A general manager was on the phone Thursday morning, a guy who could use some starting pitching. He has options, too, those being Zack Greinke or Matt Garza or James Shields or Josh Johnson, or maybe – who knows – Ryan Dempster. He has the young, projectable players other organizations covet, too.
He likes most of those available pitchers enough, and absolutely loves none of them, which is the nature of mid-summer, when need meets deadline and then you must trade your long-term vision for someone else's creeping doubt.
"The thing is," the general manager said of the trade market, "there's always a reason why they're out there."
It's not always just the money, either, because that would be too easy. It's age, velocity, command, ragged mechanics or an uncertain MRI, or a very uncertain WHIP and then, usually, the money, too.
So, Shields, a pitcher almost everybody likes, goes out Thursday afternoon in Baltimore, walks five, strikes out 10, allows five runs and turns his 4.39 ERA into a 4.52 ERA over six innings against the Orioles. And what, exactly, does a scout take from that?
And Johnson's ERA is a run higher than his career ERA, and about twice what it was over 2010 and 2011, just before he had to stop pitching because of a shoulder ailment.
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And Greinke just took some time off because of fatigue before returning to look great against the Philadelphia Phillies, proving he'd be a spectacular pickup, particularly if you needed him every 11 days. In his previous five starts, Greinke's ERA was more than 7.00. In the six starts before that: 1.67 ERA.
And Garza's triceps cramped in his last start, then he left the club to witness the birth of his child, and could pitch again as early as Monday, which is the day before the deadline. That's assuming his triceps is OK.
And Dempster has made it quite clear that, all things considered, he'd prefer to pitch for the Los Angeles Dodgers, a decision that for the moment has left the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago Cubs hanging, but helps the Dodgers a lot. For one, they've had what amounts to an exclusive negotiating window with Theo Epstein and/or Jed Hoyer. For another, Dempster's rigidity just might keep him out of Atlanta, Arizona, St. Louis and even Washington, against whom the Dodgers figure to be fighting for a playoff spot.
Five days from the actual deadline, here's where we stand on the pitching front:
[Tim Brown's Power Rankings: Reds rise, Mets tumble, No. 1 doesn't change ]
Unable to reach a contract agreement with Greinke and buried in the NL Central, Brewers GM Doug Melvin told USA Today the right-hander would be traded. Presumably, that gives Melvin until Sunday, when Greinke is scheduled to make his next start. Think Angels, Rangers, White Sox and maybe the Orioles and Red Sox.
Shields has made his last start until the deadline and has drawn interest from a handful of clubs. A team that scouted him recently said his velocity remains plenty good enough, but that his pitches lack last season's life and command. The scout concluded Shields' 249⅓ innings from 2011 weakened him for 2012. That said, Shields remains a commodity. The Angels like him, as do the Dodgers and Braves.
The Cubs have asked a lot for Garza, who is effective, durable and better than his record (5-7 in '12, 57-61 career) suggests. Early on, when teams called on Garza, the Cubs guided the conversations to Dempster. Indeed, the Cubs traded Dempster to the Braves, then Dempster didn't cooperate, which means Dempster is still a Cub and the Braves are still in need of a starting pitcher. In the end, the Dodgers like the pitcher, the pitcher likes the Dodgers, and the Cubs want to move him. So, something likely can be worked out by Tuesday.
The Marlins have a decision to make. Actually, first they have to decide how big of a mess they are, then make a decision. That is, are they close enough to being a good team that it can be restructured around Josh Johnson? Then, do they trust that Johnson can be an elite pitcher again? One thing for sure: If they sell Johnson today, they'd be selling low.
Finally, the newcomer to deadline rumors is Cliff Lee, who could be shoved out of Philadelphia by the Cole Hamels contract. Wouldn't it make sense if Lee returned to Texas?
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