They'll tell you, almost to a man, that they're not actually going head-to-head. Just as pitchers always emphasize that they're facing the opposing lineup, not the other pitcher, it's important for general managers not to worry too much about what their rivals are doing.
But they're competing just the same. It happens when two contenders both need a starting pitcher, or are intrigued by the same fourth outfielder. Even the most disciplined front office doesn't operate in a vacuum.
"In the clubhouse and the dugout," said Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, "It's about what we need to do to win the game that day. At the front-office level, we take a little more global perspective, but our focus is 90 percent on us. ... But there's no question we're cognizant of the other clubs."
In some divisions, the battles are especially pronounced. There's a three-way race for the division title in the National League Central, with at least two of the clubs seeking upgrades. The American League East features four teams chasing playoff spots, with three of them seeming likely to make moves. The NL West is a two-, three- or four-team race between teams with GMs known for being active.
In the AL East, the battle is already fully under way. The Orioles have already added two pitchers, while the Yankees are bringing in an outfield bat.
And there's still a week to go. The Red Sox are apparently seeking starting pitching. The Orioles are willing to improve anywhere and everywhere, especially at the edges of their roster. The Yankees may or may not be done. Only the Rays are likely to remain quiet.
Already once this year, an AL East team has pipped one of its rivals for an addition. The Red Sox had interest in Francisco Rodriguez, but Baltimore parted with young power prospect Nick Delmonico to acquire the right-handed reliever.
In cases like that, the market can become something of a game of chicken. The selling team knows what it wants, and if the player is in demand, it can hold out. Delmonico isn't a Top 100 prospect, but he has real power and is certainly more than a throw-in. It's entirely possible Boston simply wasn't willing to meet a similar price.
After all, it's not just about having resources, but about how they are deployed. Where it gets interesting is when all of the variables converge.
Going forward, there may be less head-to-head competition in the AL East. Boston has been linked with Jake Peavy, while neither Baltimore nor New York is likely to go after someone like him. But the addition of Alfonso Soriano to the Yankees could put pressure on the teams above them in the standings.
Out in the NL West, the race has changed complexion drastically in recent weeks, and perhaps with it the teams' dealing positions. The first-place Dodgers are buyers, perhaps looking for rotation help. Likewise, the second-place D-Backs would love to find some pitching. Third-place Colorado and fourth-place San Francisco might not add, but also might not sell.
The NL Central might offer the most interesting contrast. The first-place Cardinals like their roster and also have a long-term plan to remain self-sustaining. They have an enormous trove of prospects, but no desire to move them without an extremely impressive return.
"You always are looking to improve," said Cards GM John Mozeliak, "but it's not a great market to try to improve. And we don't have a glaring weakness."
Second-place Pittsburgh hasn't seen a winning season in more than two decades, potentially increasing the urgency to add. The Bucs have some top-level prospects, and also the most glaring needs, with room for upgrades in their lineup and a bullpen in danger of wearing down.
The Reds are very much built to win now. They have a relatively set roster, but an industry source indicated this week that Cincinnati has been quite aggressive on the trade market.
The Reds could sit tight, but they certainly could pursue something like an outfield bat -- which could then put them squarely at odds with the Pirates, who also could use just that. Whether one move would beget another is less clear, but it's at least possible.
Mozeliak downplays such talk, but then he has the team everyone is chasing.
"We all have to figure out what's best for ourselves," he said, "but we can't be reactionary."
So they soldier on toward Wednesday's Trade Deadline, eyes mostly on their own rosters but entirely aware of what's going on around them as well. Maybe these aren't face-to-face duels, but they're contests all the same.