The first round is finally over.
That's what June and the first weeks of July have been to the baseball trading deadline: the first round of a boxing match – a few shots here, some dodging there, focus more outward than inward. By now, all 30 teams know each other's tendencies and wants and weaknesses, and over the next seven days they'll do everything they can to exploit them.
It's not procrastination as much as strategizing. Over-.500 teams might sell, and under-.500 teams might buy and the strangeness that pervades baseball's swapping season more than any other sport will make its triumphant return. Odd trades? You bet your five-tool, 25-year-old center fielder for a free-agent-to-be pitcher and a left-handed reliever!
That one – Colby Rasmus(notes) going to the Chicago White Sox, Edwin Jackson(notes) and Matt Thornton(notes) heading back to the St. Louis Cardinals – appeared Sunday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and, knowing the modus operandi of the teams, actually fits quite well. Interest in Rasmus certainly is genuine for teams looking to buy low. Almost every contender looking for a proven commodity, meanwhile, spends its cell-phone minutes dialing Queens.
Carlos Beltran evolved from a player with a foot inside the glue factory to one ready to run the Kentucky Derby. At 34, he's getting on base more than 39 percent of the time, slugging .519 and playing a strong right field. As one general manager put it this week: "[B.J.] Upton and Rasmus are better long term, but if I want to win this year, I'm getting Beltran."
Which is why the …
1. San Francisco Giants are pondering whether to throw a big uppercut and do just that before the July 31 deadline. There are a lot of teams with a lot of needs. None is quite as acute as the Giants' for a bat with thunder.
No contender can match the Giants' offensive futility this season, which happens to mirror theirs last year. Only now they don't have Buster Posey(notes) hiding in a Fresno apartment with a window that says "In case of emergency, break glass." Brandon Belt(notes) should be good if manager Bruce Bochy commits to playing him daily. Beyond that, there are no fixes without looking outside San Francisco.
Whether it's starter Zack Wheeler or center fielders Gary Brown or Francisco Peguero, the Giants shouldn't be loath to spend prospects for Beltran – and this is coming from a tried-and-true believer in the virtue of scouting and player development. Here's why: The Giants' pitching staff is so young and so good, not taking advantage of it equals wasting a special time. Matt Cain(notes) could hit free agency in 2012. Tim Lincecum(notes) could follow the next season. Even if one or both do re-sign, acting with a sense of urgency is the sort of thing players and fans want to see.
This year is an opportunity, especially with such a weak NL West division, and the Giants proved last year that all they need is to sneak into the playoffs for their pitching to stand up with anyone's. Even the …
2. Philadelphia Phillies, who would love to counter the Giants' uppercut with a straight right to nab Beltran. While Philadelphia's offensive gloom doesn't match San Francisco's, it is palpable.
Raul Ibanez(notes)/Domonic Brown/John Mayberry(notes) Jr. isn't exactly the threesome Philadelphians dream of. And yet those are the bodies patrolling the corner-outfield spots, and with Placido Polanco(notes) on the DL (and hitting rather feebly before he got there) and Ryan Howard(notes) struggling to keep his OPS above .800, the Phillies' power positions aren't providing much. Look at their year-by-year home run rankings since moving into Citizens Bank Park in 2004.
With just 87 home runs, the Phillies stand behind the Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Washington Nationals, Chicago White Sox and Tampa Bay Rays – none exactly a juggernaut offense. It's why they want Beltran and could pay for him.
The Phillies are saying right-hander Jarred Cosart, one of the stars of the Futures Game, is unavailable in a deal, especially for a two-month rental that, per Beltran's contract, cannot include compensatory draft picks through an arbitration offer. Oh well. The Phillies' position mirrors the Giants. They've got an all-time rotation and the pressure to win and so the best the …
3. Atlanta Braves can do is fire back with an Upton cross. It certainly fits. The Braves can talk up Jordan Schafer and his range all they please; scouts and executives love Upton's defense in center field, and his bat, inconsistent though it may be, possesses the sort of pop Schafer never has shown.
Even better, the Braves have the sort of prospects the Tampa Bay Rays love: hard-throwing, high-upside, big arms. Julio Teheran(notes) is going nowhere. Arodys Vizcaino isn't quite as untouchable, but he's also the pitcher with the stuff likeliest to end up in the bullpen. Mike Minor(notes) could slot into almost every rotation in baseball today. And one scout doesn't understand the recent negativity toward Randall Delgado(notes). "I'd take him over all of them but Teheran," he said.
Upton works because he hits right-handed (which the Braves need desperately), he plays center (a black hole for them since Andruw Jones(notes) ate himself off the position) and, best of all, he doesn't hit free agency until after next season. This is no rental.
All of it, of course, is contingent upon the Rays falling out of the AL East race. They could do that with a bad series in Oakland. Or with continued solid play by the …
4. New York Yankees, a team known for throwing wild that is instead exercising caution and restraint and may resign itself to a few jabs this year. The starting-pitching market is full of credit-default swaps. Teams are going to pay a lot for a name and end up, in almost all likelihood, with a performance that bottoms out quickly.
And maybe that's better than Bartolo Colon's(notes) right arm hanging by a stem cell and Freddy Garcia's(notes) pumping low-grade unleaded. But GM Brian Cashman tends to take a measured approach at the deadline and aim big. And with the biggest arms available priced ridiculously in desire (four prospects for Ubaldo Jimenez(notes)) and money (more than $30 million for Wandy Rodriguez(notes), plus the prospects or $15 million next year for Derek Lowe(notes)), Cashman may do what one scout suggested.
"Get a reliever so [David] Robertson's arm doesn't fall off," he said, "and get a lefty, too."
The Yankees scouted Washington left-hander Sean Burnett(notes) but didn't like his slurvy slider. The Cubs say Sean Marshall(notes) isn't available. Brian Fuentes(notes) and Randy Choate(notes) are Brian Fuentes and Randy Choate. Hey, the Yankees won the 2009 World Series with Damaso Marte(notes) their go-to lefty. They could survive with Boone Logan(notes) or Steve Garrison(notes).
Unless Cashman changes his tack, the Yankees will live and die with their bats, because their pitching can match up to neither the Los Angeles Angels' nor that of the …
5. Boston Red Sox as they need only parry their way to a playoff spot. The Red Sox of the opening two weeks seem to have disappeared for good, even as some key cogs (John Lackey(notes), Carl Crawford(notes)) struggled with consistency. Both of their Drs. Jekyll have shown up this month, and with Dustin Pedroia(notes) playing laser show like ELO is on in the background, Jacoby Ellsbury(notes) making his star turn at 27, Adrian Gonzalez(notes) still turning in MVP-caliber baseball and the pitching doing its part, no wonder the Red Sox are playing at a .690 clip (!) since their 2-10 start.
Josh Reddick hitting .358/.407/.621 over his 105 plate appearances is merely gravy, and trading for Beltran would be rubbing it in. The Red Sox emptied enough of their farm system in the trade for Gonzalez that if they looked the same Aug. 1 as they did today, GM Theo Epstein could head into the postseason happy with his roster. Maybe the Sox need a reliever. Perhaps they could use a utilityman. A healthy Jon Lester(notes) and Clay Buchholz(notes) will be nice. Their likelihood of small moves contrasts with the …
6. Texas Rangers and their wide swath of possibilities, from a little hook to a heaving blow. The Rangers, sources said, ramped up their pursuit of Beltran within the last 36 hours, and they've certainly got the pitching depth in the minor leagues to shop for diamonds.
They've also got enough close-to-the-majors pieces in their farm system – from 20-year-old left-hander Martin Perez(notes) and dynamic outfielder Leonys Martin(notes) to veterans Nick Green(notes) and Darren O'Day(notes), who was part of their AL championship run last season – that if the Rangers were quiet, there is still enough in place to win the West.
7. Detroit Tigers want to throw a starting-pitching haymaker. One problem: The best pitcher on the market is Hiroki Kuroda.
Who, of course, is a plenty nice middle-of-the-rotation starter, and that's exactly where he'd slot in: behind Justin Verlander(notes) and in a muddled middle with Max Scherzer(notes), Rick Porcello(notes) and Brad Penny(notes). It's just not the sort of move that guarantees relevancy, not beyond an AL Central that's for the taking in spite of Detroit's maddening pitching this season.
With Jimenez off the market and James Shields(notes) joining him, according to CBS Sports, it leaves the Tigers in a precarious position. Do they give up a top prospect (Jacob Turner(notes), Nick Castellanos, Andy Oliver(notes)) for a significant upgrade in a division where their biggest competition, Cleveland, will dabble only in smaller maneuvers, or do they respect the chasm between them and New York, Boston and Texas and instead ride their current arms?
The answer might be clearer considering GM Dave Dombrowski and manager Jim Leyland are in the final years of their contracts. Now is time to win, and the …
8. Pittsburgh Pirates are busy snorting smelling salts to clear their mind as they figure out whether that's their position, too. People are actually showing up at PNC Park to watch what has been an impressive and resilient, if overachieving, bunch.
And yet this is the NL Central, which, like its brother in the AL, is indeed full of comedy. Just when the Pirates are about to distinguish themselves … they lose two of three to the Cardinals … who two series earlier lost two of three to the Reds … who right before the All-Star break lost three of four to the Brewers … who the Pirates visit in the last series of the season, by which time they may or may not have acquired help.
Whoa. This is like a degree within a degree. I'll stop before we end up in limbo.
The Pirates' plan of action is to improve without selling the farm, which essentially means get only a little better. That's the quandary of the deadline for low-revenue teams, the same one that hinders them during free agency: Such periods were made for teams with a far greater tolerance for risk. If the Yankees trade for a bust, they can go spend $3 million in the Dominican Republic and grow another prospect. If the Pirates go stud for dud, it may be the difference between relevance and another sub-.500 season in 2014.
They can go for it or play like the …
9. New York Mets and take a dive. At 50-51, the Mets own the same record as Cincinnati, which has been inquiring about everyone from Jimenez to Beltran. Only they're 8½-games back of Atlanta in the wild card standings, and even with Johan Santana's(notes) return within a month or so, they'd rather punt.
It's still curious that the Mets pulled Jose Reyes off the trade market. He is, like Beltran, a free agent-to-be. He is also significantly more valuable than Beltran to the contending teams – an MVP-type player. Most important, Reyes is a businessman, like most of the players who end up with $100 million-plus contracts, and he'd hold no grudges for them dealing him.
In fact, if Reyes really is intent on re-signing with the Mets this offseason, he'd encourage them to deal him. Get some more talent to put around him and David Wright(notes). A Reyes rental would pull at least three good pieces. That's three more than the Mets have now, and as long as they stay among the bottom half of records, they wouldn't even lose their first-round pick for signing him.
Oh, well. Doesn't look like that's happening. The Mets are happy to dangle Beltran and let the bidding heat up, and whether it's the Rangers or the Braves or the Phillies or the …
10. San Francisco Giants he is going to punch his clock at a new stadium. The Giants hope it's AT&T Park. Mets scout Roy Smith has been following the Giants' minor leaguers, and his recommendation may depend on just how wretched San Francisco's offense turns and, by proxy, how desperate the Giants do.
Already it can peel paint by any measure. Traditional: The Giants are third to last in the NL and 26th overall in runs scored. Accepted stats: Their .670 OPS ranks second to last in the NL and 26th in baseball. Nerdery: Their 83 wRC+ – that would be weighted runs created, measured where 100 is average and they are 17 percent below average – is worst in the NL, worse, yes, than San Diego, and second worst in the game.
Maybe they get Beltran, who in 2004 turned in one of the more remarkable performances in postseason history: 20 for 46 with eight home runs, 14 RBIs, a .536 on-base percentage and a 1.022 slugging percentage for a Houston team that lost Game 7 of the NLCS. Upton practically pulled a Beltran in the first two rounds of the 2008 playoffs with seven homers in 46 at-bats before stumbling in the World Series.
They're both playoff-tested, both significant upgrades, both worthy targets. The Giants are in a special position, one organizations dream of: stocked and loaded in one facet, capable of getting there in another. This is not the time to sit on that.
The second round is here. The bell just rung. Time to win.
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