What's the deal at the deadline?

By now, the early dismay and creeping anxiety for those who guide baseball’s underperforming franchises is fast approaching run-away alarm, which is generally what happens when the weather warms and the ballclub won’t.

So, we are approaching a critical time for general managers in New York and Los Angeles, Cleveland and Detroit, Milwaukee and Atlanta. Particularly in New York and L.A., where, respectively, the Mets seemingly have lost their way and the Dodgers haven’t done a thing in 20 years.

There are others, in places such as Seattle and Colorado, where passed alarm many weeks back, where mere dismay would go a long way toward lightening the mood.

Little is concrete in mid-June. But, in an unusual season in which big-city payrolls are out and surprise mid-season competency in St. Petersburg, Miami, Oakland and St. Louis is in, clubs already are maneuvering toward the non-waiver trading deadline, still more than a month away.

Not three months into the schedule, the Rockies are fielding inquiries about left fielder Matt Holliday, the Indians about C.C. Sabathia, the Pittsburgh Pirates about Jason Bay and Xavier Nady and the Mariners – eventually – about anything that isn’t bolted to the clubhouse floor, including, possibly, Erik Bedard. Cincinnati Reds general manager Walt Jocketty is expected to make Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn available, and Ben Sheets could come free in Milwaukee, as could Greg Maddux, Brian Giles and Randy Wolf in San Diego.

And while the only trade that appears remotely imminent is new issues for old crises in New York, scenarios are developing in which some of the game’s signature franchises – the Yankees, Mets, Dodgers, Cardinals, Cubs, Braves and maybe even the Giants – should be among the more active teams at the deadline, joined in the fray by the surprisingly capable Rays and Marlins.

Yes, the Rays and the Marlins could be buyers, and with plenty of available prospects. The Rays have room for an outfield bat, the Marlins for starting pitching.

“We’re going to approach it like we have in the past two years,” Rays GM Andrew Friedman said. “The difference is there are going to be some names on our target list that wouldn’t have been there in the past.”

At a time when revenue sharing and economic stability have conspired to thin the free-agent market, the Marlins – winter martyrs turned summer hangers-on – and Rays can afford player upgrades despite their atrocious attendance figures. The Rays are in. We’ll see on the Marlins.

The coming month will tell, but as of now the Dodgers, Mets and Giants are in need of a big, strong, run-producing corner outfielder. That’s Holliday, who is this July’s Mark Teixeira. He can become a free agent after next season, could be too pricy for his current ballclub and is represented by Scott Boras, who values free agency well above contract extensions. Holliday is back from a left hamstring injury and could bring the kind of pitching the Rockies so desperately need. On the other hand, they could get shortstop Troy Tulowitzki back shortly, reenact September in July and hold onto Holliday for at least a few more months.

“Good teams will separate themselves in the next few weeks,” one American League scout predicted.

It’s a fluid time of year. Expectations and organizational directions are being reconsidered, some strongly so. The Dodgers, for one, are waiting on Rafael Furcal and Andruw Jones to heal, waiting on Brad Penny and Hiroki Kuroda to heal and then pitch like front-of-the-rotation starters, waiting on their young players to string together some professional at-bats. And, even then, they no longer have the vaguest notion of what a healthy Jones can give them. Actually, they have a strong suspicion, which is worse. As pricy as Holliday would be, the Rockies likely would jack up the cost on a trade inside the NL West, and then the Dodgers could watch Matt Kemp become Holliday at Coors Field.

The Mets, for another, have run their horrendous September into 2½ more lethargic months, thus bearing the look of an organization on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Their offense is slightly more average than their pitching. And Moises Alou will hit for as long as his body will carry him, which, so far this season, has amounted to 49 at-bats. They spent a good amount of their farm system on Johan Santana, but team officials believe they could still make a play for Holliday, the 2007 MVP runner-up whose career splits skew so dramatically to Coors Field.

Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd could have a far different view of the Mets’ prospects (most do), however, meaning it’s possible the Mets won’t be able to improve dramatically before next winter, when Sabathia and Teixeira are expected to be free agents and Omar Minaya is in a position to replace Oliver Perez, Pedro Martinez and Carlos Delgado. Still, they’ll have to try. They have little choice.

The disappointing Indians haven’t necessarily ruled out signing Sabathia to a contract extension, but it is much more likely they won’t. After a poor league championship series that bled into April, Sabathia has a 2.43 ERA over eight starts in May and June, meaning he’s still on track to be the premier free-agent pitcher on the market, ahead of Sheets. Indians management is determined the let the club choose its course on Sabathia; if it wins, Sabathia could spend the summer in Cleveland and the Indians will take the draft picks when he signs elsewhere. If the club does not hit and therefore does not win, well, the trading-deadline market should receive Sabathia well.

This, presumably, is where the Yankees come in. For all the promise of Joba Chamberlain, Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy, only Chamberlain has been healthy and effective, and his transition into the rotation remains a work in progress, momentarily blunting both areas. Meantime, Yankees starters have been grossly unreliable, pitching the fewest innings in the American League and not being very good in them. Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte could be done after this season, so GM Brian Cashman – assuming he’s retained – would have to retool at least a part of the rotation anyway.

The trading deadline is generally an overrated affair. The major trades at the last deadline – Teixeira to the Braves, Eric Gagne to the Red Sox, Luis Castillo to the Mets – ultimately did little to help those clubs and, indeed, Gagne did more harm than good in Boston. In fact, the best deadline deal was Kenny Lofton to the Indians; he batted .282 in September and .375 against the Yankees in the division series.

The trick is separating the Loftons from the Gagnes. The real trick is determining whether you need either one.