If there is a feeling permeating baseball front offices as the trade deadline approaches, it's confusion. This is a new world, one with new rules on compensatory draft picks and an extra wild card in each league and a trade market that is totally reset accordingly. Nobody wants to overpay. Nobody wants to sell low. Everybody wants somebody else to set the market.
It's gridlock right now, one executive said, "Because we're all waiting for somebody else to make the first move." That figures to change soon enough, as a little more than two weeks separate teams from the non-waiver July 31 deadline and every contender has at least one rip in its jeans.
Blame it on the two new rules enacted by the latest collective-bargaining agreement. On one hand, the second wild card could embolden more teams to consider themselves contenders. Currently, 11 of 14 American League teams are within 2½ games of a playoff spot. Half the clubs in the National League are legitimate contenders, and even a team like the Miami Marlins, four games under .500 and with the fifth-worst run differential in all of baseball, considered themselves in it enough to acquire Carlos Lee.
Offsetting teams' ravenous desires are the dearth of compensatory draft choices floating around. Whereas in the past teams made trades specifically targeting players to whom picks would be attached, the new rules dictate a team cannot receive a draft choice unless a player has been on its roster the entire season. And even then, the team must tender him a qualifying offer – a one-year contract worth the average of the top 125 contracts in baseball, somewhere around $12.5 million – which comes with additional risk among borderline players.
So while the calculus for top-echelon trade targets such as Cole Hamels and Zack Greinke is easy for their teams – can they get back value greater than what they assign to a pair of draft choices? – it becomes dicier for others, further complicating what's already a market filled with fraught.
Certainly a Hamels or Greinke won't bring what a top-notch player did in the past. Earlier this week, St. Louis Cardinals GM John Mozeliak, when comparing past and present, offered the team's 2009 deadline acquisition of Matt Holliday for then-top prospect Brett Wallace and a couple lesser prospects, pitcher Clayton Mortensen and outfielder Shane Peterson.
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"I don't think we make that trade today," Mozeliak said. "We had no certainty we'd be able to sign Matt Holliday in the offseason. I don't know how many teams are going to value giving up two or three premium players when they have no certainty of getting draft picks in the end."
Sellers aren't budging – yet. "The ask is high," Mozeliak said, on account of the glut of contenders, or at least wannabes. The question is: Will teams wait for Darwinism to do its thing and winnow that group, or will those who know they're contending jump the market and set a high price by paying early?
"Some players will be traded because I do think given that you have the extra wild card right now, you do have teams valuing that postseason runs," Mozeliak said. "A lot of people are sort of looking at, 'Look, if you get to October, you never know what may happen.' Frankly, like what the Cardinals did last year. So I do think that may inspire some teams to go out and make a bolder move."
All it's going to take is one to help the thaw, and we'll know if that's …
1. Cole Hamels as soon as he decides whether the Philadelphia Phillies' forthcoming contract extension is lucrative enough to buy out his free agency. Almost never this late in the game is it. A $25 million-a-year deal – and that's what Hamels would command on the open market – would push the Phillies' commitments to nearly $140 million next year (before Hunter Pence's arbitration) close to $100 million for 2013 and nearly $90 million for 2014.
Ryan Howard's contract was onerous before he blew out his Achilles'; now it's a half-decade burden that could prompt Hamels and/or Pence – the only under-30 member of the Phillies' core – to leave. Maybe by the end of the month.
Hamels won't lack for suitors. Teams that could use an ace and have the goods to acquire him include both New York teams, both Los Angeles teams, Baltimore, Boston, Toronto, Detroit, Texas, Washington, Atlanta, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. In other words, pretty much every team that expects to contend.
The Phillies were once the buyers. This is a must-sell year, though, even with Howard, Chase Utley and Roy Halladay back. The deficit is too big, the number of teams too mighty, and if they happen to lock down Hamels, it's a small victory – and, depending on his health, perhaps a Pyrrhic one. It also would mean …
2. Zack Greinke becomes the most sought-after arm on the market. Granted, the Brewers are going to try to lock up Greinke this week much as the Phillies are Hamels, and the result is likely to be the same: too little, too late.
Some uncertainty accompanies Greinke's acquisition as well. It's not his struggles of late; those will abate. It's the playoff implosions last season, compared to Hamels almost single-handedly carrying the Phillies' pitching staff in the 2008 postseason. And it's the concerns, however unfounded they may be, among large-market teams that Greinke would buckle mentally.
Milwaukee actually is a tremendous fit for Greinke, though his desire to reach or exceed Matt Cain's five-year, $112.5 million extension from San Francisco may push the Brewers to deal him. Even better, because it's near his Orlando home and without the trappings of a large media market, would be Atlanta, although with …
3. Ben Sheets pitching like he did Sunday the Braves may not need another starter. OK, they probably will, because to expect anything of Ben Sheets is to catch a dream. Still, what Sheets did Sunday deserves an associate's degree, as it was two years in the making.
Not only did Sheets pitch in the major leagues again after a pair of seasons recovering from a torn flexor tendon and ligament in his right elbow, he shut the New York Mets out over six innings. Two hits, one walk, five strikeouts, a million kudos.
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His presence shouldn't preclude Atlanta from dangling a pitching prospect to make a run at Greinke; Sheets' elbow remains held together by duct tape and chewing gum. And yet damn if they don't make duct tape and chewing gum better than they did in the ol' days. Ben Sheets, 34, once again has a career, and …
4. Ryan Dempster, a year older, once again a chance at a meaningful postseason. It's easy to forget that Dempster debuted with the Marlins in 1998 – a year after they won the World Series. And he was traded to Cincinnati in 2002 – a year before they won another. He ended up with the Chicago Cubs, parlayed a solid relief career into an even more solid starting one and now has thrown 33 consecutive scoreless innings and is up on most teams' wish lists.
Some peg him the deadline icebreaker because he's likely to come cheaper than Hamels or Greinke and the Cubs have made him available. Just to play devil's advocate, though: Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer's strength is rebuilding through amateur talent, and the possibility of reaping a couple draft picks isn't as important for the picks themselves as it is for goosing their draft-pool money. The more picks they get, the more money they have to spend in the draft. The more money in the draft, the more creative they get.
And if teams see Dempster as a health threat – he did just miss almost a month – and the offers come in low, Chicago at very least must entertain the possibility of keeping him. Maybe not. Probably not. But it's well within the realm of possibility, like …
5. Mariano Rivera returning this season. The New York Post's Joel Sherman first posited the idea, and unlikely though it may be, even the possibility of Mo arriving on the cusp of October is enough to give half of New York tachycardia at the first five plucks on Kirk Hammett's ESP.
The idea alone is part of a tried-and-true baseball tradition: the late-season "trade" without having to give up anything. It is particularly the domain of GMs who fortify their teams through getting healthy instead of trades. The principle often banks on late contention, and it's why Detroit still holds out hope that Victor Martinez's expected mid-September arrival dovetails with the Tigers still contending.
The reappearance of …
6. Lance Berkman in a St. Louis uniform Sunday would've been totally awesome if he were a relief pitcher and knew how to get guys out. Alas, he plays a better cop than he does reliever.
His return to the Cardinals' lineup from knee surgery gives St. Louis a wonderful surplus of offense. Holliday is his .900-OPS-monster self. Carlos Beltran, though he has cooled off, shares the same OPS as Holliday. And Allen Craig has been better than both of them, especially with runners in scoring position, where he's hitting .351/.437/.684, behind only Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen and David Ortiz.
Unless Beltran plays center field – and no longer do his knees support such an endeavor – one of the Berkman-Holliday-Beltran-Craig quartet must sit. It's just the latest juggling act for manager Mike Matheny, who continues to figure out how to make chicken salad out of a bullpen gone bad. Between that and the injuries to Chris Carpenter and Jaime Garcia, it's certainly been a trying first season for Matheny. Granted, trying is on a sliding scale, and …
7. Carl Crawford probably would trade his year for anyone's. Wrist surgery sidelined him for the spring. Then he partially tore his ulnar collateral ligament, which may necessitate Tommy John surgery in the future. And on his rehab assignment from that, an off-duty cop allegedly called him a "Monday," a slur directed toward black people and derived from the thought that nobody likes Mondays.
Yes, it's as vile as it sounds, and it does nothing to make Crawford feel more welcome in New England after his horrid first season in a seven-year, $142 million deal gave him the longest beard of all the Boston scapegoats. He looks good in his rehab. And even if he's not a $142 million player – frankly, an .800-or-so-OPSing left fielder, even one with speed and defense, never was – the Red Sox won't mind adding him to a suddenly formidable outfield with Jacoby Ellsbury's return and Cody Ross' continued success.
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Crawford's return? Monday, of course, this being his year of poetic injustices. Sort of like when fans boo the hell out of …
8. Justin Upton because … um … he's a terrible human being? No? OK, then. Maybe because he said something stupid? Not that, either? Wait. Got it. He didn't pick Billy Butler for the Home Run Derby? Hmmmmm. So, what is it then?
What is it about Justin Upton that inspires such vitriol from his home fans? These aren't opponents' supporters. They're his people. The ones who watched him throw up a .900 OPS last year and finish fourth in the MVP voting. The ones who have seen his power disappear … sort of like it did two years ago. The ones who, yes, would love consistency but tend to forget he's got almost five full major league seasons under his belt and he's still not 25.
And because of the fans' and ownership's concerns and other organizational flotsam and jetsam, he's headed out of town, maybe before July 31, maybe during the offseason, but almost certainly sometime, the relationship close to beyond repair. Which may be best for both: Upton escaping from a toxic relationship, the Diamondbacks restoring a left side of the infield that needs help and this nonsensical booing – there I go again, talking about booing going away. Save the boos for a real villain, like …
9. Bryce Harper … or at least that's how Ozzie Guillen wants you to think of Harper after he had the audacity to point a bat in the direction of the Miami Marlins' manager.
Here's the back story: On Sunday, Harper came to the plate with what Guillen thought was too much pine tar above the label of his bat, which is illegal. Guillen pointed it out, Harper switched bats and the next time he came up acknowledged Guillen by tipping the bat toward him. Pretty damn funny, actually.
Not to Ozzie, of course. He's the only one who's allowed to be funny, except when he's praising Fidel Castro. Guillen popped off postgame, saying he was going to have a talk with Washington Nationals manager Davey Johnson, like he wanted to tattle on Harper to his dad. Well, wah. If that's all it takes to get Guillen worked into a frenzy perhaps he ought spend more time worrying about his fourth-place team while Harper stays above the fray for the first-place Nationals. That tack worked during the …
10. Cole Hamels duel earlier this season. Hamels hit Harper on purpose. Harper stole home off him. Point taken. Respect engendered.
Enough so that at the All-Star game, when the staff in Kansas City was laying out the order of lockers in the National League clubhouse, there was strong consideration given to placing Harper and Hamels right next to each other. A few lockers ended up separating theirs, though Hamels later said he'd have loved parking next to Harper. Just another man who wants to win.
One way or another, Hamels should this year, with either an extension or a deal to a contender. It's a busy two weeks for him, for Greinke, for everyone. They're just waiting for the opening bell and hoping this market figures itself out soon enough. They've had enough confusion for one season.
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