- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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Six weeks. That's all. Six weeks until another baseball trading deadline -- whether the sellers, the buyers and the rumor mongers are ready or not.
But already, a terrifying thought has occurred to the teams that are working themselves into a buying kind of mood:
Suppose they go shopping and there's nothing much to buy?
"To be honest, I don't see much out there," said an official of one contender. "Who's even selling? And what are they selling? I know there will be guys to trade for. But where's the quality?"
Heck, for that matter, where's the quantity? Have you checked the standings lately?
In a world in which 24 of the 30 teams are no worse than six games below .500 and just six teams are more than five games out of a playoff spot, this is shaping up as a classic seller's market -- with a shortage of sellers and an even bigger shortage of difference-makers for sale.
"I don't really see a lot out there," said another AL executive. "I mean, we've got time. Things change. But I just don't see many good players [to deal for]."
There are three teams, though, that the buyers find particularly fascinating, just because of the prominence of the names they could be dangling -- the Rays, Phillies and Cubs. So let's take a look at how those three clubs could approach this market:
Tampa Bay Rays
We'll get to David Price, the marquee attraction of Rumor Central 2014, in a moment. But first, let's put the Rays' deadline philosophy in perspective. And that's important, because they don't think about these things the way most teams do.
First, everyone who recalls that I picked this team to win the World Series is free to laugh uproariously now. Go ahead. Enjoy yourselves. But the funny thing is, the people who run this franchise thought it was positioned to do that, too. So you should keep that in mind -- because that optimistic view of their club will have an important effect on their approach to this deadline.
And how is that, you ask? Because if they think they have the pieces in place to win next year and beyond, with most of those pieces under team control for years, they'd be a lot less inclined to hit the implode button than the outside world seems to be theorizing. And that appears to be exactly how they're looking at this group.
So here's our advice: Ignore all the talk you hear about fire sales or major housecleaning. Teams that have spoken with the Rays believe that's extremely unlikely.
They might listen on Ben Zobrist, Jeremy Hellickson, David DeJesus or nearly anyone else. But Zobrist in particular fits this team's mold so perfectly, in every way, one executive who has spoken with the Rays' brass came away believing it would be "really, really difficult" for them to come to grips with dealing him.
But now that we've got that out of the way, it's time to talk about Price, because he's in a whole different category. So once late July rolls around, we'll be mentioning his name approximately every 11 seconds.
The one thing that hasn't changed since the Rays tried, unsuccessfully, to deal their ace last winter is that they won't just trade him to say they did. If they still think they can win next year, their chances are obviously better with him than without him.
But here's what has changed: In December, the Rays were keeping him to try to win this year (and possibly next). But now, they know they have about the same chance of winning the World Series this year as the Lansing Lugnuts. That playoff-odds column on the standings page doesn't lie. And those odds tell them there's only a 0.1-percent chance they could even sneak into the wild-card Survivor Game.
So are the Rays really going to keep Price, pay him something like $20 million next year and then let him walk? Or are they going to try to maximize his value by marketing him this July to teams that view him as The Man who can help them win this year, next year and possibly beyond (if they can get him signed to an extension)?
You know the answer. It would be illogical for them to do anything except move him, unless the market for big-time starting pitching collapses this summer the way it did last winter. But seriously. Who thinks that will happen?
So in six weeks, Price almost has to be packing for L.A. or San Francisco or Atlanta or somewhere. Doesn't he? Way too soon to guess where because there is no sign the Rays have gotten down to that sort of business yet. But about the only thing we do know is this:
You can cross New York, Boston, Baltimore and Toronto off your list -- because if David Price does get traded, there's a zero-percent chance it's to any destination in the AL East.
They're not open for business yet. And they've just reeled off seven wins in their last nine games, to climb back into quasi-contention. But with a team that ranks 26th* in the big leagues in OPS, ranks 20th in opponent OPS and faces a killer schedule between now and the deadline, this front office is realistic enough to guess where this is heading.
So clubs that have spoken with the Phillies say they've already indicated they're likely to listen on just about everybody on a roster that's still populated by big names from the fading glory years. But ...
"Look at their trade chips," said an NL executive. "Even if they blow it up, dangle [Cole] Hamels and dangle all these other guys, each one of those guys has some reason it will be hard for them to get back what they want."
Chase Utley? He'd be the best position player on this market. And with a reasonable contract (with a series of $15 million vesting one-year options, from 2016-18, based on health), he'd bring the best return. But he has to approve any deal. And multiple teams have told us the Phillies have acted highly unmotivated to deal him. "They're not going to trade Utley," said one exec, flatly. "That's not happening."
Cliff Lee? Tough man to trade right now for anything substantial. Hasn't thrown a pitch in four weeks because of elbow inflammation. Will have at least $50 million left on his contract at the deadline (and a vesting option for 2016 that could inflate that to $62.5 million). "So much money, and he's injured," said one exec. "No one's going to take a chance on his health, with those kinds of dollars on the line, and they'll want you to give up your best [young] players."
Jonathan Papelbon? On one hand, he's only been scored on twice in his last 26 appearances (0.69 ERA, .178 opponent average, .189 opponent SLG in that span). On the other hand, he's the highest-paid closer in baseball ($13 million a year through next year, with a $13 million vesting option for 2016). "And teams just aren't willing to pay big money for closers anymore," said one exec. "And the other thing with him is, let's face it. It's not like you'd be bringing him in to be a leader in your bullpen."
Jimmy Rollins? Having a bounceback year at age 35. And he'd be energized by the chance to win. But he can veto any deal. Teams are convinced he'll want his $11 million vesting option guaranteed for next year (though he'll probably vest it anyway). And he'll be picky about where he'd be willing to go. "So at this point," said one of the execs quoted earlier, "they might as well just keep him and Utley and celebrate that they're lifetime Phillies and tell their fans to just go out and see them play."
One fellow whom other teams think might be their best bet to get traded is Domonic Brown, whom the Phillies wouldn't mind swapping for another young change-of-scenery candidate. But beyond that, the Phillies will be selling "all old guys with big contracts," said one AL exec. "So who's going to take those guys?"
The Phillies also can't bring themselves to follow the Astros, Cubs or even 76ers models and go into scorched-earth, start-from-scratch mode: "They'd like to rebuild," said an exec of one team that's spoken with them. "But what they want to do is move veterans for younger, productive major league players or top-line prospects who are close. They can't say to their fan base, `We're going to rebuild, and we'll see you in three years.' It's more like a half-rebuild. And that's going to be tough to pull off, with what they're selling."
But whether they can pull it off or not, we'll be spending many waking rumor-filled hours talking about the Phillies between now and July 31. We can guarantee that.
No team has been more open about its approach to this market than the Cubs. Next year is the year they expect to turn the corner. So it's time once again for their June/July sell-off, except with a more limited selection of soon-to-be-ex-Cubs to choose from.
Teams that have spoken with them say the Cubs expect to move Jason Hammel in the next two weeks. A year ago, they dealt away Scott Feldman on July 2. And they've told other clubs they expect a similar time frame this year with Hammel.
But Hammel is just the warm-up act for Jeff Samardzija, who is positioned to be the No. 1 alternative to Price for top-of-the-rotation shoppers everywhere.
The Cubs continue to tell other teams they'd still like to get Samardzija signed, and that's not impossible. But they said the same thing (although with less conviction) about Matt Garza last year. And clubs that have spoken with them seem convinced the Cubs are just making sure, once and for all, that's not going to be possible.
So Samardzija is probably going to be somebody's signature late-July purchase -- and, very possibly, for a package closer to Price's than you might suspect.
Remember, Samardzija is going to make about half as much money over the next season and a half as Price (who's earning $14 million this year, to Samardzija's $5.345 million). And the Cubs can do what the Rays can't -- stoke an official AL East bidding war to up the ante.
So Jeff Samardzija is going to be a popular guy in a few weeks -- especially in a market with so few impact players to shop for.
Ready to Rumble
• The one potential seller, besides the Cubs, that has picked up the pace, other teams say, is the Padres. "Not many teams are in sell mode, but San Diego is already in that mode," said one AL exec. At the top of their "BUY ME" list are all their outfielders except Cameron Maybin, with Seth Smith, Chris Denorfia and Will Venable all potentially available. And will someone take a chance on Chase Headley? "They've been wanting to move him for two years," the exec said.
• Several teams report the Dodgers are telling them they'll listen right now on every one of their outfielders except Yasiel Puig. And that's a potential storyline to watch, in a market incredibly thin on bats. But those clubs believe the Dodgers are really just trying to lay the groundwork to deal Matt Kemp or Andre Ethier over the winter, when they'll be marketed as excellent alternatives to one of the weakest free-agent outfield groups in years. (Top of that class: Colby Rasmus, Michael Morse and Melky Cabrera.)
• If someone had told you in March that the Yankees wouldn't be looking for infielders before the trading deadline, would anyone have believed them? But other clubs say they've been asking almost exclusively about starting pitching in their preliminary conversations. Thank you, Yangervis Solarte!
• Teams that have been in touch with the Tigers report they're focused on bullpen upgrades, not shortstop. And while the Angels are also in the bullpen market, they've been checking mostly on left-handed-relief options, not closers.
• The club that has teams most confused is -- who else? -- Arizona, if only because of the murky Tony La Russa/Kevin Towers who's-in-charge dynamic. "We're not really sure who's calling the shots," said one AL exec. "I don't know if anybody knows for sure what they're thinking, because nobody knows who's going to make the decisions."
• Would the Cubs have an easier time signing Samardzija if the Reds hadn't handed Homer Bailey that six-year, $105 million extension in February? "You'd have to ask them," said one NL exec. "But has there been a deal that changed the landscape more than that deal? If he's a $100 million guy, it means every team's got a No. 3 [starter] who's worth $100 million. Right?"
• Despite Dayton Moore's talk this week that the Royals can add payroll, teams that have spoken with them say K.C. doesn't expect to get the go-ahead to do that until mid-July. If the Royals do turn into buyers, they've been asking about right fielders and bullpen arms who could be available.
• Scouts who have covered the Tigers think Justin Verlander's troubles are easily explainable: "A lot of bullets have been shot out of that gun," said one. "And he doesn't do it easy." Ready for that bullet count? Since Verlander's first full season, in 2006, he's thrown 30,608 pitches, according to baseball-reference.com -- 2,100 more than any other pitcher in the sport. And that doesn't even include the 1,500 he's thrown in the postseason. Does that account for Verlander's late-inning troubles? He has a 2.60 ERA over the first three innings -- and a 7.01 ERA for the rest of the game. "And it used to be just the opposite," said another scout. "If you didn't get him in the first inning or two, you weren't getting him."
• One more Verlander stat that makes you wonder: After his first 50 pitches, the batting average against him jumps to .338 for the rest of the game -- the same as Tony Gwynn's lifetime average.
• Anyone out there wondering what happened to Interleague Rivalry Week -- when all 30 teams faced their designated interleague rivals at the same time in back-to-back home-and-home series? The schedule-makers abandoned it this season, after one year, because it created so many travel issues. An interesting note on next year's interleague schedule: Because the rotation will bring us around to an East-versus-East, Central-versus-Central, West-versus-West format, MLB will go back to having six rivalry games (Yankees-Mets, Giants-A's, etc.) a year instead of four. But again, they won't all come at the same time. Those days are over. For now anyway.
• Finally, there's no team in baseball these days that's defying the mathematical odds like the Yankees. For the second straight year, they have a minus-20-something run differential -- and a winning record.
Just so you know the degree of difficulty of that trick, the Elias Sports Bureau reports that only five teams in history have ever had a negative run differential and a winning record over two full consecutive seasons -- Benito Santiago's 1991-92 Padres, Julio Franco's 1989-90 Rangers, Harry Spilman's 1988-89 Astros, Bibb Falk's 1929-30 Indians and Ping Bodie's 1912-13 White Sox. "They're amazing," one exec said of the Yankees. "It's like they're incapable of finishing under .500."
Astounding Tony Gwynn Facts of the Week
OK, I know I spewed a bunch of astounding Gwynn facts the other day. But I've got a million of them!
• Over an eight-year period from 1989-96, Tony Gwynn swung and missed an average of three times a week. Our man Adam Dunn, on the other hand, averaged four swings and misses a game last season.
• Have I mentioned that these Dunn-Gwynn comparions never get old? In 1995, Gwynn struck out 15 times all season -- in 535 at-bats. In 2012, Dunn had a week (April 13-19) in which he struck out 15 times -- in 27 at-bats.
• Gwynn had eight different seasons in which he qualified for the batting title and struck out fewer than 20 times. No active player has ever even had one season like that. And since Gwynn debuted in 1982, 3,382 different position players have come to the plate in the major leagues. They've combined for two seasons like that (by Ozzie Smith and Felix Fermin).
• Finally, Gwynn had seven different seasons in which he hit .350 or better (and qualified for the batting title). That's as many as all active players put together (if you don't count Alex Rodriguez as "active") -- three by Ichiro Suzuki, two by Albert Pujols, one each by Joe Mauer and Josh Hamilton.
Tweets of the Week
• From presidential (and extra-base hit) historian, and Cubs color man Jim Deshaies, on the pitching matchup he was about to broadcast last weekend:
Jackson versus Buchanan today at 3:05. Can we get Trot Nixon in the line-up?
- Jim Deshaies (@JimDeshaies) June 14, 2014
• From the always-hilarious Gar Ryness, aka, the Batting Stance Guy, on Kendrys Morales' debut for the Twins after sitting out two and a half months:
Kendrys Morales hitting 6th tonight in case you're wondering how difficult it is to start for Twins.
- Batting Stance Guy (@BattingStanceG) June 9, 2014
• And, finally, this leftover classic from Diamondbacks pitcher-witticist Brandon McCarthy:
Is 50 Cent sure he's not right handed?
- Brandon McCarthy (@BMcCarthy32) May 28, 2014