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Market for Lee is wide open this time

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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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The Cliff Lee sweepstakes are somewhat democratic, as these things go.

Lee, depending upon when he is traded, will be owed between $3 million and $4.5 million in salary, a relatively modest sum that could draw in a larger number of clubs.

The acquisition cost for Lee, meanwhile, should be lower than the last two times he was traded -- and neither of those deals yielded anything close to a jackpot.

The Indians traded Lee when he had a year and two months remaining on his contract. The Phillies traded him when he had a year left. The Mariners will trade him only two or three months before he becomes a free agent.

The Mets, then, can dream that a package of say, catcher Josh Thole, outfielder Fernando Martinez and a minor-league pitcher would be sufficient.

And while the Yankees do not necessarily want to trade prospects as they prepare to bid for Lee in free agency, they will lose a first-round draft pick anyway if they sign him this winter.

What if they could acquire Lee for say, catcher Jesus Montero -- who ultimately could end up a first baseman or DH -- and a solid pitching prospect? Wouldn’t the marginal cost be worthwhile?

The point is, the race for Lee is wide-open.

The Rangers would be the favorite if their ownership situation resolved by the July 31 non-waiver deadline, which is unlikely. The Twins’ supposed big chip, catcher Wilson Ramos, has only a .580 OPS at Triple-A. The Reds are deep enough in prospects, but their attendance does not appear to support a payroll addition of even Lee’s magnitude -- and besides, the team probably is more in need of bullpen help.

No club is an obvious favorite. Some team could slip in and grab Lee.

WHITE SOX: THEY’RE BAA-AACK!

Manager Ozzie Guillen and general manager Ken Williams squabbled. Williams threatened changes. But the White Sox players never lost faith.

“To a lot of people on the outside, it looked like a lost season,” reliever J.J. Putz says. “But honestly, in the clubhouse, everyone felt like we hadn’t found our identity as a team. Everyone figured there would be a point in time where we would come around.”

It happened, albeit against weak National League competition, and suddenly the White Sox are in contention, two games back in the AL Central even after losing their last two games.

No one should get overly excited about a team that still ranks 10th in the AL in runs and 10th in rotation ERA, but at least the starting pitching -- the club’s supposed strength -- is finally performing to expectations.

White Sox starters are 12-3 with a 2.39 ERA in their last 19 games, lowering their overall ERA from 5.28 to 4.46. Their surge mostly came against the Cubs, Pirates and Nationals, but also included a three-game sweep of the Braves.

Putz never thought the starters were pitching all that badly in the first place.

“I wouldn’t say they were awful by any means,” he says. “For whatever reason, they just weren’t getting results. It seemed like they would have one bad inning that would do them in. The numbers can be skewed in certain situations. Now they’re making that pitch as opposed to two months ago when they weren’t finishing a pitch, finishing an at-bat.”

The Sox lost nine games in April by two runs or fewer, tied for the most that month with the Orioles. Putz called the stretch “demoralizing,” but says the players never descended into a “Woe is me - I’m getting traded” malaise. As for the widely reported friction between Guillen and Williams, Putz says he and most of his teammates did not see it.

The clubhouse, he says, remained a fun place.

“One beautiful thing about this clubhouse is that you can’t get away with anything,” Putz says. “They bust your chops about every single thing. What you wear to the field. You might say something in passing, and they’re going to crush you.”

Putz, who underwent surgery with the Mets during last season to remove a bone spur from his right elbow and suffered a setback when he partially strained a ligament, could not even strengthen his arm in peace.

“Every single guy was riding me about not pitching in back-to-back games. They would say, ‘You pitched today. Have a good time tonight. You don’t have to do anything tomorrow.’ I finally did it in Atlanta. I was like, ‘The heck with you guys.’”

The heck with everyone.

Could be the White Sox’s motto.

NATS’ DUNN ATTRACTING INTEREST

The Nationals give no indication that they are willing to trade first baseman Adam Dunn; all they have said publicly is that they want to sign him to a contract extension.

Dunn, though, is on the list of the Angels’ potential trade targets, and the White Sox’s Williams also likes him, major-league sources say.

The White Sox, just as they did in the off-season, badly need a left-handed thumper at left field or DH -- the Orioles’ Luke Scott, too, would qualify. Dunn remains a work in progress at first, but he has worked hard at the position and does not want to become a DH.

Rival executives tend to get picky when talking about Dunn. One points out he is batting only .197/.306/.324 with runners in scoring position this season. OK, but his .925 OPS overall ranks eighth in the NL.

As for a trade, the Nats are 14th in the NL in runs even with Dunn and GM Mike Rizzo likely would be open to just about anything. But the Nats like the middle of their order -- Ryan Zimmerman, Dunn and Josh Willingham -- and Rizzo never has been in tear-down mode.

ROYALS’ GUILLEN: SHOW ME THE MONEY!

Royals DH Jose Guillen is notoriously mercurial, but his recent 21-game hitting streak is the latest evidence that he almost always hits when he’s healthy -- and when he’s eligible for free agency.

“He is motivated when it’s time to earn money for the next year,” one rival executive says. “He’s always been that way, a one-year contract guy. Somebody may get him and get themselves a really motivated player.”

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Guillen, 34, is owed more than $6 million in the final year of his deal and serving mostly a DH for the Royals. But some offense-starved team could use him, and the Royals are willing to include cash to enhance their return.

Perhaps Guillen could fill the role that the Rays intended for Pat Burrell. The Giants are showing interest, according to the Kansas City Star. Guillen, Pat Burrell, Aubrey Huff . . . maybe the Giants should just switch leagues.

One more word on the Royals: An exec who has spoken with them said they would “want to hit a home run” in a deal for outfielder David DeJesus, who is 15th in the AL in OPS.

DeJesus, whose contract includes a $6 million club option for next season, is affordable enough for the Royals going forward.

THE BARTENDER TURNED CLOSER

The Brewers are enjoying a stunning pitching turnaround -- they were 13th in the NL in ERA in April, 15th in May and fourth in June before their 9-5 loss to the Astros on Monday night.

The rotation stabilized to the point where the team is not sure how to clear a spot for the return of left-hander Doug Davis. The bullpen improved markedly after the arrivals of left-hander Zach Braddock and right-handers John Axford and Kameron Loe, who was pitching in the minor leagues in Japan a year ago.

Axford, 7-for-7 in save opportunities, was released by the Yankees in 2007. He was a bartender in Canada during the 2008-09 off-season. And he was struggling in the spring of ’09 when Single-A pitching coach Fred Dabney told the Brewers to “let me have him” for a few weeks.

Before long, Dabney had Axford throwing 95 to 96 mph and locating his breaking ball for strikes. He rocketed through the Brewers’ system and made his major-league debut at Wrigley Field last September.

Brewers GM Doug Melvin said the owner of Axford’s old bar, East Side Mario’s, sat behind him at Wrigley that day. He had promised Axford that he would be in attendance if the pitcher ever reached the majors.

DODGERS’ FURCAL: MISSING HIS DAD

This was the year that Rafael Furcal’s father, Silvino, finally was going to visit him in Los Angeles.

Silvino had declined to come during Rafael’s first five seasons with the Dodgers, saying that L.A. was too far from their native Dominican Republic.

But this time, Rafael had bought all the plane tickets. His wife was supposed to fly to the Dominican and bring Silvino to L.A.

Only the trip never happened.

Silvino, 79, died June 22 of injuries suffered after being kicked by a horse on the family farm.

When I asked Furcal about his father Saturday, he spoke at length and with great emotion, saying Silvino was his personal hitting coach, a small, former shortstop like himself.

Furcal said his mind occasionally drifts to his father when he is on the field, and he needs to remind himself to concentrate.

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He is grateful for the Dodgers for allowing him to take bereavement leave and see his father before he passed away.

Silvino Furcal always was healthy, Rafael said.

“I never get sick,” Silvino would tell him. “When I get sick, I’m going to die.”

RELIEF IN SAN FRANCISCO

The Giants believe their bullpen is in need of more stability, particularly from the left side. If lefty Madison Bumgarner locks down the No. 5 spot in their rotation -- and his 2010 debut against the Red Sox was an encouraging start -- it could create a positive domino effect.

Right-hander Joe Martinez, demoted to Triple-A to make for Bumgarner, could become an option for the bullpen. So could right-hander Todd Wellemeyer once he comes off the disabled list, though he was inconsistent as a starter.

Statistically at least, the Giants’ bullpen is in excellent shape, with the third-lowest ERA in the NL and second-lowest percentage of runners scored behind -- who else? -- the Padres.

AROUND THE HORN

* The Cardinals likely will wait until at least the All-Star break to fully assess their needs. The team’s desire to add a starting pitcher will become more urgent if injured right-handers Brad Penny and Kyle Lohse still are not close to returning by that time.

For now, the Cardinals are merely trying to stay competitive in the weak Central. Right fielder Ryan Ludwick will be out another 4-7 days with a sore left calf and third baseman David Freese likely is headed to the disabled list with a sprained ankle.

* Rival executives were stunned by the last-place Mariners’ trade of minor-league outfielder Ezequiel Carrera and shortstop Juan Diaz for three months of first baseman Russell Branyan.

“They aren’t real good prospects, but they aren’t nothing, either,” one rival GM said. Other executives shared that opinion, and one said that his team viewed Diaz as a decent prospect.

* Mike MacDougal, pitching for the Nationals’ Triple-A Syracuse affiliate, could become a free agent if the Nats do not promote him to their bullpen by Thursday.

MacDougal, throwing in the mid-90s, has allowed only one run in his last 7 1/3 innings, and his overall ERA is 3.29 in 132 2/3 innings.

* Believe it or not, home attendance actually is down in San Diego, from an average of 23,735 last season to 23,334 this season.

The Padres want to add both a bat and a starting pitcher, and in theory could pursue Cliff Lee. But unlike the Twins, they are not benefiting from a revenue jump, and they also are reluctant to disrupt their prospect base for a rental.

* Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik on left-hander Jason Vargas, who is 6-3 with a 2.80 ERA: “He’s cool as a cucumber. He never rattles. He has a lot of belief in what he can do. And he executes.

“There are pitchers with better stuff. But he’s a very good athlete. He was a DH in college. He’s a great fielder. All of those other things that tie in to making a guy complete, he has a lot of those qualities.”

* Yankees GM Brian Cashman says he remains confident in his bullpen in part because of PitchFx data that shows no discernible decline in the movement and velocity of the Yankees’ most important relievers.

Speaking of PitchFx, here are Stephen Strasburg’s average velocities through his first five major-league starts, according to fangraphs.com: Fastball 97.9, curveball 82.6, changeup 90.0.

* The Blue Jays selected pitchers with all four of their picks in the top 41, seven of their first 10 choices and 21 of 36 overall. Could be wishful thinking, but one rival GM wonders if their haul will make them more inclined to move one of their young starters at the deadline.

* Don’t look now, but the Pirates are only 2 1/2 games behind the Orioles in the race for baseball’s worst record and the No. 1 draft pick next year. The Indians are five back, the Astros and Diamondbacks six back.

* One especially nice thing that became obvious in the fallout from Edwin Jackson’s no-hitter: He is one of the game’s most well-liked players. His friends and former teammates in the game were truly happy for him.

* Just for the record, not that the Cubs would have gone with 24 players for this long, but the collective-bargaining agreement states that a player cannot be suspended for more than 30 days.

* Just sayin’:
Albert Pujols: .305/.420/.542
Joey Votto: .312/.415/.559

Tagged: Orioles, White Sox, Indians, Royals, Brewers, Mariners, Dodgers, Nationals, Cardinals, Giants, Doug Davis, Rafael Furcal, Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, Cliff Lee, J.J. Putz, David DeJesus, Joe Martinez, John Axford

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