- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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In baseball, life on the fence is never going to be confused with a trip to the Great Wall of China -- or even to the Green Monster, for that matter.
No, in baseball, life on the fence isn't exactly your ideal tourist destination this time of year. Not when another trading deadline is approaching. Not when your team can't decide if it's planning to turn into this year's Rockies or this year's version of the 2002 Orioles (63-63 through mid-August, 4-31 the rest of the way).
To buy or sell at the deadline? That's the question of the week for quite a few teams out there. So let's take a look at four of those fence-sitters as they find themselves in the final week before the 2008 deadline:
In theory, by the end of this weekend -- after a week of dueling the Marlins and Phillies -- the Braves will know exactly whether they're in a race or out of one. But it seems as if the Braves have been stuck for weeks in what GM Frank Wren calls "that middle ground" between contention and oblivion.
They're 19-26 since the end of May. They haven't even won more than three in a row since Memorial Day. So they look more and more like a team that's about to shake up Deadline Week by dealing away the best player on the market -- Mark Teixeira.
If the Braves decide as soon as this weekend that it's sell-off time, clubs that have spoken with them got the impression they've already done enough groundwork to put together a Teixeira deal quickly. The question is: Who's buying?
Every indication is that the Braves have at least touched base with the Rays, Red Sox, Dodgers, Angels and Yankees on Teixeira. But Arizona appears to be the team to watch. The Diamondbacks quietly made a big run at Teixeira last July, and they're in just as serious need of some major thump now.
An official of one club that spoke with the Diamondbacks describes them as having "definite interest." But while the Braves would love to wrest away Conor Jackson, it's tough to imagine Arizona dealing away a player it likes that much for two months of Teixeira.
The Braves also have attracted massive interest in left-handed reliever Will Ohman. And they might be able to move Mark Kotsay, as well. Or they could get hot, reverse field and resume their pursuit of Xavier Nady, or some other professional right-handed bat. But if the Braves decide to go for it, they'd probably need to reel in a veteran starting pitcher, too. So however it breaks, they could have a busy week.
This is a team that spends every other week playing itself into, and then out of, serious contention. But no matter which way the Rockies' roller coaster veers in the next few days, GM Dan O'Dowd says nobody should expect him to blow up his team just because it's been a disappointment.
"We won't do that," O'Dowd told Rumblings, flatly. "And it has nothing to do with the standings."
It has to do with the fact that the Rockies liked their team four months ago, like it now and have every key player except closer Brian Fuentes under control through next year. So while they'll deal Fuentes if they get the elite two-player package they're looking for, we're betting on Matt Holliday's sticking around until this winter, and maybe beyond.
Indications are that the Phillies, Rays, Marlins, Angels, Cardinals, Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox all maintain some level of interest in Fuentes. But they've gotten down to specific name-swapping with only a couple of those teams -- believed to be the Marlins and Yankees -- and neither has made it past the shopping-list phase.
O'Dowd continues to tell other teams that if they're not willing to cough up a top-of-the-line prospect and a secondary player, he'll happily hang onto Fuentes and take his two compensation picks. And that price hasn't wavered even a smidgeon. So an official of one interested team says: "I think their plan is to take him right to the deadline and see who blinks at the end."
Those Holliday rumors notwithstanding, the only other Rockie who seems likely to call a moving van in the next week is center-field sprint champ Willy Taveras. With Todd Helton hurting, the Rockies no longer are marketing Garrett Atkins.
Unbeknownst to most of North America, only two teams in the whole sport -- the Angels and Rays -- have a better record than the Rangers over the last three months (45-34). So GM Jon Daniels says: "I don't see us unloading the farm system to get into the rental market. I don't see us holding any sort of fire sale."
But that doesn't mean the Rangers don't have some interesting pieces on their shelves. Step right up and make an offer for Vicente Padilla, Kevin Millwood, Hank Blalock, Marlon Byrd, Frank Catalanotto or Gerald Laird. Daniels would listen to anything that "makes sense." And to make sense, any offer would have to upgrade this team's rotation, at least for the long haul.
So why are the Rangers willing to trade Padilla, their leading winner (11-5)? No, not because of dollars. And no, not because he's an astronaut, either. Because he's as talented as any pitcher on the market. So the Rangers are telling other clubs they're willing to deal him if they can get back a young starter they can plug into their rotation by next season, if not immediately.
They've had only back-burner interest so far, from a group that's believed to include the Tigers and Yankees. But in one of the least-inspiring rotation markets ever, that could easily change in the next week. Incidentally, two pitchers the Rangers don't intend to deal, despite extensive interest, are relievers Eddie Guardado and Jamey Wright.
The Blue Jays aren't going to win the AL East. They know that now. They'd even need a miracle to make a run at the wild card. They know that, too. But GM J.P. Ricciardi doesn't sound like a man ready to unleash a wrecking ball on his roster, even if it doesn't include a single player with 10 home runs this season.
"We're not really sellers, because who are we going to sell?" Ricciardi says. "We like our team. We've underperformed. But we still like our team."
So the only pre-deadline intrigue involving this club is what the heck will become of A.J. Burnett. He's eminently available. The Yankees, Phillies and Cardinals have checked in on him. But unless something changes fast, "I don't see us moving him," Ricciardi says. "I don't have any talks going on with anybody to move A.J. Burnett."
The Phillies traded for Joe Blanton instead. The Yankees were told Toronto wouldn't trade Burnett within the division. And the Cardinals didn't match up on the two premium players the Jays are looking for -- and weren't that interested in the first place. So while Ricciardi is still listening, his phone isn't ringing -- not on Burnett, at least.
There's some buzzing around Matt Stairs, David Eckstein and relievers Jason Frasor and Brian Tallet. And Gregg Zaun and Rod Barajas are all yours if you want them. But at this point, Ricciardi says, "I don't see us doing anything major."
Interestingly, other clubs that have spoken with the Blue Jays say they'll talk about anybody. But when the conversation turns to, say, Roy Halladay, the conversation ends fast.
"He likes it here," Ricciardi says. "He wants to win here. And he's signed for two more years. So if we trade him, we'd be giving up on the chance that we're going to be a good club in the next two years. And we don't feel that way."
Rumbling through the deadline jungle
• The Buccos stop here: The Pirates are this year's winners of the Team Most Grumbled About Before the Deadline award. You name a contender. They've all made a run at somebody in the Pirates' display case (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, John Grabow, Jack Wilson). And all those clubs have come away complaining that the price tags are way out of line. For instance:
Mark Teixeira has had four seasons of at least 30 homers and 100 RBIs, and he's headed for a fifth. Only four other active switch-hitters have had more than one season like that. Can you name them? (Answer later.)
Bay: The Pirates are asking for four players back -- two sure-thing young players, one good prospect and a fourth prospect with upside.
Nady: A similar package, except they want three players instead of four -- one sure thing, one good prospect and a third, more iffy, prospect.
Marte: The Pirates seem confident he'll be a Type A free agent, so they're telling teams they need to do better than the first-round pick and sandwich pick they'd get if he walks.
Grabow: Because Grabow can't be a free agent until after next season, the Pirates are looking for a similar package on him as they're asking on Marte.
Wilson: One rumor -- heavily denied -- is that they asked the Dodgers for Matt Kemp and/or Chad Billingsley for Wilson. But everyone agrees they want two or three players, depending on who they are, all of whom have to be big-league ready.
The Pirates are free to ask for whatever they want, obviously. But many teams find it tough to stomach the rationale behind placing that kind of price sticker on somebody like Marte.
"It may be true that Marte will wind up being a Type A," says an official of one club. "But isn't it possible that because he's a Type A, no one is going to want to sign him? Is a team really going to want to give up a first-round pick for Damaso Marte? I think that answer may be no. So I don't know if it's as reasonable to ask what they're asking for him as they think it is."
• Phil 'er up: With that Joe Blanton deal out of the way, the Phillies are all over the left-handed-reliever market. They're in on most of the usual suspects (Fuentes, Marte, George Sherrill, Jack Taschner). But we're hearing they could have expanded the Blanton trade to include Alan Embree if they'd have been willing to throw in Olympic-team shortstop Jason Donald, and turned that one down. Another option they've mulled is recalling J.A. Happ as a situational left-hander. Left-handed hitters went 1 for 12 off Happ in his two starts earlier this month.
• Phil 'er up again: Could the Phillies still deal for a bat? Not impossible. But it won't be Matt Holliday. Yes, they looked into it, but they were scared off by the price tag before they even made an offer. Ditto on Nady. An official of one club that spoke with the Phillies says they're more focused on a "Casey Blake-type" bat, but pitching remains their top priority.
• Bronx bummer: Jorge Posada's shoulder issues are fouling up the Yankees' master plans in more ways than one. Beyond their effect on this season, it's no longer safe for the Yankees to assume Posada can catch regularly for the last three years of his contract. And if he's going to have to be a first baseman/DH, you can scratch Mark Teixeira (among others) off their offseason shopping list.
• The iron Sheff: The Tigers continue to poke around for another starting pitcher, a left-handed bullpen arm and a young shortstop who could replace Edgar Renteria next year. One eye-popping name they've offered around: Gary Sheffield. Given Sheffield's physical issues, they'd have to eat a hefty chunk of the $14 million Sheffield has coming next year to make that enticing.
• Bay watch: You'll be hearing lots of relief pitchers (primarily Fuentes and Marte) and right-handed bats (primarily Nady and Blake) connected to Tampa Bay in the next week. But they've been telling teams they're not trading their top tier of prospects (Wade Davis, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson) for a rent-a-player -- and they'd rather turn to Price and Rocco Baldelli than deal for a rental in the first place. So they're planning to take a hard look at Price and Baldelli in the next few days before plowing forward.
It's easy to see why the Rays would want to give those guys the first shot to help. But the question other teams keep posing is: If you're trying to win, should you really be relying on two players like that?
"Everybody loves David Price," says one NL executive. "But you're talking about another inexperienced guy on a team with too little [big-game] experience to begin with. What they need out there is a veteran arm who can bolster those guys who have been getting it done all year. And we all root for Rocco Baldelli. But can you depend on that guy, after all the injuries? I don't see how."
• Jose can you see: Jose Guillen's combustibility wouldn't exactly make him a perfect fit in a lot of towns to begin with. But teams that have spoken with the Royals report that the Braves asked about Guillen in their hunt for outfield offense. Don't bet on that deal's going down, though. The Royals have been telling teams they want a cornerstone player back (a la Gorkys Hernandez) and at least one other piece. And it's doubtful the Braves are that interested.
• Seattle's slew: It could be an action-packed week in Seattle. When we surveyed teams this week on players they expect to see moved, Jarrod Washburn was voted most likely starter to get traded and Arthur Rhodes was voted most likely left-handed set-up man to relocate. The Mariners are driving a slightly harder bargain on Raul Ibanez, but if they don't move him, too, it won't be for lack of interest.
• Yo Adrian: Despite reports that the Twins have given up on their attempts to pry Adrian Beltre away from Seattle, we're hearing those discussions are far from dead. The Twins' No. 1 trading priority is to upgrade at third base. One team that reportedly has packed it in on Beltre is the Dodgers, after they learned that Beltre's no-trade list specifically blocks his return to Chavez Ravine.
• Hammering Hank: Elsewhere on the third-base market, it looks as if activity is finally picking up on Texas' Hank Blalock, now that he's actually played five games in a row. The Twins, Giants and Dodgers are all believed to have some level of interest. And Blalock doesn't have to be a rent-a-player. There's a $6.2-million club option on him for next year.
But the Rangers want a decent young player -- and preferably an arm -- back. "This is not a giveaway deal," said an official of one team that spoke with them. "This is not a Ray Durham situation."
• The usual crew: Speaking of that Ray Durham situation, teams that have spoken to the Brewers say that while they're still in the bullpen market, they don't have another major trade left in them -- for now, anyway. "They've traded all the good young players they're allowed to trade without blowing out their system," said an executive of one team. "If they make another deal, it will be a marginal player, someone like a Ray Durham, where they're just taking on a contract."
• Casey-mania: You can add the Dodgers to the list of teams interested in Casey Blake, who is beginning to look like the bat most likely to get traded in the next week.
• Follow the money: Jarrod Washburn, Bronson Arroyo and Vicente Padilla might not quite be CC Sabathia, Rich Harden and Joe Blanton. But there's a reason you're hearing all of their names attached to the Yankees: Money. The Yankees are the one team out there with no reservation about taking on Washburn's remaining $14 million, Arroyo's $24 million or Padilla's $18 million. When you slurp up all those dollars, the price tends to go down. And that's always the Yankees' M.O. this time of year.
"Let me ask you something," says one GM. "When was the last time the Yankees traded good prospects to go get somebody? They're not used to dealing prospects, because they can buy anything."
• Home for the Hollidays: Not only do very few people in baseball expect Matt Holliday to get traded this week. You'd be amazed by how many expect the Rockies to hang onto him and try to win with him next year, too.
"Here's my prediction," says an official of one contending club. "He'll get dangled all winter. They'll take him to the winter meetings, and you'll hear all kinds of wild rumors. But they'll decide they're good enough to take him into next season and hold onto him right up to the deadline. Maybe they trade him then, but I think it's 50-50 that they never trade this guy. They love Matt Holliday. He embodies everything they believe in. So when it comes time to deal him, I don't think they can."
• Let's not go to the videotape: Is it obvious yet that we're not going to see instant replay in the big leagues by Aug. 1? It is to us, anyway. And we may not see it at all this year. According to sources familiar with the replay discussions, the players' union is reluctant to approve a change this dramatic in midseason -- particularly since baseball hasn't experimented with any sort of replay system at any level, in any setting.
The union is said to want MLB to go ahead with its original plan, to iron out the technological glitches in the Instructional League or spring training before replay is unleashed on actual major-league games. But several MLB officials, led by baseball-operations VP Jimmie Lee Solomon, continue to push for replay in time for this October's playoffs. So it will be interesting to see how this tug o' war is resolved.
• The Dean's List: Finally, let's take a moment to salute one of the best, and most important, baseball writers who ever lived -- the late, great Jerome Holtzman, who passed away last weekend at age 81.
The first time I ever set foot in a press box in Chicago, Jerome Holtzman marched up to me in the press box, stuck out his hand and introduced himself. He was a legend. I was a rookie baseball writer. And I was shocked that a guy like him would even notice I was in the stadium. But that was Jerome, as caring a man as I've ever known in this profession.
Just about the only fond memory I have of covering the baseball strike of 1994-95 was traveling around America with Jerome Holtzman, taking him to lunch, picking his brain, listening to his stories. It was a painful eight months for people like him and me, guys who loved the sport. But you would never have known it if you'd been around this man.
He kept us laughing, and he kept us sane. All of us. The writers. The lawyers. The commissioner. The union honchos. All of us. It was a time when the baseball big-wigs weren't too happy to see the cynical members of their traveling press corps. But everyone was happy to see Jerome Holtzman, any time of day or night. What's the moral of that story?
One day, Donald Fehr strolled into the interview room after another rough day at the negotiating table. Jerome started the questioning: "How 'bout giving us the good stuff today," he said. "Not that usual stuff you throw out there." Even the head of the most powerful union in sports couldn't help but laugh for a good 30 seconds.
That was Jerome Holtzman. He could light up the darkest room in America, just by entering it. I'm a better writer, and better human being, because I was lucky enough to call him a friend. And baseball is a better sport because he covered it.
Around the horn
• Mystery pitcher of the week: What do you do when your team finds itself 19 runs down in the eighth? Send a guy like Tony Pena Jr. to the mound, of course. That's what the Royals did Monday -- and Pena spun off a dazzling 1-2-3 inning, threw seven pitches clocked at 90 mph or faster and even struck out Pudge Rodriguez.
"Tony Pena can pitch," Tigers coach Andy Van Slyke told Rumblings. "He might have a longer future as a relief pitcher than a shortstop."
Pena was also the second position player to pitch against the Tigers just this month. They actually pinned a loss on Mariners catcher Jamie Burke in a 15-inning game July 6. (Of course, Burke wasn't putting any 90s up there on his radar board.) According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Tigers are the first team to face two position players in the same month since the 2002 Dodgers got to hit against Mark Grace and Todd Zeile in September.
Asked to compare Burke to Pena, Van Slyke told Rumblings: "Comparing Jamie Burke and Tony Pena is like comparing a new iPhone with an old iPhone. They're both very useful. One just works faster. They both have functionality. One's just got a lot more megabytes."
• Quote of the week: From Marlins reliever Joe Nelson, to the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel's Juan Rodriguez, on giving up the only hit in a four-pitcher one-hitter Tuesday against the Braves:
"Every guy in here has already informed me I was the only guy to give up a hit. If we threw up another 63 one-hitters, I'll give up every one of them."
• Headliner of the week: From the always-brilliant parody site, The Onion:
Appealed Strike Call Taken All The Way To Supreme Court
And just in case you thought there was no precedent for a case like that, the Onion reviewed the history of Supreme Court baseball decisions -- including this little-known blockbuster:
"A 2006 decision in the case of Rodriguez v. The Fans of New York cemented the legal precedent established in the 1940 case of Williams v. The Fans of Boston, which made it clear that baseball fans are free to boo, no matter how nonsensical it may seem, players on their home team."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.
To buy or sell? Jayson Stark looks at four teams that could decide to go one way or the other in the final week before the trade deadline.