The whole thing started when Kansas City Star reporter Bob Dutton asked Allard Baird on the field if there were anything new in relation to the potential marketing of Carlos Beltran. Baird, as usual, answered honestly. "It was a big weekend, the Mets and the New York media was in town," says Baird, "and the next thing I know I hear I held a press conference to announce we've having a fire sale. All I did was answer questions on the field before the game."
With Carlos Beltran in Houston, the Yankees can focus on what they really need -- starting pitching.
Ten days earlier, Baird had told inquiring teams "I want to give our team another week to 10 days to see if they can turn things around." It didn't happen, and in the case the Royals' very talented 27-year-old center fielder whom they absolutely know they have no chance to sign on the open market, Baird figures he can get more in trade in June than he can at the July 31 trading deadline.
"There are four teams that we've identified that have the combination of the young catcher and third baseman we're looking for," says Baird. "Those are our biggest areas of need. What we're doing is moving on to 2005. We'll put David DeJesus in center field. Our pitching should be coming along; Jimmy Gobble has been good, so has (Zack) Greinke, we'll have Runelvys Hernandez back for Opening Day (in 2005), Miguel Asencio in May (of '05). So we're hoping to get a third baseman who can play next year and a catcher who can break in with Benito Santiago. We'll see how it plays out with those four teams."
The obvious problem facing Baird's marketing strategy is Scott Boras, who is going to take Beltran into the market unless he gets some industry-altering contract; in most cases these days, the biggest overpays are usually given by teams afraid of having their own players walk, as opposed to the marketplace. So if, say, the Mets trade their best prospect, third baseman David Wright, plus catcher Justin Huber for Beltran, they could re-sign him for seven years and, say, $105 million, then have a gaping hole at third that would have been plugged by a potential star making $300,000 in Wright. Unless they run their business reacting to Back Pages and talk radio, the Mets are better off bringing up Wright for the second half and going after Magglio Ordonez this winter and allowing Mike Cameron to get healthy and stay in center.
Baird is right when he says the market is better now than it will be in late July, and he is right when he says "the days of getting three premium prospects at the deadline are over, because good young players are gold in this market." But he faces another problem: most of the contenders also have a severe need for pitching, there is one prominent pitcher on the market (Freddy Garcia) and Baird and Mariners GM Bill Bavasi are not two trains running because Bavasi's timetable is not as definite. "Bill wants to wait and try to build some wins and momentum this year," says one GM, noting that Bavasi wanted to see what happened at home this (past) weekend, and what happened was a three-game sweep of the punchless Expos. "If (White Sox GM) Kenny Williams can't shake the Mariners into the trade mode," says another GM, "no one can."
The Yankees are looking at shoring up the left-handed side of their bullpen while waiting to see if El Duque Hernandez continues to make progress (he is up to 88 mph and begins his rehab starts soon). Seattle has expressed interest in Jose Contreras, catcher Dioner Navarro fills a need, but the Yankees want to see what their needs really are. The Red Sox, facing the possibility of losing Curt Schilling for a month, are scouring the planet for pitching depth, someone to fill a rotation hole if Schilling is disabled and plugging the 9-10-11 holes in their bullpen that led to their last three home losses being embarrassing blowouts.
The Dodgers are a far, far better offensive team than they were in 2003, when they were outscored by everyone -- even the Tigers. Cesar Izturis and Alex Cora have made tremendous strides, Adrian Beltre is having his best season and Milton Bradley gives them a force in the three-hole as Paul Lo Duca continues to be an offensive force.
"Realistically, this team can hit much better than it has," says Robin Ventura. "Shawn Green hasn't gotten going. Milton really hasn't hit the way he can. Neither has Juan Encarnacion. This can be a pretty good offensive team."
Green insists that his shoulder is much better than last year, and that his struggles are the result of confused mechanics. "Considering what the guys around me have done, it's frustrating," says Green. "But I believe it will come back."
Izturis has been well over .300, and becoming far more selective at the plate. "He's like Ozzie Smith and Omar Vizquel in that he is learning to hit left-handed and getting better all the time," says coach Jim Riggleman. "There is no doubt in my mind that he's the best defensive shortstop in the game," says manager Jim Tracy. "And he's one of the best people I've ever been around. With Alex, Cesar, Lo Duca, Beltre, Bradley and the speed on the corners of the outfield with Dave Roberts and Encarnacion, we're one of the best defensive teams, period."
Tracy painfully works to save the key elements of his bullpen, but other than Odalis Perez, the starting pitching has been inconsistent. They have Edwin Jackson waiting in the wings at Triple-A, but don't be surprised if the Dodgers get into the pitching market.
The White Sox have lusted after Garcia for a month. The Twins need him, but have so many contractual decisions to make at the end of the season they may not be able to tap into their talent warehouse. The Angels, who recently were shopping Ramon Ortiz because of his unhappiness with his role as a reliever, now need him because of Aaron Sele's injury. The Dodgers may need offense, but their preference is a starting pitcher. Ditto the Giants. The Padres really want Beltran, but they badly need a veteran starting pitcher. So do the Cardinals. And the Rangers.
Say Baird were to wait on draft picks, he might get a late first-rounder and a sandwich pick, neither of whom would help in 2005 and, as opposed to the young third baseman and catcher making a combined total of $600,000, would cost $2.2-$2.5 million.
So, if the Sean Burroughs-Xavier Nady-catcher for Beltran and Joe Randa doesn't work, these are the potential third baseman-catcher combinations: Kevin Youkilis and Kelly Shoppach, Boston; Navarro and A-ball third baseman Eric Duncan, Yankees (maybe); Wright and Huber, Mets; John Baker and Mark Teahen, Oakland; Yadier Molina and Brad Hanson, Cardinals; Chris Snyder and either Chad Tracy or Sergio Santos, Arizona; Jeff Baker and J.D. Closser, Colorado, which would allow the Rockies to move Beltran on for pitching, a deal that some feel is possible.
"There is no question that Beltran improves our pitching staff with his defense and he is a star player, as opposed to Garcia being a No. 3 or 4 starter," says one AL GM. "But pitching is so scarce ..."
Tomo Ohka was on the market, but he's now out for what might be the rest of the season, so Expos GM Omar Minaya may have to market free agent Tony Armas at the deadline. Next? Kris Benson, Mark Hendrickson, Pat Hentgen ...
Baird makes it clear that this is not a "fire sale." Not only did Mike Sweeney meet with his GM and tell him that not only would he not ask for as trade, but bought into what Baird is trying to do; the lineup without Sweeney to protect Ryan Harvey would be very thin. Randa will be a free agent, and is available, as will some of the relievers like Jason Grimsley and Curt Leskanic.
But for now, the important names are Carlos Beltran and Freddy Garcia. Unfortunately for the Royals, at this point in time they are linked.
Where are rookie pitchers?
We know Lew Ford (first full season, but technically not a rookie) is having a boffo season for the Twins, with his .915 OPS, and that Bobby Crosby of the A's has nine homers and is being compared to Nomar Garciaparra, and that Khalil Greene can really play. But where are the rookie pitchers? As of June 13, here are all the rookie pitchers who have started five or more games:
Hatteberg steps up
The A's would like to find a short-term solution at third base in the absence of Eric Chavez, and eventually have to decide whether to put Rich Harden -- whose command is improving since pitching coach Curt Young got him to stop looking down at the beginning of his delivery -- in the closer's role or eventually deal for a veteran closer at the deadline.
One of the stories of Oakland's season has been venerable Scott Hatteberg, who not only is a leader of that team, but has taken the team's offense on his back with Chavez out. When GM Billy Beane originally signed Hatteberg, one of the reasons was his stats in terms of walk-strikeout ratio and extra-base hits, one way Oakland uses to evaluate pure hitters.
Checking the top five in walk-strikeout ratio off ESPN.com's sortable stats one sees Hatteberg is hitting in rare air:
Both Pedro Martinez, who leads the American League in quality starts, and Derek Lowe believe they have worked out their mechanical problems. In both cases, they got themselves out of kilter in the beginning of their deliveries, getting themselves over the rubber and eventually allowing their left legs to drift not to the plate but toward the first-base on deck circle. That resulted in not only losing velocity but giving hitters good looks at their hands. "I was giving hitters a free look," says Lowe. Both believe they have rectified the start of their deliveries, which in turn gets them to their proper landing spots driving toward the plate. "I can't believe how such a simple thing can get messed up," says Lowe. "But it happens. The important thing is to keep us in games the rest of the season."
If Schilling is forced to go on the disabled list, if they cannot find another pitcher or two, the prime candidates to fill in the rotation are in Double-A: left-hander Abe Alvarez and right-hander Chris Smith.
As the stock of Carl Pavano, who just gets better and better at 91-94 mph with confidence and command, and Odalis Perez, the starters' free-agent market appears better than some people realize. Martinez, Lowe and Matt Morris are the big names, but Pavano and Perez ("a star waiting to happen," says L.A. pitching coach Jim Colborn) are front liners, and Brad Radke, Esteban Loaiza and Garcia are other notable members of the class.
Reports continue to circulate that the Diamondbacks at least kicked the Grady Little tires, just in case something happens to Bob Brenly in the next six weeks.
The slaughterhouse road trip of the Cincinnati Reds has raised a lot of players' ire about ownership pocketing revenue-sharing and stadium money and pretending to contend with a discount pitching staff. The fact that they dumped one of their two best pitchers -- Chris Reitsma -- this spring after unloading virtually the entire bullpen last season leads many players to believe that CEO Carl Lindner is happy to see Junior Griffey pack 'em in, make good profits and not care one iota about winning.
"The best slider in baseball right now belongs to Brad Lidge," says one scout. "He throws it 93-94, with a 95-99 fastball. He's one of the best in the business, period."
The same scout believes the comeback of the year is Chris Carpenter. "He may be throwing better than he did in Toronto," says the scout. "He's sitting on 95. It's great."
Rusty Greer is traveling with the Rangers, takes leadership responsibility with a young team and may be back as the DH come September. "There is no way of measuring what Rusty means to us," says manager Buck Showalter. "He is everything good in this game."
Showalter has done a remarkable job piecing together a bullpen with Francisco Cordero closing and Frankie Francisco and Carlos Almanzar setting up. With the inflated cost of free agent starters -- Chan Ho Park, example A -- don't be surprised if GM John Hart goes out and tries to piece together a deep, power bullpen and try to find a bunch of young Dave Burbas, which is the way he won in Cleveland.
What frustrates the Orioles most about Sidney Ponson is that he is hitting 95 on the gun. Meanwhile, the O's are looking around for one more right-handed reliever.
There are some in the Indians organization who liken first baseman Michael Aubrey to Todd Helton, very high praise.
If the Braves stay close, they may look at Rich Aurilia or Randa at third base, if Seattle will pick up most of the Aurilia tab.
Twenty-year-old outfielder Kendry Morales may be the best position player developed in Cuba in 15-20 years. He is one of the youngest players ever to start for Industriales, Cuba's Yankees, and has been among league leaders in hitting and power numbers his three years in the major leagues. So his defection this past week is significant. As for cultural conversion problems, he is so young that he will not have the family concerns of a Jose Contreras. When he was 15 and working out at one of Cuba's sports academies in San Jose, he had an air that seemed totally different from other players his age.
Speaking of Izturis, his younger brother Maicer is hitting .347 with a 30-12 walk-strikeout ratio in Triple-A.
Here are seven players from the draft that are suggested sleepers and a scout's view:
1. (24) Landon Powell, C, South Carolina (A's). "He is the next Jason Varitek." That's the highest of praise.
1. (27) LHP Taylor Tankersley, Alabama (Marlins). "Quick to the big leagues, tough, good stuff, great makeup."
2. (43) RHP, Eric Beattie, Univ. of Tampa (Tigers). "Great sinker, Charles Nagy clone, wins."
2. (65) SS Dustin Pedroia, Arizona State (Red Sox). "The fact that he's 5-8 just means he is harder to pitch to. Can hit, great hand-to-eye coordination, John McDonald hands." The fact that he had 43 walks, 11 strikeouts and 37 extra-base hits may stand for something.
5. (147) SS Ryan Klosterman, Vanderbilt (Blue Jays). "Can just play, and comes from maybe the best-coached program in the country."
7. (202) RHP Jason Quarles, Southern (Pirates). "Was throwing 95 to 97 at the end of the season. A steal."
10. (291) CF Justin Maxwell, Maryland (Rangers). Broken arm shortened his season, but he can go to the Cape and show his skills. The bat's a question, but not his defense or character.