- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Boy, those were the days.
But now those days seem as long gone as legalized spitballs, the seven-balls-for-a-walk rule and those old gloves that looked more like pingpong paddles.
"All we want," said one NL executive this week, "is a starting pitcher who's at least an upgrade. But they're just not out there. If we're sitting here waiting for Steve Trachsel to come off the disabled list, thinking that's a big deal, I mean, it's time to slap ourselves in the head. But that's where we are."
You could see this storm cloud gathering two years ago, when Shawn Chacon (yep, Shawn Chacon) was the most impactful starting pitcher traded before the deadline. But this year might be shaping up as the worst deadline rotation crop of all time, now that Mark Buehrle is signed and Rich Harden is back on the disabled list.
"In terms of excitement," said another front-office man, "this may go down as the worst trade deadline ever."
Hey, great. We can cite all sorts of reasons -- the epidemic of contract extensions, that disappearing species once known as "the salary dumper," the understandable reluctance to trade draft picks who just raked in gigantic signing bonuses, and enough parity to keep all but a couple of teams from thinking it's time to blow it up and rebuild.
But if you're a fan of a team with a 4.76 rotation ERA, you don't care about any of that. You just want your team to make a stinking deal already. Well, good luck on that.
"I hear everybody say the same thing: 'If we could just land a solid pitcher,'" says an official of a club that has been furiously scouting pitchers. "But who's that guy? That guy's not there. Everybody's dreaming of somebody coming off the shelves. But that guy's not there."
So what names are there? Get ready. Here they come:
Don't believe the talk about the White Sox's moving Javier Vazquez or Jon Garland. The clubs shopping at the South Side Pitchers Mart are skeptical that general manager Kenny Williams has legit interest in moving any starter except Contreras.
But there's only one bigger deterrent than Contreras' contract ($3 million-plus for the rest of this year, then $10 million in both 2008 and 2009). And that's the way he's pitching. He's a frightening 9-20 with a 5.35 ERA since last year's All-Star break, with 298 baserunners allowed in 193 1/3 innings. His velocity is down. His splitter is flat. His arm angle is suspicious. So one scout says, flatly: "I'm not sure how healthy he is."
Nevertheless, don't bet against somebody's taking a shot. Remember, says one baseball man, "He was pitching terrible for the Yankees [in 2004] when the White Sox took a chance on him, too. So I'd bet he'll be the biggest chip moved."
Five weeks ago, it would have been tough to find anything about Morris that clubs could grumble about, other than his contract ($9.5 million next year, with a $9 million option or $1 million buyout for 2009). After his first 13 starts, he was 7-3, 2.56, and had given up more than three earned runs just once all year.
But in five starts since, Morris is 0-2 with an 8.13 ERA -- the highest ERA of any NL starter who can match his innings pitched. So it's obvious, says one scout, that "the wheels are starting to come off a little bit." But for teams in a big ballpark (Dodgers, Padres, Braves, Mariners, etc.), he might still be a fit. At least, said an official of one club with a laugh, "He's one of the best of the worst."
You wouldn't think it would help this guy's value that his current team (Oakland) just yanked him out of its rotation (after he'd won exactly twice in 16 starts).
But at least a club trading for Kennedy wouldn't owe him a dime beyond this year, would be on the hook for less than a million bucks for the rest of the season and would be getting a 28-year-old left-hander whose record (2-8, 4.60) would look a lot better if his bullpen hadn't blown five saves for him.
"You know," says an official of one team, "as your blood pressure starts to climb, you might take a flyer on a guy you wouldn't normally take, just because there's not a lot else out there. So Joe Kennedy probably has more value now than he's had at any time in about five years."
A "strained gluteus" seems like it ought to be a more dreaded sumo wrestling injury than a baseball injury. But it's the affliction that landed Trachsel on the disabled list after a June in which he went 1-3, 8.89.
He was awfully good before that, though, allowing one or two earned runs in seven of his first 11 starts. So he should be quite the magnetic drawing card (among scouts, anyway) when he makes his triumphant return to the Orioles' rotation this weekend. We haven't found any club that's overly enthused about him. But with at least nine teams shopping for starting pitching, all they can buy is what's on the shelves, right?
He's the name that could change everything. But while the Marlins haven't ruled anything out, they haven't told any team he's available -- yet.
If that changes, you could expect the Mets and Tigers to charge to the head of the line. But more and more, it looks as if the Marlins won't make any big decisions on Willis until the offseason. Why? Because they should know by then just how bleak (or promising) their latest new-ballpark scenario looks -- and it gives Willis a chance to restore his value by pitching more like the Dontrelle of old. Check out the not-so-inspiring progression of his first-half ERAs the last three years: 2.39 in 2005, 3.94 in 2006 and 4.72 this year.
You won't find Greinke on the list of pitchers the Royals are working feverishly to trade this month. Odalis Perez and Scott Elarton are the guys on that list. But Greinke, who is still just 23, is the KC pitcher we hear teams talk about most. He's exactly the kind of talent you could see the Braves paying heavily for -- especially given Royals GM Dayton Moore's longtime ties to Atlanta.
But some teams like Greinke more as a reliever than a starter. And no matter what teams think they're buying, the Royals aren't going to settle for an SUV full of second-tier prospects for a pitcher this young who still shows flashes of greatness.
"He's got more upside than almost any pitcher out there," says one NL executive. "But they can control him until 2010, so they're reluctant to move him unless they get astounded by the offer. So I'd be surprised if that happened."
The Reds aren't trying to dump anywhere near as many players as popularly believed. But Lohse is the one model who is definitely out there in the showroom, ready to be driven home.
What the heck are you buying, though? Is he the guy who has given up two earned runs or fewer seven times this year and pitched into the seventh inning 10 times? Or is he the heartbreaker who hasn't made it through the fifth in five of his last 12 starts?
"He's a lightning-in-a-bottle guy," says one scout. "He's the kind of guy everybody hopes they get lucky with."
Well, this is one trading season when that's the only kind of starting pitcher out there. So when GMs start pushing that "Let's Make A Deal" button this month, that sound you hear won't be the tide turning. It will be more like the roulette wheel spinning.
One of the biggest names on the trading block this month -- Jermaine Dye -- had at least 43 homers and 120 RBIs last season. We bet you can't name the only player since 2001 who was traded, in either the offseason or midseason, following a season of at least 43 homers and 120 RBIs. (Answer later.)
More Rumblings: The Texas two-step
What team has the biggest names to sell off this month? Everyone agrees it's the Rangers. But the Rangers' asking price for Teixeira, Eric Gagne, Akinori Otsuka and everyone else has been so off the charts, an official of one team predicts: "The way they're going right now, I don't think they'll make a trade -- any trade."
An official of another team that has been talking to Texas says: "Here's how they're thinking: Take a guy like Otsuka. They basically traded Chris Young and Adrian Gonzalez for Otsuka, right? Well, how does that look now? So you think they could take back, like, one B-level prospect for Otsuka and sell that to their fans when they traded two All-Stars for him? We might look at him as a set-up man. But that's how they look at him. So it's going to be tough."
Then there's Eric Gagne. A team trading for him could owe him close to $6 million for the rest of the year, between his salary and games-finished incentives. The only big-market contenders his contract allows him to get traded to are the Red Sox, Angels and Yankees. And he won't waive his no-trade to go anywhere else unless he becomes the closer, because it could cost him millions of dollars in incentives. So what contenders could even consider making him their closer? Possibly the Phillies or Cubs. Maybe the Braves. But that's about it. And those teams have other reasons not to deal for him. So the Rangers are facing a very limited market.
"If it were me running their team, I'd already have gone out and made the best deal for that guy I could have made," says an official of one team that inquired and gave up. "And that's just because of the injury factor. Would it surprise you if you woke up tomorrow and found out Eric Gagne's hip was sore, or his back, or his knee, and he was going on the DL? It wouldn't surprise me. So I'd move him while he's healthy if I were them."
One team to watch if Gagne softens that I-have-to-close stance: Detroit.
Meanwhile, clubs that have talked to Atlanta say there isn't a buyer in baseball trying to be more aggressive or more creative than the Braves. "They're in on everybody," says one GM. "Starters. Relievers. Bats. Older guys. Young guys. They're heating up to do something."
The Braves are balking at dealing Jarrod Saltalamacchia or the dynamic Yunel Escobar. But other clubs report they are willing to talk about shortstop prospect Elvis Andrus and power left-hander Dan Smith.
"We're not talking about guys at the level of a [Jeff] Francoeur or a [Brian] McCann, guys like that," says an executive of one team. "But they've still got some real nice pieces to move. They're just not gigantic pieces."
There are indications the Braves made a run at Dmitri Young a few weeks ago, didn't like the asking price and headed in other directions.
The Mets have sent signals that they're now willing to move Mike Pelfrey in a big deal. But an official of one team that has been scouting the Mets' system says: "To be honest, I don't know if I'd take Pelfrey right now, the way he's throwing. I think he's been [Scott] Boras-ized. I'm not seeing the same stuff I saw before. And he's showing a stubbornness that rubs me the wrong way, like [the Boras operation] has convinced him that their way is the better way. I'm seeing this with his guys all over now, and it's becoming a problem all over the industry."
Rumbling onward: Phils in the hunt for arms
After weeks of hunting for bullpen help, the Phillies have suddenly lurched into a fix-the-rotation frenzy. "They're almost at the point," says an executive of one club that has talked with them, "to where they'd just settle for a pitcher -- any pitcher. They want pitching so bad, they'll settle for anything they can get." But the Phillies' prospect pool is so thin, who can they get? They don't appear to match up with the White Sox or Giants. They have zero interest in Odalis Perez or Scott Elarton. So it looks as if their rotation shopping list consists mostly of Joe Kennedy and Kyle Lohse, with Steve Trachsel as a lukewarm fallback option.
The Phillies still have bullpen arms on their secondary list. But even the decent relievers seem out of their price range. Texas, for instance, is believed to have asked for Shane Victorino as the centerpiece for Otsuka. And with Aaron Rowand about to exit as a free agent, the Phillies can't afford to deal Victorino, since he's Rowand's heir apparent in center.
Just as the Astros aren't going to trade Brad Lidge, the Reds aren't going to trade David Weathers. He's signed for only $2.75 million next year, and without him, the Reds would have no dependable bullpen pieces.
We keep hearing that the Braves and Cubs are the only teams Ken Griffey Jr. would waive his trade-veto rights to go to in midseason. But neither of those clubs is interested. One club that keeps popping up on the Griffey rumor mill is the Angels -- a team he has never seemed enthused about playing for. But the Angels wouldn't seem likely to work real hard to entice him. They're about to have more outfielders than positions when Juan Rivera comes off the DL. So adding another could wind up creating more complications than benefits.
Another Red who often has been connected with the Angels is Adam Dunn. But we see no signs of that happening. The Angels place too high a premium on defense and making contact -- neither of which are among Dunn's strengths.
The Dodgers have batted over .300 and slugged nearly .500 since Bill Mueller replaced Eddie Murray as hitting coach. So they're mostly wheeling their cart down the aisles of the bullpen market. Names that are thought to be on their list: Chad Qualls, Dan Wheeler, Octavio Dotel, Al Reyes and Luis Vizcaino.
Rumbling along: Bonds and A-Rod sporting Halos in '08?
It's way too early to think about next year, so let's think about next year. You keep hearing the Angels mentioned as a potential 2008 destination for both Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds. But one baseball man who is close to both Angels owner Arte Moreno and GM Bill Stoneman says don't believe any of it: "From Arte's and Bill's perspective," he says, "I don't think they'd ever bring in somebody who would double Vlad's contract, or blow it away." Vlad, of course, is Vladimir Guerrero. He's making $13.5 million this year and $14.5 million next year, with a $15 million option for 2009 that the Angels almost certainly will pick up. So are the Angels going to sign A-Rod for $25-30 million a year, given the implications that deal would have for Guerrero? Highly dubious. And as for Bonds, the same baseball man says, with zero equivocation: "That's not going to happen. No way."
Meanwhile, there is no reason -- none -- to believe that any team is going to pay A-Rod the laughable $30-million-a-year ransom Scott Boras keeps tossing out there as his predestined figure. That number is based on a typically phony Boras premise -- that A-Rod's current contract essentially guarantees him that much in 2009. But that's not factual. The contract does have an escalator clause which says that if he doesn't get at least a $5 million raise for 2009, he can opt out. But first off, he's going to opt out a year before that clause even becomes a factor. And second, that's a clause that was inserted for leverage -- period -- not because the expectation was that he'd actually get paid $32 million a year. "So there's no guarantee he gets that, or anything close to that," says one prominent baseball man. "And it's hard to see how he even gets more than $25 million. (Derek) Jeter is at 19 (million), Manny (Ramirez) is at 20, and A-Rod is at 25. Nobody else is even in that stratosphere."
Remember, no position player in this millennium has averaged more than $18 million a year. So if you think Bud Selig and his salary-police buddies are going to let A-Rod, or anyone else, jump to $30 million a year, we've got some oceanfront real estate in Kansas we'd like to sell you.
When the Yankees expressed that willingness to talk about an in-season extension for A-Rod, a lot of people's reaction was to wonder whether that stance would offend their other prominent free-agents-to-be, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera. Good question, but two baseball men familiar with the Yankees' thinking say the club has already made it clear to both Posada and Rivera they don't want them to play for anyone else, and the feeling was mutual. So as long as there's an apparent understanding that this will get worked out at some point, there was no reason to launch any active negotiations just because of the A-Rod soap opera.
There will always be people who question any huge contract. But outside of David Samson's grumbling, everyone in baseball we've surveyed thinks the Ichiro deal makes total sense for the Mariners. "He means more to his franchise than any player in baseball," says an official of one club, "because of what he does worldwide for that franchise and what he means to their revenues. You've got people coming to the United States, to Seattle, to watch that team play because of him. And that doesn't even take into account his physical impact on everyone else on that team as a baseball player. We don't have many real faces of a franchise left in baseball. But he's one."
Finally, here's Torii Hunter on what it was like to play in the Twins' 20-14 wipeout of the White Sox on July 6: "It was the Bears and the Vikings, is what it was." Hey, sure was. The Sept. 15, 1996, version: Vikings 20, Bears 14, up the highway at Soldier Field. The Vikings came from behind on a game-tying touchdown pass by Warren Moon, then won it on two fourth-quarter field goals by Scott Sisson. Biggest difference between those two games: Dave Wannstedt didn't seem quite as embarrassed by the outcome as Ozzie Guillen.
Richie Sexson -- who went from Milwaukee to Arizona in December 2003 -- following a 45-homer, 124-RBI season.
The season that wasn't
Finally, here are your league leaders in the "season" between the 2006 All-Star break and the 2007 All-Star break:
HOMERS: (NL) Ryan Howard 51, (AL) A-Rod 46
RBIs: (NL) Howard 145, (AL) A-Rod 142
RUNS: (AL) Grady Sizemore 135, (NL) Jimmy Rollins 131
HITS: (AL) Ichiro Suzuki 223, (NL) Hanley Ramirez 213
AVG: (AL) Vladimir Guerrero .345, (NL) Miguel Cabrera .333
OBP: (NL) Barry Bonds .477, (AL) David Ortiz .439
SLG: (NL) Howard .655, (AL) A-Rod .612
SB: (NL) Jose Reyes 71, (AL) Carl Crawford 49
STRIKEOUTS: (NL) Adam Dunn 195, (AL) Sizemore 168
DOUBLES: (AL) Magglio Ordonez 51, (NL) Ramirez 50
TRIPLES: (AL) Curtis Granderson 20, (NL) Rollins 16
WINS: (AL) Johan Santana 20, (NL) John Smoltz 19
LOSSES: (AL) Jose Contreras 19, (NL) 5 tied with 15
SAVES: (AL) Francisco Rodriguez 50, (NL) Trevor Hoffman 47
ERA: (AL) Santana 2.66, (NL) Chris Young 2.80
BULLPEN ERA: (AL) Rodriguez 1.45, (NL) Takashi Saito 1.73
STRIKEOUTS: (AL) Santana 232, (NL) Cole Hamels 225
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," has been published by Triumph Books and is now available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.