Stakes even higher for trades this year

The Brewers were more than willing to trade two top prospects for left-hander CC Sabathia in July 2008, and not simply because they were getting one of the best pitchers in the game.

No, the Brewers also knew that they could possibly replace the youngsters — first baseman Matt LaPorta and outfielder Michael Brantley — with the two high draft picks they would collect if Sabathia left as a free agent.

That strategy is now kaput.

The Brewers could be in the opposite position this summer, willing to move their own ace, right-hander Zack Greinke. But the rules of engagement are different under the new labor agreement, altering the dynamics of the trade market.

The overall effect?

Several general managers predict diminished trade activity.

I’m not convinced.

For now, just know this: The Brewers and Diamondbacks — two teams that might have considered themselves likely “sellers” in previous years — are not yet willing to concede, and may not concede at all.

The Diamondbacks, who visit the Padres this weekend (Saturday, MLB on Fox, 7 p.m. ET), are beginning a stretch of 10 games against three of the worst clubs in the majors — San Diego, Colorado and Oakland. They also are chasing a Dodgers club that just lost center fielder Matt Kemp for at least four weeks with an additional injury to his left hamstring.

The Brewers, coming off a four-game sweep of the Dodgers in Los Angeles, also appear to be in an advantageous position. They begin a nine-game homestand Friday night, and their next five series are against teams at .500 or below – Pittsburgh, the Chicago Cubs, San Diego, Kansas City and Minnesota.

The addition of a second wild card is making aspiring contenders more reluctant to give up on the season; five postseason berths now are available in each league, as opposed to four.

What’s more, a potential free-agent ace such as Greinke might not command as strong a package as Sabathia did in ’08. Only players who have been with their team an entire season are eligible for draft-pick compensation; a team that trades for a potential free agent and loses him will not get a return on the back end.

The new CBA also contains another twist — a club that keeps a potential free agent only can receive compensation by making him a qualifying one-year offer within five days after the end of the World Series. The size of that offer, determined by averaging the top 125 salaries from the previous year, is expected to be between $12 million and $13 million.

How many potential free agents would be certain to receive such an offer from their respective clubs? One general manager lists only three — Greinke, Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton and Phillies lefty Cole Hamels.

A few others — I’m thinking Braves center fielder Michael Bourn, Marlins right-hander Anibal Sanchez and Giants outfielder Melky Cabrera, for starters — also might get offers. But the vast majority would not, bringing their teams zero return.

Thus, the incentive for trading such players – and in particular, relievers worth far less than $12 million – never has been higher. Several GMs, though, believe that the allure of a postseason berth will lead to fewer deals than in years past.

Wild cards, though, actually are devalued under the new system. The two “winners” in each league will meet in a one-game elimination, with the winner advancing to the best-of-five Division Series. The previous reward — a guaranteed spot in the DS — was far more enticing.

Some teams will be disinclined to mortgage the future for the chance to play in only one playoff game. Many, though, will still be in contention for a division title at the July 31 non-waiver deadline, with two months left in the season.

On one hand, teams will be hesitant to sell if they stand a chance of getting hot and stealing a wild-card berth — or better, a division title. On the other hand, teams within reach of the division lead will be more fervent buyers as they try to avoid the wild-card round.

With so many different forces at work, no one can predict how it will all play out. Only six of the 30 clubs appear out of contention — Minnesota, Oakland, Seattle, the Chicago Cubs, San Diego and Colorado. Several other teams — most notably, Houston — also could end up as sellers. But the current thought processes of the Brewers and Diamondbacks are revealing.

The Brewers, while only 5 1/2 games out in the NL Central, have every reason to say, “This isn’t our year.” First baseman Mat Gamel, shortstop Alex Gonzalez and left-handed starter Chris Narveson are out for the season. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy just went down for four to six weeks. And a number of the team’s healthy players — second baseman Rickie Weeks, center fielder Nyjer Morgan, left-handed starter Randy Wolf — are under-performing.

Still, owner Mark Attanasio told on Wednesday, “We always have a buyer’s mindset.” And GM Doug Melvin, in a phone interview earlier in the day, spoke of getting back into the race, citing the quality of the Brewers’ pitching, the favorable upcoming schedule and the team’s 25-5 run in the second half of last season, which occurred mostly when Weeks was injured.

Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers sounded no less optimistic over the phone, even though his team is nine games out in the NL West. Some D-Backs players are wondering when they will be the subject of trade rumors, but the team is getting healthier, and like the Brewers, can’t play much worse.

Plus, Towers said, the NL lacks a clear powerhouse.

“I see a lot of clubs, especially in the NL, waiting to the very end,” Towers said, referring to the decision on whether to buy or sell. “I just don’t think there are two or three clear-cut favorites that are going to run away with it.”

The Rangers appear to be such a team in the AL, but maybe not — their lead over the Angels is down to 5 1/2 games. The AL, overall, is not quite as balanced as the NL — the Orioles and Indians, two early-season darlings, are struggling with injuries and starting to fade. Still, it’s possible that each AL division will remain competitive to the end.

Every year, GMs predict a quiet trade deadline. Most every year they’re wrong, and it will be an upset if this year is any different, new rules and all.

The stakes are high. The margin between winning and losing is small. And the GMs, bless their conniving hearts, just can’t sit still.