Big Unit drama builds

Randy Johnson walked to the mound Tuesday night in Arizona, still wearing that big "A" on his cap. He'll be back on that same mound Sunday for the last game of the Diamondbacks' current homestand.

Then off his team will go for a weeklong spin through Houston and Colorado. Anybody want to bet whether the Big Unit will be riding that Arizona charter back home Aug. 1?

One source with intimate knowledge of this situation says it's still "50-50."

A GM of a contending team that once had interest says: "I won't be surprised at all if he's still there in August."

An official of another team that has spoken with Arizona GM Joe Garagiola Jr. says: "Somebody is going to have to be creative if they want to trade for him because (the Diamondbacks' baseball people) don't want to do it."

So that's the state of Randy-mania, such as it is. Is he staying? Or is he going? Read those quotes again, and it's obvious that nobody knows.

These are not the words of innocent bystanders in this riveting, will-they-or-won't-they trade-deadline saga. These are the words of men who have been right in the middle of the biggest trade story in baseball. And even they're not sure if Randy Johnson is going anywhere.

"My read on this," says one GM, "is that they're not in a mindset to move him. They're saying: 'If someone comes in and overwhelms us, then we might move him.' ... But I didn't get the feeling this was definitely going to happen."

So believe no one who tells you they know for sure. Because nobody knows. Not the Unit. Not his GM. Not his owner. Not his agents. Not the Yankees. Nobody.

No, this is one of those real-life soap operas that may just write itself as it rolls along between now and July 31. And if you're looking for signs on which way it will turn, here are the three rings in this circus you need to watch:

1) What does Randy want?
Seems like a simple question. Seems like an easy answer. Might not be as easy as it looks.

Does this man want out of a team in a seemingly endless cliff dive? Heck, yeah.

But did he want out this desperately a couple of weeks ago? Friends and teammates say no.

Then, however, people started writing about it and talking about it and asking questions about it. And his team started losing every single day, or just about.

And George Steinbrenner went on a national radio show to say he'd love to have him. And it became clear there were a bunch of other teams that would love to have him. And even Johnson was sucked into thinking about that prospect.

And next thing he knew, he was at the All-Star Game, and the questions were flying. One after another. For half an hour. And he finally admitted the truth, that he couldn't say for sure that he wanted to stay. Which pushed this story to yet another level.

Jayson Stark took your questions about the all the latest trade rumors and much more in his Wed. chat.

But what will he want in a week or so? What will he want if his choice on where to go isn't the Yankees? Can he even stay in Arizona now, after all this, if he isn't traded? Could be a truly pivotal question.

"This might be a case," says one baseball man, "where it's like a guy going to his wife and saying he wants to leave. And then he goes back to her and says he wants to stay. Can he still stay? And if he does, is it ever the same?"

Important question. Might turn out to be the question: Can he even stay now if he decides next week that he wants to?

2) What Arizona's baseball people want.
They never wanted to trade him. They still don't want to trade him.

As the Diamondbacks have called around to survey the contenders on their interest in the last week, they have made that clear: They aren't making Randy Johnson available because they want to.

If he wants out, they will see what's out there. But they don't have to promise to like what they see.

As bad a year as they've had, the men who run the Diamondbacks don't think they need to "rebuild" in the classic sense. Not if they can keep the Big Unit, anyway.

They've had a series of disastrous injuries. But they still have a bunch of talented young players and a terrific farm system. So if they hang onto Johnson, bring back Richie Sexson and re-sign Steve Finley, they can see themselves contending next year. They would rather do that than blow it up and start over.

So they have told every team they've talked to they will need to be "overwhelmed" to trade him. As best we can tell, that means they want three big-time players in return.

The Yankees may be the Unit's first choice, but they don't have those players to deal. There are indications they've been poking around, trying to involve a third team with the prospects to get this done. But who wants to help the Yankees in a deal like this? What could be in it for them to go out of their way to help the Yankees win the World Series? So don't look for that.

The East Valley Tribune's Ed Price has reported that Arizona appears to be heavily scouting only two teams: the Yankees and Angels. The Angels, unlike the Yankees, have the prospects. But an official of one club that has been talking with them says: "I don't know how serious the Angels are. They're hard to read."

What is just as hard to read, though, is how serious Johnson is about them. When it was suggested to him, at the All-Star Game, that the Angels were a logical fit because he has a home nearby, he took offense to that assumption. And another baseball man who has known Johnson for years says the Angels would have to "convince him" they're a team that can win the World Series.

So it's possible that, in the end, there won't be any team that can both convince Johnson to go and give Arizona what it wants. Then what happens if Jerry Colangelo delivers that news to the Unit next week? Does Johnson say: "OK, I'll stay?" Or does he say: "Better try harder?"

Again, nobody knows. But we could well find out in time.

3) Follow the money.
When Johnson suggested, at the All-Star Game, that dealing him could help Arizona, his rationale was: They can use the money they would have spent on him to fill other needs.

But one baseball man familiar with the Diamondbacks' financial situation says Colangelo has never told his baseball people they need to move the $24 million or so that Johnson is owed over the next year and a half.

Thanks to the $100 million they've raised recently by taking in new partners, "I don't think the money crunch is as bad as people think," he says.

But the Yankees also have made it clear they're willing to take on as much money as Arizona might decide it would enjoy lopping off its Bills-To-Pay list. How do we know they wouldn't agree to take on the $2.5 million or so that Arizona owes Matt Mantei? Or the $1.5 million or so it still owes Elmer Dessens?

So what happens if this turns into a deal where the Diamondbacks could free up close to $30 million? How enticing would that be to the accountants, or anyone else in that organization with a budget?

It's yet one more question we can't answer. Yet. As the clock ticks toward 4 p.m. on July 31, these will be the only questions that matter. They're questions only Randy Johnson and the team that employs him will be able to answer. Trust us: There will be no escaping them. So don't touch that dial.

Rumor-Mill Rumblings

  • The next recognizable face to leave Arizona will not be the Big Unit. Teams that have been talking with the Diamondbacks say they've decided to concentrate first on dealing Steve Finley.

    Despite speculation that Finley would only go to San Diego, other clubs are indicating they've been given the impression that, given the current mess in Arizona, Finley now would approve a deal to any contender -- ideally an NL contender.

    There have been indications that the Phillies and Marlins have been more aggressive than the Padres, with the Giants, Dodgers and Rangers also showing interest.

    One source that has been in contact with the Phillies says they would make Marlon Byrd available in a major trade. The Marlins have been dangling outfielder Abraham Nunez (a former Diamondback), while clubs have been asking them about minor-league pitcher Bill Murphy, who just pitched in the Futures Game.

    At one point before the All-Star break, Finley had been talking with Arizona about an extension. Now, he apparently has indicated he would prefer to go to a contender down the stretch, then sit back this winter and see if Arizona keeps Johnson and Sexson before deciding whether to return as a free agent.

  • The Phillies appear increasingly resigned to not being able to upgrade their disappointing rotation. According to clubs that have spoken with them, their short list is apparently down to Kris Benson, Ramon Ortiz and (should the Reds decide they're sellers) Paul Wilson or Cory Lidle.

    The Phillies made inquiries on Randy Johnson, Barry Zito, Derek Lowe, Livan Hernandez and Matt Morris. But only Johnson seems to have any shot at being traded. And, with about $64 million guaranteed to eight players next year, Philadelphia couldn't take on the Unit's $16-million 2005 paycheck without moving a big contract.

    With no big-name pitchers that seem gettable, the Phillies are suddenly more attracted to someone like Finley. In a season with this many expectations, there's more pressure than ever on the Phillies to do more than just make a low-level deal. They need to send a message to their clubhouse and to their fans that, as their T-shirts say, now is the time.

  • The Phillies are also expected to add at least one bullpen piece -- preferably a left-hander (with Seattle's Ron Villone near the top of their list).

  • You can expect the bidding on Benson to go right to the deadline. Pirates GM Dave Littlefield has no fear of that last-minute pre-deadline frenzy. And his asking price for Benson has other clubs grumbling.

    It's believed he has asked the Mets for David Wright, the Rangers for Laynce Nix, the Twins for Michael Cuddyer and the Phillies for Chase Utley. The price for other inquiring clubs is in the same stratosphere.

    Asked if he sensed anyone in the bidding was ready to meet that price, an official of one interested team said: "No. If the asking price doesn't come down, they may end up holding the bag. I don't get the impression any team is willing to go gaga over Kris Benson."

  • Interest is building, however, in another available Pirates pitcher -- closer Jose Mesa. Among the clubs in on him: the Giants and Cardinals.

  • Although teams continue to inquire, the Expos appear very reluctant to trade Livan Hernandez, unless they're blown away. And, as one scout put it, "he might be an ace with them -- but if you're a team trying to win, he's more like a No. 3."

    One Expos starter who is more available: Tony Armas Jr. But everyone is treading cautiously on a guy whose last (and only) 30-start season was 2001. "Good arm," says an official of one club shopping for pitching. "But his health scares us."

  • After the Carlos Beltran deal, one club that had been talking with Kansas City predicted that Matt Stairs would be the next Royal dealt. But it now appears Stairs might not be moving after all. Royals GM Allard Baird has been telling teams he can't run a lineup out there with no veteran hitters. So unless he gets a high-ceiling prospect, Baird is inclined to hold onto Stairs, who has told the club he wants to re-sign as a free agent this winter.

  • Even though Juan Gonzalez hasn't played in almost two months, Baird says he does have a couple of teams interested in him. But Gonzalez is running out of time to prove he's sound. And clubs we've surveyed seem skeptical of him -- with good reason.

  • The Royals also have contacted some of the clubs on Mike Sweeney's list of teams to which he can be traded, letting them know they're willing to talk about moving him. The teams to which Sweeney is open are the Angels, A's, Mariners, Dodgers, Giants, Padres and Diamondbacks. It's still a long shot, but Baird has told clubs he owes it to Sweeney to see if he can find a home for him with a contender.

    The Dodgers, who have shopped for a middle-of-the-order first baseman, would seem like a good fit. But teams that have talked with them say their budget beyond this season is so up in the air they couldn't take on Sweeney's $37.5 million for 2005-06-07 even if they wanted to right now.

  • So who would the Dodgers trade for? Beltran, if he goes back out there. Finley, if Arizona decides it's OK to deal him within the division. And possibly Larry Walker, if the price is right. About the only available starting pitcher who would interest them is the Big Unit, but the Diamondbacks seem especially reluctant to deal the Unit to another team in the NL West.

  • Even though Houston lost four of its first five after the break, the Astros still haven't indicated to anyone they're putting Beltran back on the market. And clubs monitoring that situation say they don't expect that to change until the last minute, if it changes at all.

    "They have so much invested in this year," says one GM, "that I have a hard time believing they'll do anything until the last minute. If Beltran goes, or even someone like (Jeff) Kent, I don't see it happening before the 30th or 31st."

    Longtime Drayton McLane watchers know the owner's favorite thing in life is watching the turnstiles spin. So it's believed that no matter where Houston is in the standings at the end of this month, he would refuse to trade Roger Clemens or Craig Biggio.

  • Despite the uncertainty over Mark Prior, the Cubs don't seem to have any interest in trading for another starting pitcher -- not with Glendon Rusch pitching well, Ryan Dempster set to return in the next month and Angel Guzman poised to help down the stretch if he isn't dealt.

    Guzman looked like the Cubs prospect most likely to be traded for a shortstop (i.e., Orlando Cabrera), but he hasn't pitched in more than two weeks because of mild shoulder issues. Even though they aren't considered serious, it's believed that has caused the Expos to back off, at least temporarily.

    The Cubs, meanwhile, continue to shop for bullpen help. After that series with the Cardinals, it's no mystery why.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.