- Jayson Stark, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
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It's one of the most dangerous words in the English language this time of year:
If you're any baseball player on Planet Earth, the month is July, and your name gets used in the same sentence as that magic word, available, you know what that means.
You've just become a feature attraction in Rumor Central. That's what it means.
And you're about to become a non-stop "SportsCenter" topic, the most interviewed occupant in your own clubhouse and a man with a July 31 countdown clock running in your head 24/7. That's what it means, too.
But that word, available, can also be one of the most misleading words in the English language. And that's where us Rumblers and Grumblers come in.
Carlos Beltran is "AVAILABLE," in capital letters and flashing lights. But here are three guys who are "available" in a very different, much more nuanced, sort of way. And they're a reminder that sometimes those nuances get lost in the stampede to fire names and rumors out there in the fourth week of July.
An official of one team that kicked the tires on Jimenez told us this week we should all stop writing and talking about him, because in reality, these Ubaldo trade rumors were all "a lot of baloney." Except he didn't say baloney.
Well, that isn't quite true, because the Rockies did seem to make a point of getting the word out that they'd gladly listen to offers for their ace. And as one AL executive put it, "I don't think the Rockies would have let this story get to this point if they weren't open to it."
The Rockies even went further than that, sending scouts to check out prospects of several interested teams and encouraging scouts from other clubs to come in and peruse Jimenez's starts. So obviously, this fellow's "availability" was no media fabrication.
But does that mean this man is about to get traded, or is even moderately likely to get traded? Naaah. Here's what other clubs have decided was really going on here:
The Rockies were shrewd enough to recognize there was no starting pitcher like Jimenez on the market. And they weren't real enthused by how their season was going. So they decided it made sense to find out if there was a team out there willing to do something crazy.
The price tag, according to an official of one club, was (and is) "three or four of your best young players -- and one of them had better be a big league ready starter so he could go right in their rotation."
But what are the chances of somebody paying that price? "Remote" would be too strong a word. In fact, if anything, just Jimenez's "availability" alone seems to have made some teams wary of ponying up enough to meet that price.
"If they want to trade him," said an official of one NL team, "it tells me they think he's broken, or he's hurt, or he's going to get hurt, or he's not the same guy. Otherwise, you don't trade a guy like that. Why would you?"
Good question. And the answer is: They're very, very, very unlikely to do that. But teams have been known to get desperate in the last week of July. And the Rockies have never said, unequivocally, that this man is staying, no matter what. So the Ubaldo section of Rumor Central won't be closing for business -- not yet, anyway.
Much like Ubaldo-mania, the Pence Watch has been gathering steam lately. And again, there's a reason for that.
Clubs that have spoken to the Astros report that GM Ed Wade was, essentially, empowered in the past few days, by incoming owner Jim Crane, to find out what teams were willing to give up for just about everyone on the roster.
But if you've seen that roster, you know that didn't mean they were trying to gauge the value of, say, Brian Bogusevic.
In truth, this was all about seeing what clubs might we willing to cough up to reel in a high-energy, 28-year-old, All-Star outfielder who is a .291/.339/.481 lifetime hitter and can't become a free agent until after the 2013 season.
But the sticker the Astros have slapped on Pence's windshield also makes him the most expensive position player on the market -- far more pricey than Carlos Beltran, Carlos Pena or Jeff Francoeur. We're talking, in the words of one NL executive, a "mega-piece deal." In other words, "three quality, quality pieces -- and maybe a fourth player."
Wade has no choice but to price Pence that highly, for many reasons. First off, he's by far the Astros' most popular player. Secondly, the GM has no assurance he'll be keeping his job once this team gets sold. So if he's going to trade the face of his franchise, he needs to make what one exec describes as a "job-saving deal."
But is that deal really out there? Highly unlikely. As intriguing as Pence may be to the bat-shopping crowd, particularly the Braves and Phillies, the price is just too hefty for a guy who might be the Astros' best player but would be more like the third- or fourth-best on any contender he'd be joining.
"Is this guy a marquee player or more like a Johnny Damon-type contributor on a winning club?" asked an official of one team. "I think he's more like a right-handed Johnny Damon. He's a good, ugly player, just like Johnny Damon is a good, ugly player. Hunter Pence and Charles Barkley might have the two ugliest swings I've seen in my life. The difference between Hunter Pence and Barkley is: At least [Pence's] swing works."
And the chances are, it'll be working in Houston through the end of September -- but who knows how much longer? As one NL exec put it, "I'd be surprised if he gets traded now. I think doing it in the offseason is much more sensible."
Much like the way the Rockies had a feeling the brutal starting-pitcher market might cause some team to overpay for Jimenez, the Rays have dropped Shields' name just enough of late to get other clubs' attention.
Tampa Bay Rays
"There's too much smoke there," said one exec, "for there not to be some kind of fire."
But the Rays also find themselves in maybe the trickiest position this July of any team in baseball. If they played in the AL Central or NL Central, they'd be in first place. If baseball had added a second wild card for this season, they'd be tied with the Angels for the second wild-card spot.
In real life, though -- by which we mean life in THEIR division, in a one-wild card world -- they're 5½ games out in the wild-card race and 7 games out in the AL East. So they're caught in that classic are-we-in-or-are-we-out limbo that would create a massive spike in blood pressure within most front offices.
You have to remember, though, that this is a team that doesn't do business like those other teams. The Rays are always looking at life as a never-ending juggling act between what matters in the short term and what matters in the long term.
So "they'll do what they always do," said an official of one AL rival. "They'll do something smart. If they think they have a 20 percent chance to make the playoffs but if there's a deal out there that gives them a 30-to-40 percent chance to be better over the next two or three years, that's what they'll do."
But in practical terms, that means they're more likely to trade B.J. Upton in midseason, because he's more replaceable, than they are to deal away a guy like Shields, who has been one of the three or four best starters in their league this year.
"From talking to them," said an official of one club, "I think they're not marketing him to trade him. They're finding out what he can possibly bring back. But if the Matt Garza deal [for five players] was the example, I don't know who would pay that much for James Shields -- not right now."
The Rays, as always, have more young, high-end pitching coming. And, as always, they have to watch their pennies. But they also recognize Shields' value is at an all-time high. So why not listen now, even if they're much more likely to trade him later? That's just smart business, whether it confuses the Rumor Central crowd or not.
"They're listening, but they know they don't have to do this," said the same official quoted earlier. "If they deal that guy now, they're basically cashing in the season -- which I don't think they're ready to do."
So is James Shields "available?" Sure, he is. Just like Ubaldo Jimenez and Hunter Pence are "available." But what they really are is living proof that "available" means different things to us rumor-lovers than it does to, say, North American Van Lines.
Ready to Rumble
• Here's a fascinating theory on the Carlos Beltran sweepstakes from two NL executives: They believe that all the current talk that the Phillies and Red Sox are either the "favorites" or the "most aggressive" teams in the Beltran bidding is being circulated by the Mets to increase pressure on other teams in the bidding. Their theory: The Giants wind up swooping in and getting this done, for a package fronted by dynamic center-field prospect Gary Brown.
• And here's another potential deal that's been overblown: Melky Cabrera to the Phillies. Not that those teams haven't talked about that swap. In fact, they remain in touch. But the Royals have told all teams that have called on both Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur that A) they're more inclined to move Francoeur (because they control Cabrera through next year) and B) they want a near-big-league-ready No. 3-type starting pitcher in return.
The reason that's an issue for the Phillies is that their only young pitcher who fits that profile is Vance Worley. And clubs that have asked about Worley (including, presumably, Kansas City) have been told he's off the market. So one AL executive who has spoken with both the Royals and Phillies says, emphatically, that, unless the Royals' asking price changes, those two teams "just don't match up."
• The four most aggressive teams on Heath Bell, in no particular order: Rangers, Cardinals, Phillies and Angels, with some nibbles from the Braves. While the price remains high on Bell, clubs that have talked with the Padres report they've been very flexible on the position and age of players they want back. Because they're a team that figures to make a bunch of deals in the next week and a half, they're more concerned about the upside of the players they trade for. Other clubs are also reporting the Padres would like to trade Bell first if the offer is right, so they know what they're getting back for him, and then make their smaller deals to fill more specific needs.
• Those teams also say that, despite reports that Padres setup whiz Mike Adams had been assured by Padres CEO Jeff Moorad that he won't get traded, the Padres continue to field calls on him. But they also say the price on Adams is actually higher than the price for Bell. And since the Padres are telling clubs that to pull off a deal for Bell they would need to "clearly surpass" the value of the two high draft picks they'd get if their closer signs elsewhere next winter, it means the price for Adams is close to prohibitive.
• The Yankees, Phillies and Diamondbacks are among the teams believed to have kicked the tires on Joakim Soria. But the Royals' stance hasn't changed. An exec of one club says they want "two top-of-the-line starting pitchers and another good piece" back for Soria. And the odds of that happening are probably none and none.
• One AL exec's description of the Red Sox: "Looking at everything. Don't feel they HAVE to do anything." This is a team that, from all accounts, has checked in on just about every prominent name out there. They'd still like an outfield bat who hits right-handed, but they don't view anyone besides Carlos Beltran as a real upgrade. They've poked around for a difference-making starting pitcher who is more than a rental, but nobody except Ubaldo Jimenez would seem to fit their definition. And they've shopped for left-handed relievers, but they don't appear overwhelmed by any of the current options. (Randy Choate? John Grabow? Sean Burnett?) So could this deadline actually pass without the Red Sox doing anything substantial? Wouldn't shock us.
• The Yankees, Tigers, Red Sox and Rangers are among a bunch of teams that have asked the Dodgers about Hiroki Kuroda, but those teams are still waiting for word back on whether Kuroda would approve a deal. Clubs that have spoken with the Dodgers say they'll almost certainly move Jamey Carroll. And there are indications they've gotten some nibbles on Rafael Furcal.
• The same group of clubs has also inquired about Wandy Rodriguez, but interest in him, among AL teams in particular, appears lukewarm. One reason is his contract, which would guarantee him $36 million from 2012 to 2014 (by converting his $13 million option for 2014 into a player option if he's traded). Another is concerns about a pitcher heading for the AL after having his ups and downs in the NL. Rodriguez's ERA against AL teams is 5.25 lifetime, and 6.30 over the past three seasons.
• One team's description of Florida's current stance on dealing Leo Nunez, Randy Choate, Ricky Nolasco, etc.: "Holding pattern." As we've reported before, the Marlins' No. 1 priority between now and October is building momentum heading into their new park. So as long as they're within range of .500, they're more likely to shop for pieces they feel could help them next year. They've poked around on third-base options and for what one club described as a "professional hitter." One Marlin who could wind up getting dealt to a team looking for a bat off the bench: Greg Dobbs.
• Clubs that have spoken to the Phillies report that when they ask about Domonic Brown, they're told: "That's not going to happen." And the Phillies have said their No. 1 pitching prospect, Jarred Cosart, is also all but untouchable. The Phillies have shown willingness to talk about their top hitting prospect, A-ball first baseman Jonathan Singleton, but only for an impact player they would control beyond this year. In other words, they won't include him in a package for Carlos Beltran or any other rent-a-player.
• Finally, here's a piece of news Bud Selig dropped at the All-Star Game that got very little attention: There is zero chance of the A's or Rays getting contracted if they don't get a new ballpark. Asked if contraction was on the table, Selig replied, flatly: "No." So it's time to drop that subject -- forever.
Five Astounding Facts (Friday Edition)
1. It isn't every season you wake up on July 22 and find a starting pitcher in both leagues with an ERA under 2.00. But it happened this year, thanks to Jered Weaver (1.81) and Johnny Cueto (1.98). So when was the last season we could make that claim (for pitchers with at least 95 innings pitched)? How 'bout 1997, when Roger Clemens had a 1.62 ERA in the AL and Pedro Martinez (1.67) and Darryl Kile (1.99) were both sub-2.00 kind of guys in the NL.
2. The Mariners are chasing history, but not the kind any team wants to make. Nearly 100 games into the season, the batting average of their whole team is (gulp) .223. So unless they start mashing, they're going to obliterate the record for worst average by an AL team in the DH era. That record, if you want to get technical, is .226, by Otto Velez's 1981 Blue Jays. But that was a strike year. So if you count only full seasons, the Mariners have almost no shot to avoid that record -- which is .235, by Tony Solaita's 1976 Angels. To beat that, the Mariners would have to hit about .255 the rest of the way. And don't bet your family Space Needle pass on that. Of the nine position players on the roster with more than 100 at-bats, six of them are hitting .229 or lower.
3. Oh, and one more thing: The Mariners are rampaging along with a pathetic .288 on-base percentage. So that means they're about to become the first AL team to rack up on-base percentages under .300 in back-to-back seasons since the 1966-67-68 White Sox, Senators and Indians did it three years in a row, before the mound was lowered to prevent offensive abominations like this.
4. How messy a year has this been for the Astros? They just went 31 games in a row (from June 8 to July 16) without any pitcher in their bullpen racking up a save. The Elias Sports Bureau reports that's the longest save-less streak by any team since George Sherrill's 2008 Orioles also made it through 31 consecutive save-free games in August and September. And it's the longest streak by the Astros since a 33-gamer in 1974. Amazingly, over those five weeks between saves, this team had only five save OPPORTUNITIES -- none of which rolled around in the ninth inning.
5. The Phillies and Braves just became the first teams in the same division to go a month without losing two games in a row at the same time since the Yankees and Rays did it last year. The Braves made it from June 18 to July 20 (25 games) before their streak ended this week in Denver. But the Phillies are up to 39 games in a row since their last two-game losing streak, back on June 3-4. They're three away from the franchise record, according to Elias, set by the 1976 Phillies (42 games, between April 14 and June 3).
Tweet of the week
From "Late Show" tweeting genius Justin Stangel (@Justin_Stangel), the day after his local NL baseball team traded K-Rod:
"The NY Mets have traded their ESPY tickets for tickets to Dancing With The Stars Live and cash."
ESPYs one-liner of the week
From the great Seth Meyers, on the Dodgers' plight:
"The Dodgers are so broke, three of their players tested positive for Ramen noodles."
Late-Nighter of the week
From David Letterman, after the fan who caught Derek Jeter's 3,000th hit gave away a ball that could have been worth $250,000:
"I'm thinking, 'Wow. With a quarter of a million dollars, the guy could have bought a couple of seats on the second level -- and maybe a beer.'"
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst
Jayson Stark examines how 'available' Ubaldo Jimenez of Colorado Rockies, Hunter Pence of Houston Astros, James Shields of Tampa Bay Rays really are.