Big League Stew - MLB

Arms don't change hands. It's self-evident anatomically, and increasingly an axiom throughout baseball, underscored by the Chicago Cubs on Friday with $91.5 million of thick, black ink.

No wonder the first players sought in trade talks are minor league pitching prospects. No wonder teams loathe letting them go.

After it was announced that right-hander Carlos Zambrano had agreed to a five-year contract extension with the Cubs, general managers throughout baseball crossed the top name off the potential free-agent list.

Already, Mark Buerhle and John Smoltz had signed extensions with their current teams.

Who's left? The aged, infirm and ineffective.

There was a time Curt Schilling, Kenny Rogers, Bartolo Colon, Freddy Garcia and Livan Hernandez would have formed a dynamic free-agent class. That time is long past, yet those could be the top names available this off-season.

Unless you deem Carlos Silva (9-12, 4.30) or Josh Fogg (7-7, 4.64) more desirable. Otherwise it's pick your poison.

You be the GM. Which of the following could turn around their career and justify, say, a three-year, $24 million deal?

Jason Jennings (2-8, 6.16). Jeff Weaver (4-10, 5.64). Brett Tomko (2-10, 5.67). Kip Wells (6-13, 5.24). Odalis Perez (7-11. 5.78). Kyle Lohse (7-12. 4.56).

Rather than be forced to rifle through that bargain rack, teams are doing all they can to sew up the guys they've got, stock up on pitchers in the draft and do their best to develop them.

The bleak landscape could force GMs to exercise options on pitchers despite serious questions. The Dodgers' Ned Colletti, for example, is contemplating picking up the $9 million option on Randy Wolf (9-6, 4.73), and is likely to do so if team physicians believe the left-hander will fully recover from the shoulder injury that has sidelined him since July 3. (Wolf, by the way, will begin throwing early next week and could return in late September if the Dodgers are in the playoff hunt.)

Meanwhile, the few pitchers who are healthy and have a history of effectiveness have never been in a better position to cash in.

"I feel happy right now, feel comfortable right now, but it's not enough," Zambrano said during the news conference announcing his extension. "I have a mission to complete."

And teams all over baseball have rotations to complete, a task that is getting increasingly difficult.

FIVE …

• The sorry state of starting pitching makes the debut of a live-armed prospect even more exciting. Clay Buchholz made his first major league start Friday with the Boston Red Sox after averaging 13 strikeouts per nine innings in 22 minor league games this season. Buchholz, who enjoyed a five-run cushion after his first inning against the Los Angeles Angels, joins Jon Lester and Jonathan Papelbon as young pitchers who could enable the Red Sox to deploy their considerable financial resources in other areas.

• For most teams, three off-the-field distractions in one day might be used as an excuse for a loss. But not in New York, where the Yankees are desensitized to clamor such as Gary Sheffield chirping about Joe Torre again, GM Brian Cashman saying the Yankees won't sign Alex Rodriguez if he opts out of his contract, and Jason Giambi essentially being pardoned by commissioner Bud Selig.

• The threat of anybody getting sued by Barry Bonds is minimal because the legal process undoubtedly would include Bonds being deposed to testify under oath. He's not likely to go there. Schilling, clearly the primary target of the attorneys Bonds hired to rattle sabers, is well-known as a sanctimonious blowhard. Maybe he's been embarrassed by Bonds' response to his finger-pointing. Maybe not. But anybody expecting this to end up in court shouldn't hold their breath.

• The Dodgers' Derek Lowe won for the first time since June 22, a drought caused by lack of support – the Dodgers averaged 2.36 runs per game in his 11 losses – and nagging injuries. The victory over the Astros was vintage Lowe – Seventeen outs in seven innings were recorded via the ground ball and he needed only 84 pitches, an indication his sinker was in excellent form. The Dodgers need a string of strong starts from Lowe to have any chance of catching the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West.

Rick Ankiel is the feel-good story of the year. Scott Rolen is finally heating up. Kip Wells is even pitching well. The Cardinals' first five-game winning streak in more than a year has vaulted them to within 2½ games of the first-place Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central. Of course, beating the Brewers in three of those games helped considerably. Yet before anybody starts talking repeat, it's worth noting that the Cardinals are still under .500.

… AND FLY

When in Rome … Julio Franco, who turns 49 next week, went 1 for 3 in his first game for the Class-A Rome (Ga.) Braves. His oldest teammate, Jorge Acosta, is less than half his age.

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