Parity makes trade market puzzling

Parity makes trade market puzzling

As July approaches, 24 of the 30 Major League clubs are 8 1/2 games out of first or less.

So yes, parity is playing a major role in the lack of trade buzz in baseball. Nearly three months into the 2008 season, half of the teams can stake a reasonable claim to contender status, and only a handful would likely cop to being pretenders.

What's it all mean? It means this year's trade market is one tough bear to wrestle.

Are the Tigers, a chic pick to win it all this year but tops on the list of early underachievers, really expecting to make that expected run for the rings? Are the Yankees going to be as patient as they profess? Are the Mariners even going to have an infrastructure in place to make whatever moves they deem necessary?

Are assumed trading chips Ken Griffey Jr., Adam Dunn, Matt Holliday, Greg Maddux, C.C. Sabathia, Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, Jeff Kent, Coco Crisp and the like -- all soon-to-be free agents -- going to be wearing different colors any time soon?

The answers to all of these, based on an informal poll of general managers across the game, is a not-so-resounding maybe.

"As contracts become greater, you see more and more teams get priced out and decide to trade a player one year before he's set to become a free agent," said Braves GM Frank Wren. "Rather than wait another year for two Draft picks, they'll try to maximize this asset a year earlier through a trade.

"But as long as a team is still in contention and they have a player that is in the final year of a contract, you likely aren't going to see these kinds of players moved."

In this still-early stage of a season marked by widespread parity, here's a breakdown of some of the teams who could yet add intrigue to a thus-far-quiet trade market:

AMERICAN LEAGUE
Rays:
Given Tampa Bay's remarkable rise, the Rays could be in a far different position at this year's trade deadline than they have been accustomed to, i.e., they might even be -- wait for it -- buyers.

"For us, in the past we didn't like to necessarily characterize ourselves as sellers," said executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "We feel like we can be buyers and sellers at any date on the calendar. We're always going to walk that fine line of improving our current team while also keeping our eyes on future years.

"We have a lot of confidence in the 25 guys in that clubhouse. As we get to July, if something is evident where we could add a piece that could make us that much better, we won't hesitate to look into that. But whether we're buyers or sellers, we're going to have the same mindset regardless of what the standings say."

Red Sox: Backing out of the Johan Santana sweepstakes was a dramatic case in point of the way GM Theo Epstein has viewed things for years. Despite Boston's big-market status, Epstein is a firm believer in a strong farm system being a key to success.

Since Epstein took over before the 2003 season, the only A-list prospect the Red Sox have dealt was Hanley Ramirez, and that actually occurred while Epstein was on his two-month hiatus from the team. The Red Sox typically designate three or four prospects as untouchable and will then tell teams they can select assorted players from a "B" list.

In both 2005 and 2006, the Red Sox did not make trades at the July 31 trade deadline simply because they were unwilling to trade prospects such as Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz or Jacoby Ellsbury. The most likely move the Red Sox will make this trade deadline season is one involving center fielder Crisp. Ellsbury is the center fielder of the present and future, and the Sox could use some more depth in their bullpen.

Yankees: GM Brian Cashman has made it clear that the Yankees have decided to allow their young talent to develop before testing the market and trying to obtain players. Cashman often says that the Yankees want to try and find the answer from within before they try to find it elsewhere. That helps explain why the Yankees, too, decided to keep young pitchers Phil Hughes and Ian Kennedy and outfielder Melky Cabrera instead of pulling the trigger on the Santana trade. Instead, they signed Andy Pettitte to a one-year, $16 million deal as a stopgap.

"We made long-term decisions when we made those assessments. I have a healthy left-hander in Andy Pettitte in the rotation, taking the spot where Santana would have pitched. I have the use of a guy [Cabrera] who is playing a heck of a center field and is one of the emerging center fielders in the game today, along with two potential starters for our rotation as well as some kids down in the Minor League system that we still retain. They're assets.

"That money went to Pettitte and the remainder is still in place for us to utilize as we see fit. I think we made a long-term decision and you don't judge a long-term decision in two months or in one year. That's not why you make a long-term decision."

Added Hank Steinbrenner: "We'll just see what happens and bring these kids along, and not let them lose confidence. They shouldn't. This is what the Red Sox have done, even though Lester is a little bit older than our three guys, and they're bringing along Buchholz, too, at their own pace.

"We're building for the future too. You can't just do it year by year. Before the great team we had in the late 90's, there were some real lean years there. We don't expect to have it to be that lean this year or next year, but people forget there were some really tough years before the great teams of the late '90's. We're building for the future as well, and we have to look at it both ways.

"We've got to keep going with the farm system and build them up as strong as we can, get everybody we can. If we have to, we'll hoard everybody."

A's: Blanton, Oakland's Opening Day starter, and Harden, the club's star-crossed ace, likely could be had in trade, but representatives of some rival clubs are wary of GM Billy Beane's track record of asking for -- and getting -- the moon. His offseason deals of Dan Haren (to the D-backs), Nick Swisher (to the White Sox) and Mark Kotsay (to the Braves) not only infused the team's farm system with a load of talent, but they supplied the surprising big league team with several key contributors, including starting center fielder Ryan Sweeney (from Chicago), starting pitchers Dana Eveland and Greg Smith (from Arizona) and potential closer Joey Devine (from Atlanta).

"You have to be really careful dealing with Billy; I wouldn't even take his calls if I was a GM," said one scout. That same scout said Harden, who has been on the disabled list six times since the start of 2005, is unlikely to draw a Haren-sized package.

"Too risky," he said. "He's Mark Prior right now. I don't care if he makes 10 dominant starts in a row. You just get the feeling another breakdown is coming."

Angels: The Halos haven't hit nearly as well as expected, but the starting pitching held up well when ace John Lackey was on the DL, and the team still thinks the offense will come around.

That said, if anyone has the farm system to make some midseason hay, it's the Halos. Owner Arte Moreno desperately wants to bring another championship to Orange County, and new GM Tony Reagins can't possibly be as conservative at the deadline as was his predecessor, Bill Stoneman.

Mariners: Corner infielders Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre have been seemingly on the trade block since they signed in Seattle. The task of improving the club now falls to Lee Pelekoudas, who took over the GM role for the dismissed GM Bill Bavasi, in mid-June.

White Sox: GM Kenny Williams said he did most of his "heavy lifting" over the winter, and he sounds content with the fruits of that labor.

"Once we finished our to-do list, we felt confident this team would be competitive. So far that has been the case," he said. "We will always look to see if there are other fits to improve, [but] this is a year where I'm certainly not going to be overly optimistic that much will be available. ... We are still in May, so it's probably a little early. I don't know how much anyone is going to be able to give you. April and May usually are more internal talks than external."

Many White Sox sluggers have struggled early in the season, particularly Paul Konerko -- who's on the DL -- Jim Thome and Nick Swisher, but Williams suggested that he's prepared to wait for them to play up to their track records.

"That's the key for us: How do you reasonably expect better players than we currently have on our roster, and if they are available, at what cost? That's No. 1 -- what cost? -- in terms of the players you give up and the dollars as well. Basically, we need to wait on players who have had a steady career, who need to get back up to those levels. It usually proves true through the course of a season, how good players rise to that level of expectation.

"I hear, 'Go get this or go get that,' but nobody gives you names. Believe me, I can play fantasy baseball with the best of them. I can put together a fantasy team. But dealing in the real world, we, like many other clubs, find whatever you did in the offseason and through your system better hold true to help."

Indians: Like many contenders this year, the Indians have survived on the strength of their pitching, and nobody has a starting staff that's been as strong as Cleveland's. The Tribe almost certainly will be looking to fortify its underachieving offense, and it's not out of the question that Sabathia might be dangled for a big bat, but GM Mark Shapiro doesn't sound hopeful for a variety of reasons.

"There are not a lot of teams in a challenging financial situation," Shapiro explained. "The game is relatively financially healthy, and there's not the same motivation to relieve teams of contracts. You compound that with the understanding of the value of young talent to building a sustainable team. That puts some significant drags on trades of impact."

NATIONAL LEAGUE
Cardinals:
Viewed by many as an aging team on the decline, the Cards are right in the Central division mix. GM John Mozeliak said he doesn't think it's all that difficult to keep an eye on the future while also contending, so that's the approach he's taking into the summer months.

"The answer is fairly simple in terms of any decision we make," Mozeliak said. "We want to make sure it has a positive impact on us, not only this year, but also next year. If there was some short-term solution, of course we would look at that, given where we are in the standings. But we're not hearing or seeing anything that really touches on that at this point. We're not going to just do something that's a short-term fix."

Astros: They certainly wouldn't be opposed to acquiring pitching if they're in contention by the trade deadline, and it looks like they will be, so offloading Oswalt -- he has a full no-trade clause, by the way -- doesn't appear likely unless it sets them up nicely for the long-term. But they view the trade market the same as they did over the winter: The trade market is thin, as was the '07-08 free-agent market. They refrained from spending for an impact pitcher who wasn't really worth the money he was demanding.

The Astros have very, very little -- if nothing -- to offer in a trade that wouldn't handicap the current club, so it's highly unlikely they'd be able to pull off a deal. They're assessing the second-tier players -- the non-Sabathias -- who might be available, but realistically, they couldn't compete with the other teams in terms of collateral. If they want to improve their pitching, they may have to look from within.

Marlins: The NL's version of the Rays isn't talking about the trade market, but you can be safe to assume the following: If they stay in contention, they'll be buyers. But look for them to be modest buyers, meaning veterans with affordable contracts, not going after the kind of big splash that would be a deal for, say, Oswalt or Sabathia. They'd foremost like to add pitching, especially a reliever who has a track record. Catcher also is an area to watch: Paul Lo Duca could be on the radar, but not if he costs a top prospect.

The Marlins like how they're set up right now because they have talent coming, both from the Minor Leagues and off injury. In the second half, pitchers Anibal Sanchez and Josh Johnson may factor into the equation. Sanchez, who no-hit Arizona in 2006, had shoulder surgery last June and might be ready around the All-Star break. Johnson, who had Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery in August of 2007, could be a huge impact starter in the final five or six weeks. Both were double-digit game winners as rookies in 2006, and the Fish have pitching prospects at Double-A Carolina to watch in the weeks to come: Chris Volstad and Ryan Tucker. Both were first-rounders in 2005.

Pirates: Lingering on the outskirts of contention in the NL Central, the Bucs figure to be players one way or another by July. They are shopping Bay and Nady, and what they are looking for is simple. The goal is to use veterans like Bay and Nady to garner young prospects for the farm system. Like so many of the mid-market clubs these days, the Bucs are going to have to be successful by developing their own talent.

"Any trade that we make, we're looking to maximize the value of what we get in return," said GM Neal Huntington. "From a global perspective, we're always looking to maximize our value. We're looking to maximize the value whether it's trading for a player in July or any other time. ... At this point in time, we're going to look to add if it makes sense, but if someone comes calling and it makes sense for us long-term, then yes, we are going to have to make those tough decisions. We are going to listen and if the package is right, we will consider it."

Braves: Wren, whose club nabbed Mark Teixeira in last summer's biggest trade, isn't tipping his hand at all these days. Like many GMs, he said it's too early to talk trade.

"I don't know if we can say how active the market will be this year," Wren offered. "When you get to midseason, teams realize where their flaws are and then they're always looking to improve. That's when you get a sense of what will happen."

Dodgers: With a terrific young nucleus in hand, GM Ned Colletti has a team that looks capable of closing the gap on the NL West-leading Diamondbacks. He has concerns in the middle of the infield regarding shortstop Rafael Furcal's health and second baseman Kent's ability to play every day, but he's in no hurry to pull any triggers.

"Our approach on a deadline trade is the same," Colletti said. "If there's something out there that will make us strikingly better, we'll do it. But we can't strip one-quarter or one-third or one-half of our players that play every day. Our young players are now the team."

Reds: Is Griffey or Dunn done in Cincy? To this point, the Reds haven't gotten offers for either, and Dunn has a big fan in owner Bob Castellini, who pushed former GM Wayne Krivsky into picking up Dunn's $13 million option for this year. If Junior doesn't take off soon, he'd be awfully hard to trade because he has a $16.5 million option for next year, and it's hard to imagine him waiving his full no-trade clause unless the new team would pick it up.

Padres: GM Kevin Towers likely won't wave the white flag or decide to part with veterans Maddux (who has a no-trade clause), Brian Giles (limited no-trade clause), Randy Wolf (might fetch the most in return) or Khalil Greene (signed through 2009) until he's certain the NL West title or Wild Card won't happen. This is a franchise that won two NL West titles and missed a playoff berth by a game last year, and the club is very wary of the backlash it would get if they had a fire sale.

That's not to say it won't happen. It just won't be anytime soon.

Mychael Urban is a national reporter for MLB.com. Several staff reporters contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.