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They're still not ready to start dealing. Last week, indecision and fear froze baseball's trade market. Now, contenders are waiting for baseball's natural order to winnow down the sheer number of teams looking to improve themselves. Problem is, Darwin wasn't much of a baseball fan.
While the lack of draft-compensation picks upended any plans for the market to flesh itself out prior to nitty-gritty time, here come teams like the Oakland Athletics and the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Baltimore Orioles not just surviving deep into July but flourishing. Alongside Cinderella are the usual beauty queens, and suddenly there are damn near 20 teams that can make a mildly reasonable case to buy, and MLB's parity parody of the NFL is actually happening, and all of this for a freaking one-game playoff play-in, and: Ahhhhhhh! No wonder Theo Epstein wants your first-born, plus a few frogs, a swarm of locusts and no more darkness over Chicago, for a two-month Ryan Dempster rental.
Since baseball is filled with Greyjoys wanting to pay the iron price, nobody has been particularly inclined to fulfill Epstein's request, and so here we are: The market developed (decidedly toward the sellers), the biggest players set (Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke, barring extensions, along with Justin Upton, James Shields, Anibal Sanchez, Matt Garza, Shane Victorino, Jonathan Broxton and Dempster), the teams doing the buying still unclear.
Which should drive most of the deals toward July 31, when teams may have a better idea of what's what. Who's in, who's out, who's bluffing, who's paying. There's no reason for sellers to lower their prices right now when all it takes is one team to covet a playoff spot this year, swallow the overpay and strike first. Someone may well dish out the BMW price for Dempster's Chrysler.
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This market is nuts. Executives chuckle at how the draft-pick and postseason rule changes have turned it upside down. There are still a handful of teams that don't know whether to buy, hold or sell. And no team knows the gamut of it better than the …
1. Oakland A's and their flip-flopping fortunes. At the All-Star break, they were 43-43, a great first-half showing considering their best pitcher is recovering from Tommy John surgery, their second best was shut down after a dozen starts in the first half and their current ace is a 23-year-old in his first major-league season. Now, after eight wins in nine games since the break, they are tied with Baltimore for the second wild-card spot – a play-in for the play-in, if you will.
It's easy to spot a team riding high after a four-game sweep of the Yankees and leap headfirst among the bandwagon. Step back for a moment and remember: The A's need more than a good week-plus to justify buying. And that's what they've got. A great nine games and a better-than-expectations-but-still-dead-average first half. So when I throw a hold on them, it's not meant to be the Baby Ruth in Oakland's punch bowl. It's just reality. Teams like the A's can't afford to buy a maybe.
If, on the other hand, you're the …
2. Texas Rangers and fending off the advances of the A's and Los Angeles Angels and watching your rotation disintegrate before your very eyes – well, yeah, you sure can afford to buy, and you'd better if a third consecutive World Series appearance is in the offing.
Yes, the Rangers' offense is struggling while the Pirates' surges. Bizarro July has its casualties. Texas' hitters will recover just fine in time for October. There are too many weapons to disappear for long periods of time, even if Josh Hamilton has hit .201/.290/.396 since the league stopped giving him anything worth a damn to swing at.
(In the meantime, Albert Pujols has gone on a .327/.411/.604 tear next to Mike Trout doing his Mike Trout thing and Mark Trumbo doing his Mark Trumbo thing, and the only thing separating the Angels from being October's most dangerous team is another reliever and a starter in case Dan Haren's back continues to scream, which makes them a definite buy.)
Texas' rotation issues go far deeper, which is usually how it goes among teams that try to stock a plethora of starting pitching. Neftali Feliz remains on the disabled list. Roy Oswalt may join him there. Colby Lewis' arm hurts. Derek Holland didn't record a single strikeout against the Angels over the weekend. Yu Darvish is working on eight consecutive 105-or-more-pitch outings in his first year in a four-days'-rest rotation. If the Rangers don't get a pitcher, their options at Triple-A include 21-year-old Martin Perez and perhaps the most aptly named pitcher possible for their current predicament: Justin Grimm.
The Rangers could keep up with the idea of outhitting everyone by going after Justin Upton – the Diamondbacks do adore third-base prospect Mike Olt, who is available and the sort of centerpiece that could get a deal done – but among Hamilton, Nelson Cruz, David Murphy, Craig Gentry and Leonys Martin, they're loaded with bats. It's the sort of problem the …
3. Los Angeles Dodgers wish they had. Instead, they're holding on to a start that looks flukier by the day, sweep of the New York Mets notwithstanding. The Dodgers' disabled list continues to grow (hello, Chad Billingsley), their rotation is unsettled bordering on shambles and their infield goes Juan Uribe-Luis Cruz-Mark Ellis-James Loney.
In other words: Hold, for the love of all that's good.
Selling would send the wrong message to a fan base energized by this surprising season. Buying would lend credibility to a first six weeks that has ceded it with time. This core is in place long-term. This year should be gravy. No need to pull another Carlos Santana for it. Leave that to the …
4. Washington Nationals, who own the NL's best record and the fourth-best run differential in baseball. The Nationals are serious about this whole Stephen Strasburg shutdown, which means they will stick John Lannan in their rotation or buy like it's Black Friday at Wal-Mart. And considering they're doling out $5 million for Lannan to spend the season in Syracuse, suffice to say Mike Rizzo is wearing out his cell phone.
Scouts adore Brian Goodwin, a fast-track center fielder now at Double-A, and there are enough pieces left over from the Gio Gonzalez trade to poach someone. Hamels? If his extension doesn't get done – and considering how Hamels values free agency, it's no cinch, even getting close to Johan Santana money – he's out there. Washington wanted Greinke a couple years ago, and even though the feelings weren't mutual then, they are now. The Phillies and Brewers both are in sell mode, and the pitching market remains ripe across the NL, especially in the East, where the …
5. Atlanta Braves are operating in this reality: A guy with 12 innings this season is their second-best pitcher. Rival executives understand the Braves' situation, whereby they're relying on Ben Sheets to keep them within striking distance of the Nationals, and so the prices are extra-high for Atlanta. The M.O. is buy anyway.
Because teams understand, too, that the Braves want to strike now, in Chipper Jones' last season, with Washington targeting Michael Bourn this offseason and their core of young stars starting to reach arbitration. (Within the next two years: Jason Heyward, Tommy Hanson, Craig Kimbrel, Freddie Freeman, Brandon Beachy and Kris Medlen.) The Braves have proven well-run enough to replace young talent lost in potential deals, and with cost certainty a priority, perhaps their best bet is down the road 500 miles to the …
6. Tampa Bay Rays and the pieces they should sell. This is no indictment on the Rays' organization, perhaps the game's best run; just a hard truth of where they stand and how a move like this can affect their future.
Today, the Rays are 49-47, just 2½ games back of Baltimore and Oakland. In order to win, they need to figure out how to score some runs with a lineup that has used Jeff Keppinger and Hideki Matsui for a combined 23 games in its cleanup spot. A lineup that remains without Evan Longoria for the foreseeable future and won't be supplemented with rental players because that's no longer how the Rays roll, not without draft picks on the table.
So between the paltry lineup and the wonderful assets the Rays have – closer Fernando Rodney, center fielder B.J. Upton and, best of all, starter James Shields, locked up at a very reasonable price through 2014 – the Rays can lock and reload for next year, when perhaps the …
7. Baltimore Orioles aren't playing out of their minds. So much so that it's unfortunate, actually, because they'd make a great sell candidate if doing so wouldn't murder a fan base that's already so alienated it should reside in Roswell.
Jim Johnson is a perfect sell-high guy, one year shy of free agency and excelling, and if the Rays hold onto Rodney and Huston Street signs an extension with San Diego, the relief market would pay top dollar for Johnson. It might be nice to sell off Nick Markakis, whose $15 million salary could be well-positioned elsewhere, but no chance that happens, owner Peter Angelos' irrational love for Markakis what it is.
Here's the thing: The Orioles aren't good enough to buy. Injuries rendered their rotation a mess, they've got a minus-44 run differential and no matter how great a job manager Buck Showalter and GM Dan Duquette have done – and quite great is the answer – sacrificing more surprising years for the quick high of one is impractical.
The Orioles should hold while the rest of the AL East goes into buy mode. Yes, the Yankees (starting pitching and maybe a reliever). Yes, the Red Sox (pitching, pitching, pitching). Yes, the Blue Jays (same, with a deep enough farm system to support the buy). You see why the pitching market refuses to yield any race-changing deals. Sellers would be foolish not to ask for above market, hoping a team with a history of big trade buys like the …
8. Detroit Tigers actually go there. They may yet. GM Dave Dombrowski is a deal-maker. In this case, he needn't be. The Tigers should hold not just because they're back in first place by 1½ games following their five-game surge and the Chicago White Sox's five-game skid. It's just not the sort of team that needs much of a patch-up.
They've got the ace necessary to thrive in a short series, the rotation that can go on a run, the lineup that can carry them in slimmer times. While the White Sox try to bolster themselves with Kevin Youkilis and Brett Myers, the Tigers have Doug Fister back from the DL and may summon 20-year-old Nick Castellanos to platoon with Brennan Boesch in right field. Or perhaps that's Dombrowski's smoke screen to lessen the price on an outfielder. It's the sort of subterfuge the …
9. Pittsburgh Pirates are pulling by telling other teams they don't have much money to spend. That depends, really, on whether they're lining themselves up for the wild card or the division. Considering they've won five in a row, sit at 14 above .500, are one game back of the best record in the NL and go Cubs-Astros-Cubs for the next 10 games, they have aspirations on the latter.
Still, they should stay. Yes, Pittsburgh is desperate for a winner. It's getting one. The important pieces of this team remain, even if the Erik Bedards and Jason Grillis of the world can depart after this year. Oh, well. They're fungible. What matters is that to supplement the core are Gerrit Cole and Starling Marte and, further off, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia – this top-heavy and deep farm system that's better off helping a team that always will have a low payroll than imbuing another.
Let the season play out. Ignore the one-year anniversary Thursday of the Jerry Meals Blown Call That Changed Everything. Learn from the Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick mistakes. Don't be the one who turns the wheel in trade chicken, even as the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals buy (which both ought to). A crazy offensive July doesn't mean this team possesses the sort of lineup to win in October. The Pirates don't need a Hamels, don't need someone who will wear their uniform for two months and then move on. The Pirates have to recognize who they are and what their season means in the grand scheme, a la the …
10. Oakland A's
and the decision they've now got nine days to make. Buy, hold, sell. The right answer is usually the latter, and it may yet be, what with Grant Balfour a nice chip, Yoenis Cespedes' value through the roof if they really want to think crazy and a rotation that's about to overflow.
That Tommy John case? Brett Anderson, on a rehab assignment already, could be back in August. The shutdown case? Brandon McCarthy is throwing. And then there's Dan Straily, the pop-up prospect with a 1.10 ERA and 54 strikeouts and 17 walks over 41 innings, who should join Oakland's rotation next year, if not sooner.
Help is coming. Maybe not in the form of big bats like the A's need, not if it's going to cost a Straily or an A.J. Griffin or a Jarrod Parker. The price needs to come down, and that doesn't just go for Oakland. It's everyone. And at some point, it'll happen. No team wants to get stuck with a player it just spent months dangling.
For now, let's enjoy that awkward dance among teams – the buy-hold-sell shimmy. They look like Elaine. It's sort of embarrassing. But it will stop. And when it does, and all the teams fall into their natural order, the trading will begin, and it will come fast.
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