The Mets, Cubs and Dodgers entered this season with a combined player payroll of more than $348 million. Yet they entered this week a combined 37 1/2 games out of first place. These dual extremes, combined as they are, present the first qualification of a fire sale. And with 11 days left in the summer swap season that precedes the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline, you'll certainly continue to hear names associated with these three clubs bandied about in the rumor mill. Really, with so many teams still viable in the playoff hunt, the 2011 trade market has been more tame than usual. Few teams definitively out of the race seem fit for a fire sale, in terms of what they have for sale. The Padres could be baseball's busiest team before the Deadline, as they might unload relievers Heath Bell, Mike Adams and Chad Qualls and outfielder Ryan Ludwick. The Astros could entertain offers for starting pitchers Brett Myers and Wandy Rodriguez, and maybe even outfielders Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn. The Orioles could move Vlad Guerrero and Derrek Lee, the Royals could shop Melky Cabrera and the A's have relief help to dangle.
But the cases of the Mets, Cubs and Dodgers are particularly interesting simply because no other teams have paid more to get less in 2011. So, should we be looking for them to do some major wheeling and dealing before the Deadline? Well, depends on your definition of "major." The Mets got the deals going when they shipped closer Francisco Rodriguez and a reported $5 million to the Brewers last week for two players to be named. The key to that trade was not so much the return as it was the financial breathing room afforded New York by not having to deal with K-Rod's vesting option of $17.5 million for next season.
While the Mets still touted their ability to contend in the wake of that trade, their spot in the standings -- National League Wild Card and all -- speaks for itself. And they, like their big-market National League counterparts in Chicago and Los Angeles, are generally expected to continue to look for ways to shed payroll before the Deadline. That could, of course, mean a change in scenery for the revitalized Carlos Beltran, who is in the final year of his contract. He would have to waive his no-trade clause (and he's hinted that he would), so that's one small hurdle to getting a deal done. But the bigger obstacle could be another clause in his contract that states that he cannot be offered salary arbitration after this season. That means any team that acquires Beltran would not be able to receive Draft-pick compensation should he sign elsewhere in the offseason. Despite these hurdles, Beltran, in the midst of an All-Star season after being plagued by knee issues the previous two years, is easily one of the more attractive trade targets in what is shaping up to be a seller's market for offensive help. And it will be interesting to see how the Mets, in particular, utilize that market in the coming days. Beyond Beltran, the Mets have an MVP candidate at shortstop in Jose Reyes, and he, too, is nearing free agency. To deal him before the Deadline would be to concede that the club has no chance of re-signing Reyes this winter, and it would be a particularly unpopular move for a club already reeling from the financial fallout of the Bernie Madoff mess. On the other hand, if the Mets hold onto Reyes for the season's final two months and are then unable to lock him in long-term, all they'll have to show for his departure are a couple of high Draft picks and the expensive signing-bonus demands that come with them. It is, no doubt, a difficult situation. The Dodgers know the feeling. Their off-field financial issues involving owner Frank McCourt and his divorce are well-documented, and they have an impact not only on attendance but also the future on-field planning of the franchise. Whereas attempting to lock up the likes of Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, both of whom are eligible for free agency after the 2012 season, would ordinarily be a no-brainer, the Dodgers are in a holding pattern as their ownership issues get sorted out. While the Dodgers' trading chips aren't as attractive or as obvious as the Mets' are with Beltran, it will be interesting to see if they swing a deal to ship Hiroki Kuroda elsewhere. The 36-year-old Kuroda has pitched much better than his 6-11 record indicates. He has a 3.13 ERA and no eye-catching health concerns -- two coveted traits in a market notoriously thin on starting pitching. But Kuroda has a full no-trade clause and a preference for pitching on the West Coast, so there's no telling whether he would sign off on a deal. Furthermore, the Dodgers are thin on pitching in their upper ranks and might be intent to keep Kuroda for the home stretch and then try to re-sign him once again, as they did last offseason. Versatile veterans like Jamey Carroll and Aaron Miles, both of whom are approaching free agency, might attract interest as role players who could help a contender, but the Dodgers likely wouldn't get any blue-chip returns for their services. Shortstop Rafael Furcal and third baseman Casey Blake are also pending free agents, but they've both spent more time on the disabled list than off it this season. Basically, then, the Dodgers look like sellers with little to sell, and that's a trait they share with the Cubbies. All $127 million has bought the Cubs is a fifth-place standing in the NL Central. They don't have the financial issues of the Mets and Dodgers, but they do share the same incentive to trim some fat from the payroll, given their won-loss record. The Cubs, though, aren't expected to move any of the players with whom they have contractual control in 2012 and beyond, so, again, it's slim pickings. Maybe the improved numbers posted by third baseman Aramis Ramirez would make him attractive under ordinary circumstances, but the particulars of his contract -- he's due almost $7 million for the remainder this season, plus a $1 million relocation bonus if he's traded and a $2 million buyout if his $16 million option for 2012 isn't exercised -- all combine to hurt his value. Kosuke Fukudome also makes a lot of money -- he has about $6 million still coming to him this year -- so the Cubs would have to eat a nice chunk of that change if they want to get a meaningful return for their leadoff man. Carlos Pena's power-hitting prowess might reap a return, but his inconsistency hurts his value, just as it did when he was a free agent last winter. The most valuable commodity the Cubs possess might be veteran reliever Kerry Wood, who gave them a hometown discount in signing for $1.5 million. Wood, therefore, comes cheap and can help the back end of a bullpen. Same goes for John Grabow, who can retire left-handed hitters. Over the course of the next week and a half, we'll see to what extreme the Cubs, Dodgers and Mets take their trade talks. But we can already safely say they didn't get their money's worth in the standings.
Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, CastroTurf, and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.