It is officially trade-deadline season when an email message from a general manager should come with the hashtag #chickenlittle: "Market is stupid already."
He does this almost every year about this time, when teams are beginning that six-week-long tete-a-tete that culminates in madness around July 31. Right now, nobody is off-limits (despite what GMs proclaim publicly), every selling team is operating at a massive markup (as they should) and buyers are weighing whether to strike now while the might-be buyers remain undecided (see: Milwaukee dealing for CC Sabathia on July 7, 2008).
Distinguishing which team is which makes this next month-plus the most exciting part of the regular season outside of the playoff push. Separating the 30 teams into five distinct categories is the fairest way to assess where they fall in the trade spectrum.
There are the truly wretched teams (Miami, New York, Houston) and the bad ones looking toward the future (Milwaukee, Minnesota, Seattle, both Chicagos).
A combined $630,478,143 in opening day payroll. A combined 22 games under .500. While only the Phillies may blow things up completely, the rest will entertain offers absent a hot streak.
The mixture of teams that just don't know if they've got enough to make a run (San Francisco, Toronto) with those not only on the cusp but with distinct financial considerations guiding their decisions (Cleveland, Colorado, Kansas City, San Diego, Tampa).
Another solid month will solidify the commitment to this season, even though every team outside the Yankees must watch its spending.
Better charge that cell phone. And make the first call to …
1. Cliff Lee to see if he'll consider waiving the 21-team no-trade clause that includes Boston and, in all likelihood, Detroit. The Cardinals aren't on the list, though their starting pitching, like the Tigers', is a great strength. Last season, the Rangers – who could use Lee for another playoff run – weren't on the list, either.
The team with the greatest incentive among the buyers to chase Lee is Boston, particularly in light of Jon Lester's struggles, Clay Buchholz's flagging health and the inconsistency of Ryan Dempster and Felix Doubront that has left – gulp – John Lackey as the team's most consistent starter at the moment.
Boston certainly has the prospects to pry Lee from the Phillies, even if GM Ruben Amaro Jr. says he isn't available, which strains credulity seeing as Philadelphia has recently been offered free products from Geritol, Super Poligrip and Sunsweet for its roster. Compound that with a farm system in need of a massive rebuild and it doesn't matter how big the Phillies' next TV deal is. Teams don't win subsisting on aging, costly players, and Lee is the best chance the Phillies have to hit a trade bonanza. It's not like …
2. Chase Utley is going to guarantee a star prospect like Lee would. Dealing for Utley, 34, comes fraught with land mines. First is the question of whether he can stay healthy for the rest of the year after failing to do so for a full season since 2009. Then is the cost in young talent for a 34-year-old free-agent-to-be second baseman. And most important: Utley can block a deal to 21 teams thanks to a no-trade clause in his contract, according to a club source.
Utley is not necessarily the sort who would use the provision to leverage himself into a new long-term deal with a new team. The haste of such a decision doesn't jibe with his style. Utley has spent his entire career with the Phillies. He is beloved in Philadelphia. They're just three games under .500 now, and most of the team is healthy, and Cole Hamels can only improve, and so maybe Utley just wants time and patience.
And there are greater forces than Utley's play: The aforementioned TV deal has become a high priority within the organization and could be nearing completion, the source said. Dealing such a popular player, even if it would be the right baseball move, would not necessarily endear an organization that fickle fans already see as underachieving.
Sometime in August, Utley will reach his 10th major-league season and secure 10-and-5 rights, which allow him to block a trade to all 29 teams. His tack over the next month is worth watching. The allure of another championship ring may have a hypnotic effect on Utley, still one of the toughest, most respected players in the game. For the sake of his franchise's future, Amaro should do his best to convince Utley it's not a bad thing to want a trade to a contender. Why …
3. Giancarlo Stanton has spent his whole year doing that: waiting for the call telling him he has been pardoned from spending another day with the Miami Marlins. Miami insists it isn't coming, even though the case for keeping Stanton around during what looks like at least a two-more-years rebuild is remarkably flimsy.
Considering the Marlins' haste in ridding themselves of almost every player who makes big money beyond starter Ricky Nolasco, a near certainty to go at the deadline, no Marlins player makes more than $2.75 milllion, which is $450,000 below the average salary in all of baseball. Hoarding a player who is going to bolt out of town the instant he's allowed to seems to be some nose-cutting, face-spiting stubbornness. Trading him now, before he hits arbitration, saves the Marlins from a likely $7 million-plus salary next season.
And considering the paucity of superstar bats available for contenders and the three years remaining before Stanton hits free agency that would make him attractive even to non-contenders, this would be an optimal time to deal him. The urgency of July prompts overpaying, and even though the Marlins publicly hold out hopes that Stanton will sign a long-term deal in Miami, Jeffrey Loria is likely to win an award for humanitarianism before that happens.
Until the Marlins come to their senses, Alex Rios and …
4. Andre Ethier or Carl Crawford represent the best outfielders on the market. All of the top free agents-to-be play for contenders: Shin-Soo Choo, Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran. And when Matt Kemp returns from the disabled list sometime within the next week or so, and Crawford follows soon thereafter, the Dodgers will find themselves with $429 million worth of outfielders and only three spots to play them.
Kemp isn't going anywhere. Neither is Yasiel Puig. (By the way, Puig has played in 19 games, is hitting .425/.462/.712 … and in those games the Dodgers are 9-10.) That leaves Crawford and Ethier. Let's do a tale of the tape.
Both are 31. Both have four years left on their contracts after this season. Crawford is owed $82.5 million, Ethier $70 million. Crawford is hitting .301/.358/.470 this season, Ethier .255/.339/.381. Crawford is a left fielder. Ethier can play right and, as he's shown during Kemp's injury, center.
Either way, the Dodgers will swallow significant money in offloading one of the deals. With Adrian Gonzalez locked in at first base, a position change isn't in the offing, and there's absolutely no way the Dodgers park a $17 million-plus-a-year player on the bench long-term. None. There is no good way to split a maximum of 21 games a week among four players equitably.
"They need a team like themselves to bail them out," said one GM, referring to the trade with Boston last July that landed Crawford, Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and their combined nine figures in Los Angeles. It came on the heels of Ethier's monster in-season contract extension. And while the Dodgers didn't expect the 22-year-old Puig to move as quickly as he did, his ascent hastens the decision. Because if they do decide to sell – and executives believe the Dodgers are another bad month or so away from doing just that – there will be a run on utilitymen (Jerry Hairston Jr., Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker) and pitchers (Chris Capuano, Ted Lilly if his neck stops pestering, Matt Guerrier).
The prize will be Ethier or Crawford and the hope for a left-handed spark, though …
5. Justin Morneau is worthy of a reasonable facsimile and won't cost nearly as much, either in prospects or money. Morneau, 32, will hit free agency this offseason when his six-year, $80 million deal expires, and he'll do so as an entirely different player – not the MVP of before the contract but a victim of concussions whose game has regressed significantly.
It's simple to say that Morneau is a shell of his great self because of the concussions, even if one never can prove that to be the case. The truth: Morneau's prodigious power has all but disappeared. His slugging percentage this season is under .400. He still struggles desperately against left-handed pitchers. At one juncture, he would've been the pre-eminent player on the market. Now he can only hope for a multiyear deal.
Which is why a trade would be so good for him. Enough people remember the .300/30/100 thumper to believe he can return to that, and perhaps a different environment would sustain him. It's not the same as dealing guys with contracts into 2014 (closer Glen Perkins, who would create a frenzy, and Josh Willingham, a perfect power bat for a team that needs depth). Morneau no longer is good enough to warrant a draft-pick tender, which means it's likely anyway he goes the way of …
6. Jesse Crain and bolts the Twin Cities. The team for which he left, the Chicago White Sox, happen to be among those looking to sell, and sell might be phrasing it lightly. This could be an all-out liquidation, because, like the Phillies, the White Sox are in a position with a few bad contracts and, more important, a black hole of a farm system sucking the life out of the franchise.
Crain, one of the best relief pitchers in baseball this season, could take his 0.52 ERA elsewhere, so long as Robin Ventura doesn't run him into the ground first. On Sunday, Crain blew a lead giving up three unearned runs. He threw 30 pitches, which came the day after a 29-pitch outing, which followed 19 pitches two days earlier, which preceded 27 three days before. In all, Crain threw 105 pitches in a week. For someone conditioned to go an inning, maybe two, that is a lot of wear.
Another top-of-the-deadline name: Jake Peavy, who this week was rehabbing a broken rib that should allow him to return until mid-July. Plus Rios. And to the team desperate for a shortstop, Alexei Ramirez is happy to bring his 12 errors – as many in 72 games this year as he committed in 158 last year – and .644 OPS.
Crain may generate the most interest. Before Sunday's game, he hadn't been scored upon in 29 straight appearances. He can set up. He can close. And while Jonathan Papelbon is too rich for most and Jose Veras too inconsistent, Crain offers that perfect combination of bad team, great stuff, reasonable contract and no anxiety over draft-pick compensation. The left-handed version of Crain this season is …
7. Oliver Perez, who ... hold on a second. Oliver Perez? You're saying Oliver Perez is a commodity? That a team out there not only would actively pursue a trade for Oliver Perez but give up a prospect for Oliver Perez? Of all the signs of the apocalypse, all the portents that society is indeed in a state of irreparable decay, Oliver Perez – Oliver Perez! – is a trade-deadline prize.
Now that we've come to terms with that, it's easy to see why. He's cheap (about $325,000 for the last two months). He's throwing gas again (sitting around 93 mph). He's got a 1.05 ERA (yup). He's striking out 12.6 per nine (for real).
Issues exist. Of course they do, this is Oliver Perez. He still walks too many (4.6 per nine). His ERA is so great because he's stranding runners at an absurd and unsustainable rate (only one has scored). More than 70 percent of his outs come in the air (which is trouble at smaller parks than Safeco Field).
The only other available lefty with similar strikeout numbers is Milwaukee's Mike Gonzalez, and if teams want a Mike Gonzalez who will make an impact, they'd be best served pursuing …
8. Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez and his array of stuff that wowed scouts at a showcase this week in Mexico. The 26-year-old Cuban defector's fastball sat at 94-95 mph, topping out at 97, according to one official in attendance. The right-hander also threw a 91-mph cutter and mixed in a curveball, changeup and splitter for good measure, striking out six in three innings against Ensenada in a Liga Del Norte game.
Once Gonzalez gets unblocked by the Office of Foreign Assets Control – something expected to happen within the next two weeks but always at the whim of strict government regulations – the bidding for Gonzalez will ramp up fast and could thrust into Aroldis Chapman, Yoenis Cespedes and even Yasiel Puig territory.
Not only does Gonzalez represent a potential season-changing arm, he does so with a singular cost: money. No prospects. No worries about losing him to free agency. Because of his experience and success internationally – he outdueled Gerrit Cole in the gold medal game of the World University Championship in 2010 – Gonzalez could argue he is more like a seasoned Japanese star coming to MLB than an unproven Cuban. And seeing as Fidel Castro isn't taking any posting fee, it's conceivable Gonzalez could land the biggest contract ever for a Cuban.
Remember, with the limits on draft-pick spending and international amateurs, the market for veteran international free agents better resembles free agency. And considering the teams involved – the Dodgers, Red Sox, Giants and another half-dozen serious suitors – the price will be high. It won't just be the contenders, either. Even a team like the Cubs could sneak in a bid while trying to offload their best trade candidate …
9. Carlos Marmol. Just kidding. The real crème-de-la-Cubs is ...
9. Matt Garza who, like Gonzalez, is a pennant-race-changing arm. Garza is beginning to look his Garzish self, though his last two outings – 15 innings, seven hits, one run – did come against the Mets and Astros, which lets us know he can mow through a Triple-A lineup like a Toro.
The good news for Garza is that after missing more than a month to start the season with a strained lat after losing half of last season to an elbow injury, his stuff looks like it has in the past, minus the changeup he almost altogether has ditched. Scouts are flocking to see the Cubs, knowing Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have at least one more dumpfest in them before their young core of position players can grow together at the major league level.
While they could offer Garza a draft-pick tender and fetch a first-round pick should they not get a worthwhile offer in July, they can't do the same with Scott Feldman, Nate Schierholtz and David DeJesus, all of whom figure to be on the move. Maybe the Cubs will find someone to eat at least a little bit of Alfonso Soriano's contract, which still has another year at $19 million. Big money like that simply scares teams, and it's why ...
10. Cliff Lee's contract may be the only thing that keeps him in a Phillies uniform. For the next two years, his ages 35 and 36 seasons, Lee will receive $25 million per annum. Then comes the 2016 option, which vests for $27.5 million if Lee is healthy following 2015 and threw 200 innings that season or 400 in the previous two. Should it not vest, he's owed a $12.5 million buyout.
In other words, Lee comes with either a two-year, $62.5 million deal or a three-year, $77.5 million pact. Both of those are massive amounts – bigger than Justin Verlander, Felix Hernandez and CC Sabathia – and to guarantee them to a pitcher in his late 30s and be expected to give up a large prospect haul is quite the expectation by Amaro.
And yet he is the one selling the best pitcher at this deadline, one who has proven himself in the postseason no less, which is going to leave teams convincing themselves the money is fine and the prospects aren't a big deal because this is Cliff Lee, and he's got a 2.53 ERA and 98 strikeouts against 17 walks in 110 1/3 innings and pitches deep into games and has logged five consecutive seasons of at least 211 innings. As a pitcher, he is everything a team wants in October – truly one of the best.
Perhaps the #chickenlittle GM had just heard the price on Lee. Or maybe it was Stanton. The games are starting, the savvy buyers trying to parry the cost stated by the savvy sellers, the groundwork for July trades so often being set now. The madness is nigh. Get ready for the best trade season in sports.
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