Commentary

Two aces in the spotlight

A lot could've be riding on Josh Johnson and Roy Halladay in their Sunday starts

Originally Published: July 29, 2012
By Jayson Stark | ESPN.com

Editor's note: Jayson Stark will be writing a Daily Rumble each day leading up to the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.

If the 2012 trading deadline action is about to rampage toward a dramatic finale, its fate may well have been riding on what transpired on two different pitcher's mounds Sunday -- one in Little Havana, the other 660 miles to the north in Atlanta.

In Miami, the eyes of 15 scouts -- yep, 15 -- were peering down on Josh Johnson, the biggest name left on anybody's marquee here at Deadline Theater.

In Atlanta, Roy Halladay was the man taking the mound, carrying the weight of a nightmarish Phillies season on his broad shoulders.

For deadline drama at its finest, it was tough to top the meaning of those two starts by those two household names. Right?

Sometimes, if you're a trade-rumor junkie -- and if you're a baseball fan, of course you are -- the actual games can almost seem like background noise this time of year. But not on this day. Not in these two pivotal cases.

The storyline in Miami was this simple: If the half-dozen teams talking to the Marlins about Johnson still needed convincing that this guy is healthy and worth a blockbuster roll of the dice, it was up to him to prove it against the Padres on Sunday. But five innings, six walks and four strikeouts later, he hadn't quite made that case.

And the plotline in Atlanta was just as basic: If the Phillies still clung to any hope of a back-from-the-crypt miracle, it was all up to Halladay to keep that hope alive on Sunday. But Halladay gave up three runs. His team only scored two. And whatever that spelled, it sure wasn't M-I-R-A-C-L-E.

So it was right there, on these two pitcher's mounds, that rumors and reality collided. And we love it when that happens.

All of a sudden, that scout section in Miami was "premium real estate," laughed one scout, on the way to Marlins Park on Sunday morning. And for good reason.

Executives from virtually every team you've seen linked to Johnson -- the Rangers, Dodgers, Orioles, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Braves and more -- have pointed out to us in the past 24 to 48 hours that there's a lot to be wary of.

The mysterious shoulder injury that shut him down for more than four months last year? Never fully explained.

The career-high 4.04 ERA and loss of velocity on his fastball (from an average of 95 miles per hour two years ago to 93 mph this year)? Reasons for concern.

The track record of questionable durability (just one season of 30-plus starts in his big league career)? On every team's mind.

But if they were all so worried, what the heck were all those teams doing sending their best scouts to check this guy out so closely, huh? And the answer to that question is easy:

There isn't a single other starting pitcher with Johnson's kind of stuff that you can trade for right now. Not a one.

So the Marlins continue to wait to see if somebody will fork over what one club described as their "dream package." And if not, they're keeping him. Period. But after Johnson's uninspiring outing Sunday, we'd bet the beach house they'll be keeping him.

We checked back with one of the baseball men who pegged the odds of Johnson going nowhere as "95 percent" a few days ago. He told us Sunday he'd now raise those odds to "98 percent," given the asking price and concerns of all the teams in this mix.

Texas, in particular, seems especially cautious about Johnson and the hefty package it would take to get him, no matter how much the Rangers might need an ace. The Marlins have told Texas there's nothing for those two teams to talk about unless third-base prospect Mike Olt's name is on the table. And so far, the Rangers haven't been willing to lay Olt's name on any team's table, for any sort of deal. So the chances of those two clubs matching up seems like a major long shot. But the Rangers still sent a scout to see Johnson pitch on Sunday. So those chances, clearly, aren't zero.

Meanwhile, "zero" wouldn't accurately describe the Phillies' chances of re-enacting the saga of the 2011 Cardinals as Halladay took the mound Sunday. But it was close.

On our ESPN standings page, you'll see that our friends at Coolstandings.com estimated the Phillies' playoff odds, as of Sunday morning, at a whopping 0.3 percent. So other teams continuously ask why the Phillies haven't admitted the obvious. And that's an excellent question. But only the Phillies can answer it, and no one else.

So all we can report is that, as late as Saturday evening, the Phillies were still telling clubs they hadn't made that call yet. But Sunday had the look of a game that could help them answer that question, finally.

A loss, with Halladay on the mound, has dropped them to 12½ games back of the SECOND wild-card spot, with 60 games to play and seven teams to pass. And you don't need a Ph.D from M.I.T. to do that math.

The Phillies need to move money, to avoid paying luxury tax. They have a chance to move a handful of veteran players and put some pieces in place for 2013. And they've done enough talking, about so many players, that if they decide to start selling on Monday, they could probably move Shane Victorino (to the Dodgers, Reds, Giants or Pirates), Joe Blanton (to the Orioles), Juan Pierre (to the Reds) and Ty Wigginton (to the Yankees) by sundown.

The Phillies have also continued to dangle the name of Hunter Pence, according to several clubs. But every indication is that they plan to wait until the offseason to get into serious discussions about moving him.

Then again, it also wouldn't surprise other teams if the Phillies keep at least some of their trade chips around until August. We kid you not.

True, they would need to pass those players through waivers to move them then. But it would be so obvious that they were looking to dump salaries to get under the luxury-tax threshold, that other teams would have to be very careful about putting in claims.

"If I were them, that's what I'd do, to be honest with you," said one AL executive. "I'd play this out for a while. Then, when I got to August, I'd wait until later in the month to put guys like Victorino, Pence and Blanton on waivers. You wait till you know you're in it or out of it. Then you put them on waivers and do your trading then. If they think they have any shot, that's what they should do. And they probably won't get a hell of a lot less for those guys if they trade them next month than they would if they trade them now. Victorino might be the only exception."

So it's possible Victorino could move and the other guys could stay -- for now. Or it's possible they could just admit the obvious and let the selling begin. Or, given ownership's quest to keep filling those seats, they could do none of the above.

But these were issues that weren't just being decided Sunday in board rooms or executive suites. They were also being decided on two pitcher's mounds -- one in Georgia, the other in Florida. And that, when you get right down to it, is the way baseball is supposed to work. Even in the week of the trading deadline.

Sunday's Rumblings

• Despite lots of conversations about Chase Headley, the Orioles are now telling teams their interest in the Padres third baseman never got as "hot and heavy" as you might have been led to believe. The Orioles also considered Chris Johnson before Houston dealt him to the Diamondbacks. Baltimore continues to hunt for starting pitchers, with Blanton, Jason Vargas and Joe Saunders all on their shopping list.

• One team that's almost completely shifted its focus away from starters to relievers is the Braves, according to teams that have heard from them over the weekend. Unless something changes, the Braves seem committed to moving Kris Medlen into their rotation and dealing for a reliever who could fill the hole Medlen leaves in their bullpen.

Jeff Francoeur
Francoeur

Jonathan Broxton
Broxton

• Clubs that have spoken with the Giants and Royals say those teams talked about a deal that could have sent both Jonathan Broxton and Jeff Francoeur to McCovey Cove, but the Giants would prefer an outfielder who could make more of an impact than Francoeur.

• The Reds continue to poke around for potential top-of-the-order center field options. Besides Victorino and Pierre, we've heard they also checked in on Denard Span and Emilio Bonifacio.

• The latest characterization of the Rays' stance on trading James Shields, from one executive: "If somebody hits their hot button, they could move him -- but they're not in a hurry to."

• The Cardinals have inquired about a long list of starting pitchers, including Shields and Johnson. But teams that have spoken to them report "they want bullpen help, first and foremost."

Brendan Ryan
Ryan

• Another name to add to the Yankees' left-side-of-the-infield shopping list: Seattle's Brendan Ryan.

• Other than the Astros' trades to unload Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon, and the Marlins including Randy Choate in the Hanley Ramirez swap, there hasn't been a single bullpen deal of significance this month. That could change shortly, amid talk that Brandon League could be dealt in the next 24 hours (with teams such as the Giants, Angels, Dodgers and Braves all interested). But there's no area that's been more affected by the new labor rules than spare bullpen parts. With no compensation picks to increase the value of those relievers, teams have been universally waiting for prices to drop. And that hasn't happened yet. "You've got to get past the weekend," quipped one exec. "It's an international rule. You can't start bullpen shopping till Monday or Tuesday, because those items don't go on sale until the last 48 hours."

Jayson Stark | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com