Several contenders need roster upgrades
The hype leading up to baseball's July 31 nonwaiver deadline is usually more interesting than the deadline itself. Listen closely, and you can get an adrenaline rush from all the names being tossed around.
The state of Texas is a veritable bastion of speculation. The Houston Astros will gladly discuss Jason Lane and Morgan Ensberg, but they've told clubs that Brad Lidge and Chad Qualls are unavailable. And as the Texas Rangers continue to fade, general manager Jon Daniels is sure to be talking to other teams about Mark Teixeira and Eric Gagne.
As much as White Sox GM Kenny Williams hates to give up on a season, Chicago's recent 3-14 slide increases the chances of Jermaine Dye and Mark Buehrle switching addresses this summer. Not that the price will be cheap.
"I've heard the White Sox want the farm for him,'' a National League official said of Buehrle.
"His street value is still high, but there's some real concern in that organization that he's not the same pitcher,'' said an AL executive who has talked to people with the Marlins.
As Boston tinkers around the edges and Cleveland kicks the tires on Gagne and Akinori Otsuka in Texas, some contending clubs have more glaring issues to address. This week's installment of "Starting 9'' is devoted to contenders in need, and what they might be looking for between now and the end of July.
When asked to assess the Dodgers' most glaring needs, general manager Ned Colletti replies, "Power, without question. Better defense. And execution.''
The Dodgers rank 15th in the National League in homers, and they're getting almost zero pop from the corner infield spots. Nomar Garciaparra is producing with runners in scoring position, but his slugging percentage is a pathetic .332. Rookie Tony Abreu, who's done a nice job at third base, is strictly a gap hitter.
Over the past week, Colletti has tried to address the problem internally. The Dodgers called up Matt Kemp from Triple-A Las Vegas, then summoned James Loney even though he had one homer in 233 at-bats in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.
The Dodgers have been linked to every big name on the market, from Teixeira and Dunn to Scott Rolen and Troy Glaus. But Glaus and Rolen both have big contracts, and their teams have yet to fall from contention.
As for Dunn, you won't find many personnel people who think he's capable of playing first base. "He's brutal over there,'' said a scout. "He can't catch pop flies in foul territory."
If Texas looks to move Teixeira by the deadline, the Dodgers have enough prospects, resources and desire to take part in the auction. But an American League assistant GM predicts Jon Daniels will trade Teixeira only for a package that makes the deal look like a "slam dunk win" for the Rangers.
For the first six weeks of the season, Atlanta manager Bobby Cox could kick back and relax for two of every five starts. Now his sure things aren't so certain. John Smoltz missed a start last weekend because of shoulder soreness, and Tim Hudson has a 7.86 ERA since mid-May.
While Chuck James has pitched well lately, Kyle Davies has command issues and Lance Cormier just went on the disabled list for the second time. You'll be seeing more of Buddy Carlyle for the foreseeable future.
The reclamation-project approach failed to work with Mark Redman, so the Braves are aiming higher this time. But what can they deal? Andruw Jones has the right to veto any trade as a 10-and-5 service time man, and it would take something special for general manager John Schuerholz to consider moving Jarrod Saltalamacchia or Yunel Escobar.
Schuerholz picked up Kyle Farnsworth from Detroit at the deadline in 2005 and acquired Bob Wickman and Danys Baez to upgrade the bullpen last July, so if there is a trade out there, he won't hesitate to act.
The Mariners survived a hellacious run of bad weather in April, and they've played well enough to take the heat off GM Bill Bavasi and manager Mike Hargrove and fuel hopes of a playoff appearance for the first time in six years.
But it's all just a mirage if the starters fail to pick up the pace. Seattle's starters rank 13th in the American League with a 5.59 ERA, and they're putting a major strain on one of the league's most effective bullpens.
At the moment, the Mariners are addressing the problem by getting deeper at the back end. They recently picked up Jason Davis, and talented young reliever Mark Lowe is on his way back from elbow surgery. But it'll be a challenge to upgrade the rotation. The payroll is already stretched at $110 million, and the Mariners aren't going to trade their No. 1 prospect, outfielder Adam Jones, for three months' worth of Mark Buehrle.
The internal options aren't particularly encouraging. Horacio Ramirez will return from shoulder tendinitis one of these days, and the Mariners have 21-year-old lefty Ryan Feierabend parked in Triple-A Tacoma.
When Justin Verlander is pitching no-hitters, the Tigers look terrific. When Jim Leyland starts marching out of the dugout in the sixth inning, they're not so great.
Detroit's bullpen, so dominant in 2006, is 9-12 with a 5.12 ERA. And Leyland recently acknowledged that Joel Zumaya might not be back from finger surgery this season, which leaves the Tigers without their principal intimidator and hammer.
So Leyland makes do. He has former Rule 5 pick Wil Ledezma and journeymen Tim Byrdak and Bobby Seay from the left side, and Jason Grilli, Fernando Rodney, Todd Jones and young Yorman Bazardo from the right.
Detroit's best hope is injury reinforcements. Kenny Rogers (blood clot) and Roman Colon (neck surgery) are on rehab assignments, and Nate Robertson (tired arm) and Zach Miner (strained elbow) will be back with plenty of time left in the season.
If hot prospect Andrew Miller sticks in the rotation, it will give general manager David Dombrowski the luxury of shopping a starter -- possibly Mike Maroth -- for bullpen help well before the July 31 deadline.
If you think San Diego's starters are good, just check out the relievers. The Padres lead the majors with a 2.23 bullpen ERA. Boston ranks a distant second at 2.89.
The Padres can make a legitimate postseason run with what they have, but an impact bat to complement first baseman Adrian Gonzalez sure would look nice. While GM Kevin Towers is hesitant to tinker with the bullpen, he has some chips at his disposal. Specifically, the emergence of power righty Heath Bell as a set-up man is putting Scott Linebrink back on everybody's radar.
That Aaron Rowand-for-Linebrink rumor has been kicking around for months, but Phillies outfielder Shane Victorino would make more sense for the Padres. Victorino is affordable and under control contractually for several years, and he would give San Diego some center-field insurance in the event the Padres can't re-sign Mike Cameron. But the Phillies are in no rush to move Victorino.
Adam Dunn has some supporters in the San Diego organization, but he'd be an adventure defensively at Petco Park, and his contract allows him to become a free agent in November if he's traded this season. Reds general manager Wayne Krivsky likes to collect relievers, so there might be a basis for a deal.
When closers Brett Myers and Tom Gordon both went on the disabled list, the Phillies' main focus was on acquiring bullpen help. Now that Freddy Garcia is bound for shoulder surgery and most likely done for 2007, the Phils need help in the rotation.
The first plan of action is to look internally. Kyle Kendrick, 22 years old and just up from Double-A Reading, gets first crack at Garcia's spot. Kendrick throws 90-93 mph and has a nice sinking action on his fastball, and one scout said he has a chance to stick around awhile.
The good news: Myers and Gordon should both be back in July to stabilize the bullpen. Myers has warmed to the closer's role and the Phillies have no plans to move him back to the rotation. The same goes for set-up man Ryan Madson.
The bad news: General manager Pat Gillick's trade options are limited. The Phillies are getting lots of calls on Victorino, a dynamic player with a $410,000 salary. But Victorino will play center field at Citizens Bank Park in 2008 if Rowand leaves through free agency this winter, so the chances of his going anywhere are slim.
Unless the Yankees plan to keep running out Miguel Cairo or Josh Phelps at first base or shift Johnny Damon there from DH, general manager Brian Cashman has two possible courses of action with Jason Giambi and Doug Mientkiewicz on the disabled list.
Cashman can either go for the big splash with Teixeira or try to acquire a stopgap solution like Dmitri Young or Mike Sweeney. Given Cashman's hesitancy to trade top prospects such as Phil Hughes and Jose Tabata, the second option seems likely.
If the Yankees hit enough, maybe they can get by with Brian Bruney, Scott Proctor, Farnsworth and Mike Myers between the starters and Mariano Rivera. But you can bet that Cashman, along with about a dozen other general managers, will be trolling for bullpen help in July.
The first order of business in New York is to get Carlos Delgado straightened out and the outfield healthy. Then the Mets have to ride out the current rough patch for the bullpen.
If someone had proposed a scenario in which Oliver Perez, John Maine and Jorge Sosa would have a combined 18-10 record and ERAs between 2.64 and 3.21 in mid-June, the Mets would have jumped at it in a heartbeat. Tom Glavine is winless since May 19, but you know he'll be around in October.
The wild card in the equation is Pedro Martinez, who has begun throwing off a mound in his comeback from shoulder surgery. Does he still have what it takes to be a difference maker?
"I don't think he can hurt,'' said a scout. "He's been able to pitch when he's throwing 88, so why not?''
The Mets would love for Martinez to make a couple of starts before the deadline so they'll know whether they can count on him or if they need to pursue a trade for a Dontrelle Willis or Carlos Zambrano. The Mets have lots of young outfield talent, and that gives them a foundation for a deal with Florida.
Conventional wisdom: The Angels absolutely, positively need another big bat to take the pressure off Vladimir Guerrero.
The reality: Not so fast.
Based on their 40-25 record -- the best in franchise history after 65 games -- the Angels are finding a way to get it done. Reggie Willits and Orlando Cabrera have been on-base machines at the top of the order, and Gary Matthews Jr. is thriving in the cleanup spot. First baseman Casey Kotchman has a better OPS (.971) than Teixeira, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols or Derrek Lee.
Garret Anderson is back in the lineup and off to a decent start, and Juan Rivera, who broke his leg in winter ball, is running on a treadmill and throwing in Arizona and is scheduled to return in mid-July.
Angels GM Bill Stoneman, always a cautious trader, looks smart at the moment for his refusal to panic early. One appreciative letter writer to the Los Angeles Times recently complimented Stoneman on his patience and urged him to "keep up the good lack of work.''