There are six weeks left until the trading deadline, and the shoppers are out there. They're scribbling their lists. They have their carts.
But here's their biggest problem: Where will be they be shopping?
We've pretty firmly established that the Nationals aren't going to win the World Series. But only five other teams in the whole sport were more than six games under .500 after Wednesday night. And that's a deadline shopper's worst nightmare.
"Some of these teams that are in it don't even want to be in it," said one AL executive. "I think they'd rather unload some guys and dump some money. But when you're a few games out, it's hard to explain that to your fans."
So we'll do everybody a favor. We'll pick the sellers and leave them out of it. We took the nine teams at the bottom of ESPN.com's MLB Power Rankings. Then, with help from a group of front-office personnel around the game, we nominated the player on that team most likely to get traded.
Get the picture? Now start making that shopping list.
" Nationals: Nick Johnson, 1B
There might be 18 players on this team who are available. And names like Adam Dunn, Josh Willingham and Joe Beimel are going to be just as prominent in the Rumor Central annals over the next six weeks as Nick Johnson. But Johnson makes the most sense. He's about to be a free agent. He doesn't fit in D.C. long term. He's still an on-base machine (.415 OBP, eighth in the NL). He hits left-handers (.333 average, .536 slugging percentage). And he's played in 20 postseason games, back in his Yankees incarnation.
"They could move Dunn," said an executive of one team. "But the price would be way too astronomical to actually make a deal. And if they move Nick Johnson, they accomplish what they need to accomplish. They're better off putting Dunn at first base so they can play Willingham or other people in the outfield. And they're more likely to move Johnson than Willingham, because at least Willingham they can control."
" Orioles: Danys Baez, RHP
We're reasonably confident the Orioles are going to trade at least one relief pitcher. The biggest question is whether it will be Baez or closer George Sherrill, or both. But one NL executive is skeptical that Baltimore's president of baseball operations, Andy MacPhail, would move his closer right now, just because "his starting pitching is so young, that he'll want his pitchers, if they have a chance to get a win, to get that win."
"So I'd trade Baez over Sherrill," said an official of another club. "He's throwing great, but he's still Danys Baez. You know he's not the answer to your long-term problems. He's a solid seventh-inning guy who's now pitching like an eighth-inning guy. So that's a guy you trade."
" Diamondbacks: Doug Davis, LHP
You can forget Brandon Webb. Trading him right now would make no sense. You can forget Dan Haren. Ditto. If this team deals anybody, it will be with an eye toward winning next year. So while Jon Rauch is eminently available, and we've heard speculation about Jon Garland, the Diamondbacks are much more likely to move their prospective free agents (Davis, Chad Tracy, Scott Schoeneweis) than anyone they can control beyond this year.
Davis seems most likely to exit, said one exec, "because he's left-handed and breathing, and that means a lot." But he's also a guy who "has to be in the right ballpark, and he has to stay in the National League," said an official of another club. "He's a guy who could help a team like the Mets, for instance, because he wouldn't cost a ridiculous amount in talent and they could take the money."
" Padres: Cla Meredith, RHP
Now that Jake Peavy's ankle has made him officially untradeable for now, it's amazing how little other teams are interested in what's on the Padres' shelves. Brian Giles? "Should get released," said one scout. Kevin Kouzmanoff? "Not sure how much he adds," said one exec. Chris Young? "Reasonable contract for a starting pitcher, and so perfect for their ballpark," said another. So almost by default, we're going with Meredith, who is eighth among all right-handed relievers in appearances over the past three seasons (179) and has a 1.23 ERA since May 14.
"They need to be thinking where can they maximize their return? And I think this is the guy," said one NL executive. "He's more than a one-inning pitcher. He throws strikes. And his stuff's good. So I'd be interested. I know that."
" Royals: Ron Mahay, LHP
Oh, it's possible the Royals could do something bigger than this. Mark Teahen? David DeJesus? Jose Guillen, if anybody would take him? You'll no doubt hear their names in the next month. But "they're in a hard position," said an official of one club, "because they're kind of going for it. They're over the rebuilding thing, at least in rhetoric. So I don't know how much they want to take a step back."
But Mahay is one guy who might be exportable. He'll turn 38 this week. He can be a free agent this winter. And he "is on this damn list every year, it seems like," said one exec. The Royals balked at moving him last July, when they had him signed for another year. But unless they charge back into the thick of the race, this year should be a different story. And that 1.137 OPS by right-handed hitters against him is more excellent incentive to deal him.
" Astros: LaTroy Hawkins, RHP
Roy Oswalt? Forget it. We can't find anybody, on any team, who thinks Drayton McLane will sign off on dealing him. And if the Astros (just 6½ out in the NL Central, 5½ in the wild card) stay this close, "I don't know if the owner will deal anybody," said an official of one team. But if the Astros do any selling off -- and at this point that's still not likely -- it either figures to be on the Pudge Rodriguez front or in their bullpen, with either Hawkins or Jose Valverde moving on.
"If they want to move LaTroy, I'm in," said an executive of one team doing bullpen-shopping. "He's better than he's been in a long time. He's fixed that little move with taking the ball out of his glove, and now he's got an unbroken rhythm, and tempo, and it's helped him. I like the fact he's still willing to make adjustments. And he'll take the ball."
" Pirates: Jack Wilson, SS
The Pirates were the first team to start selling, with that Nate McLouth deal. And they'll have the most jam-packed display window you'll find down at the Deadline Mall. You can dabble in Wilson, Adam LaRoche, Ian Snell, John Grabow, maybe even Freddy Sanchez. But which of those guys is most likely to exit? Tough call.
"They'd love to move Jack Wilson," said an official of one club. "But they've been trying to move him for months -- years, even. He's a good player, but he's not worth the contract he's got [for $7.25 million, plus a $200,000 bonus if he's traded, plus a $600,000 buyout for next year]. So if they want to get something in return, they should probably move the second baseman [Sanchez]." But can they at this point? As an executive of another club put it, "After trading one fan favorite [McLouth], I don't see them trading another guy like that. But there's really no logic in that. Once you make that [McLouth] trade, you're telling your fans you're not buying into 2009. So that's the path you've picked. Now you're stuck with it."
" Indians: Mark DeRosa, 3B
Can we pull the plug on the Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez rumors now? They're irreplaceable players, with affordable options for next year. So the Indians have no incentive to trade them, unless the payback is insane. That makes DeRosa far and away the best chip in town if they decide to sell. He's already up to 13 homers, 48 RBIs and 46 runs scored. And only six other players in the whole sport can match him in all three categories, none of them third basemen or second basemen. So Mark DeRosa gets more marketable by the minute.
"This guy's a winner," said an executive of one of many interested teams. "He just has that presence of a winner out there. If somebody grabs this guy, he'll be a difference-maker down the stretch." Asked what position DeRosa ought to play -- second, third or left field -- the same exec laughed and replied: "All of them."
" A's: Matt Holliday, LF
Saved the biggest name for last, just to see if you were still paying attention. Holliday hasn't put up the power numbers people expected. But he has hit .322, with a .452 on-base percentage, since May 12. So he'd still look better than just about any bat on the market. The A's continue to send signals that suggest they don't have to trade this man. But as an official of one club observed, "Didn't they trade for him with this in mind?" And of course, that's exactly why they traded for him, assuming he didn't propel them toward October. So if the A's don't make up significant ground in the next few weeks, he will be out there. After that, it will all be a matter of whether someone wants to meet the price tag.
"A team like this, if it wants to be realistic, should really be saying it will get a sandwich pick and possibly a first-round pick [as compensation] if he leaves," said one exec, "instead of saying they'll get a first-round pick and a sandwich. I mean, it's not that hard to imagine that a team like the Braves would sign him and not have to give up its first-round pick [because of its place in the standings]. But that's not how he'll be priced. They'll want the equivalent of a first-rounder and a sandwich pick, and that's a lot. But I think they'll get it. You have a lot of teams that need bats this year, and not many to be had."
Ready to rumble
" For starters: What's the one commodity you astute readers will notice was clearly missing on that July shopping list above? Unfortunately, it's difference-making starting pitching. Everybody wants it. But we hear more and more teams are resigning themselves to the possibility that there might be next to nobody available who fits that description.
Peavy's ankle wipes him off this table. Roy Halladay was always a pipe dream. The Astros are making no noises whatsoever about dangling Oswalt. The Indians would have to be overwhelmed to move Lee. So who's left?
"If he's healthy, [Erik] Bedard is the one guy people are going to wind up talking about," said an official of one club. "But if you make a deal for that guy, you're taking a big risk. He's a lot like Nick Johnson. You'd only trade for him to go for it. But you'd better hope he's there to go for it with. There might be too much injury risk there to really count on him."
So given all that, Brad Penny -- who once looked like a back-burner option -- is starting to look better and better. Penny has a 4.94 ERA and an .833 opponent OPS. But he also has allowed three earned runs or fewer in seven of his past nine starts, while beating the Rays, Jays, Twins, Yankees and Marlins.
"If you look at all the inventory that might be available," said one scout, "he might be the best piece out there."
"I think you have to dig past the raw numbers with him," said an AL executive. "I think people are a little wary because of his history with the Dodgers and the surface numbers. But this guy, in the National League, should help somebody."
" Keep your Sox on: At the same time Penny's stock is rising, though, teams that have spoken to the Red Sox report they've slowed down their efforts to market him. At this point, they appear likely to wait at least a couple of weeks, so they can try to figure out the mystery of Daisuke Matsuzaka and assure themselves that John Smoltz is a guy they can count on.
The Red Sox also seem like they're in no hurry to trade for a shortstop, either, even though they've clearly been shopping. They hope to get Jed Lowrie back by the first week of July. And even if they still feel a need to make a move, beware of all rumors linking them to players like J.J. Hardy, whom they'd have to commit to beyond this year.
According to an official of one club, they're "not looking for a shortstop of the future." Lowrie is still that guy. They're looking only for someone to get them through the year. Period. So who does that leave? Jack Wilson if he comes cheap enough? Orlando Cabrera if all else fails? Both seem like long shots. Even Phillies prospect Jason Donald no longer fits, because he's now out longer than Lowrie after tearing his meniscus.
" In the wash: The rampaging state of flux in Washington goes beyond the manager's office. The Nationals still haven't committed to highly respected interim general manager Mike Rizzo as their full-time GM. And we're now hearing that former Astros GM Gerry Hunsicker, currently a senior VP for baseball operations in Tampa Bay, has surfaced as a candidate if Rizzo doesn't get the job.
" Still Rockin': A mere one week ago, we were reporting that the Rockies were listening on a bunch of players, from Jason Marquis and Huston Street to Ryan Spilborghs and even Brad Hawpe. One 11-game winning streak later, you can cancel that closeout sale. The Rockies are now just 3½ games out in the wild-card standings. And GM Dan O'Dowd says they've earned the right to make a run.
O'Dowd downplayed talk that his team was ready to unload, anyway, saying: "When people see a shark in the water, they won't leave you alone. And a week and a half ago, that was us. We were a shark in the water … but we still weren't in a position to make decisions [about whether to buy or sell]."
So the pursuit of Marquis (Phillies), Street (Rangers, Angels and Yankees) and Spilborghs (Red Sox, Tigers, Phillies) will have to wait. It's even possible the Rockies could look to add a set-up man in a few weeks if the price is right.
" Happy Hollidays: The A's are rightfully nervous that if they hang on to Matt Holliday all year and then offer him arbitration to guarantee their compensation picks, Holliday might take it. But officials of two teams that have dealt extensively with Scott Boras are very skeptical that Holliday would actually accept arbitration, even if he has to take a slightly lower one-year contract on the open market.
"That guy is not accepting arbitration," one of those officials said, adamantly. "Why would he accept arbitration to play in a place that hasn't been friendly to him offensively? If he accepts, he might get $16-17 million in arbitration. But if there was a team out there willing to give him $13-14 million, even on a one-year deal, in a better hitters' park, I'd be willing to bet that Scott would say, 'If we're going to do a one-year deal, we won't do it in Oakland.'"
" Anything to declare? Speaking of famous Boras clients, we devoted an entire column earlier this month to how Stephen Strasburg is likely to alter the draft. Now it's time to contemplate how America's favorite phenom, Bryce Harper, might do the same.
If Harper really goes through with his plan to get a GED from high school and enroll this fall in junior college to become draft-eligible next June, you'll be amazed how fast people in the sport will press for a rule change we haven't heard talked about much.
"This kid is the reason players should have to declare for the draft," said one front-office man. "A kid like this could go in, get drafted, say, 'No, I don't want to go there,' or, 'That's not enough,' and then do it again the next year, and the next. He could do it three times by the time he's 19. That's not how it works in the other sports. In basketball, you have to declare for the draft. Then, once you get past a certain date, there's no alternative and no going back to school. You're in. If this is the next loophole people are going to try to exploit in baseball, we're going to need the same type of rule."
" The Young and the deal-less: The Twins are out there hunting for bullpen depth and young middle infielders. It probably won't come as a shock that they're letting teams know the enigmatic Delmon Young is exceptionally available.
" What's Brewing: Clubs that have spoken to the Brewers report they've been adamant in saying they won't talk about Mat Gamel or shortstop prospect Alcides Escobar, even for front-line pitching. And after that, said an official of one club they spoke with, "there's a pretty sizable falloff" to their next wave of potentially available prospects (Lorenzo Cain, Taylor Green, Caleb Gindl). That's one reason Hardy's name has started to show up on the rumor circuit. But with so little starting pitching worth pursuing, Milwaukee is another club that might not find the kind of pitching it's hunting for.
" All Nicked up: You can add Texas to the list of teams interested in Nick Johnson, or some kind of left-handed bat who could play, or platoon at, first base. "They've got to send Chris Davis back [to the minors]," said one scout. "This kid has lost all feel for the strike zone. They can't let him keep going on a 250-strikeout pace. You can get him out anywhere in the strike zone right now."
" Catch some Rays: The Rays are looking for bullpen arms. But clubs that have spoken with them report they can't take on any big-ticket salaries unless attendance picks up in the next six weeks. Then again, they're one of many teams that either can't or won't absorb anything more than a minimal payroll hit in any trade they make.
" No deal: For all the talk about that Jeff Francoeur-for-Cody Ross deal proposed by the Braves recently, you'd have thought that trade almost happened. Word we're hearing is that Florida shot that one down faster than you can say "Same division."
" Fish food: Clubs that have kicked the tires on Dan Uggla in Florida have been told this by the Marlins: "Get back to us in a month."
" The not-so-big O: He has fewer extra-base hits than Joe Thurston. He has a lower slugging percentage than Anderson Hernandez. He has fewer home runs than Brendan Harris. And no, we're not talking about David Ortiz. We're talking about another fallen bopper who has somehow stayed off America's radar screen, Magglio Ordonez (.273 AVG./.343 SLG/2 HR/11 XBH).
"He might be Big Papi's biggest fan," said one scout, "because Big Papi has taken all the attention away from him. I'm not sure what happened, but this guy has aged a lot quicker than the norm. I don't see him getting better. I see him getting worse. I don't see the ball jumping off his bat at all. He's up there now, and he's just content to look for the breaking ball and hit soft line drives the other way. It's almost like he's playing hit-and-run every at-bat."
If this keeps up much longer, it will become more than just a baseball issue for the Tigers. Another 215 plate appearances, and Ordonez will lock in an $18 million option for next year, a payout the Tigers can't possibly find too attractive at the moment.
" Off with the show: Bobby Cox isn't the only one who has been rubbed the wrong way by Braves shortstop Yunel Escobar's attention to style over detail lately.
"Somebody better remind him he's Yunel Escobar, not Gloria Estefan," said one scout. "There ain't no show going on. This is baseball. Let's play."
" Help wanted: Finally, in the wake of Sammy Sosa's plunge back into the headlines, we've heard quite a few cries for help from our Hall of Fame voting brethren this week. And what they're asking is for the people who run the Hall to make some kind of statement on how voters should handle the steroid era.
But HOF president Jeff Idelson told Rumblings he believes the instructions to voters to consider "character, integrity and sportsmanship" are all the advice that's appropriate.
"Five years out and 15 years on [the ballot] gives voters the perspective of time and history to make a determination," Idelson said. "So the way a voter feels today may not be how he or she feels in five or 10 or 15 years, as this story plays out. The perspective of time is very important."
Asked if the Hall has at least kicked around the idea of giving the steroid generation any sort of special treatment, Idelson replied: "Right now, we're comfortable with the rules of election. And we have great faith in the Baseball Writers' Association to make the right decisions, as they always have."
The Rumblings Scouting Bureau
It's time once again to present more spectacular insights from America's foremost scouting minds:
" On Vladimir Guerrero: "Terrible. He just looks awful. It doesn't look like he has any focus, any energy. In BP, he's still smoking balls. But in the games, he's chasing all over the place. I don't know where this guy's at. You just wonder if something's really on his mind."
" On Daisuke Matsuzaka: "I don't know if he's gone into some kind of shell, because he's getting hit around a little. I just know he's not the same guy I saw two years ago. The quality of his strikes is not anywhere near what it was -- especially fastball strikes."
" On Matt Wieters: "The one thing I thought he'd do when he came up was hit. But you know, he wasn't exactly tearing it up in Triple-A. And he's got some holes in his swing. But they're the same holes every kid has coming into pro ball. It may take a little while, but this guy will hit."
" On J.P. Howell: "He's the guy who ties that whole [Rays] bullpen together, because they'll use him anywhere from the seventh inning on. So he's an old-school and new-school reliever. His attitude is new-school, but the way they use him is old-school."
Quotes of the week
" From Tigers manager Jim Leyland, on why he intentionally walked Albert Pujols in the first inning Tuesday: "I'm not going to let him beat me. We did pitch to him [later in the game] -- and it ended up over the Big Mac sign."
" From Torii Hunter, to the Los Angeles Times' Mike DiGiovanna, on what it felt like to splatter off the center-field wall in San Francisco on Monday: "It felt like getting hit by a Mike Tyson body blow in his prime. That wall is stout. All those years I've challenged the wall, and I'm 0-for-16 against those things. We have this rivalry going."
Injuries of the week
" Phillies reliever Scott Eyre strained a calf muscle running in from the bullpen to pitch, and wound up on the disabled list.
" Royals reliever Kyle Farnsworth needed stitches on his nonpitching hand because he got scratched trying to break up a woof-off between his two bulldogs.
Headliner of the week
This just in, from the June issue of our favorite Chicago parody publication, the Heckler:
CUBS INSTALL STEEL-PLATED GATORADE MACHINE
Late-nighter of the week
Not much baseball humor from the late-night talk-show hosts this week. So in weeks like this, for the foreseeable future, we'll be presenting selections from our "best of Jay Leno" files. This week's entry:
"The sequel to the 'Pirates of the Caribbean' opens next week. You watch
these movies and the pirates always win. You ever notice that?
You want to see the Pirates lose? Move to Pittsburgh."
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His new book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.