotation void not only for this year, but the next two or three. The Astros, after all, were shopping Rodriguez before July 31, but indications were they pulled out of potential deals because teams such as the Yankees would not take enough of the $36 million that Rodriguez would be guaranteed for 2012-14.

The Rockies know that luring a free-agent pitcher to Coors Field is a challenge, and they also know that this year’s free-agent market will be weak in terms of pitchers, which made Rodriguez that much more attractive, even if his contract is inflated for a middle-of-the-rotation pitcher.

The Rockies tested whether their willingness to take on the contract would satisfy the Astros. Colorado wasn’t about to give up prime prospects along the lines of left-hander Drew Pomeranz and catcher Wilin Rosario, who were the targets in Houston

The Padres, with Bell, and Astros, with Rodriguez, however, both figured they would find better offseason markets than what they could get in deals this week.

Bell could be a free agent, but by offering him arbitration, the Padres would receive two high draft picks as compensation if they lost Bell. Rodriguez is under contract, but given the shortage of pitching talent that will be on the open market this offseason, the Astros are willing to gamble that Rodriguez’ value will rise as teams looking to shore up their rotation come up empty handed on the free-agent market.