Expect trading frenzy before deadline
On baseball’s midsummer marketplace, there is no Big Board to tell us the value of Cole Hamels or Matt Garza. General managers aren’t crammed together on a trading floor, like at the New York Stock Exchange, although that would be highly entertaining. (I want to see Jon Daniels and Jerry Dipoto, of the rival Rangers and Angels respectively, working feverishly to acquire Zack Greinke while seated at adjacent terminals.)
In some instances, there’s doubt as to which players actually are available — publicly tradable, if you will.
Take Felix Hernandez, for example. Rival executives have admired the Seattle ace from a distance for several years. He tantalized them again Saturday, firing a three-hit shutout against Texas, the best offensive team in baseball. Hernandez has a 2.92 ERA, leads the American League with 140 strikeouts, and is signed for two more seasons at a total sum of around $40 million. In other words, he’s highly desirable.
It has been (and remains) my view that the Mariners should trade Hernandez. Competitively, the organization is too far behind its AL West rivals to win the division next year — and maybe not in 2014, the final year of Hernandez’s contract. The best move, based on the club’s past, current and expected performance, would be to turn him into three or four long-term assets.
Sunday, I spoke with someone who has a different opinion. I will include it here, because he happens to be the team’s general manager.
“I’m telling you,” Jack Zduriencik insisted during our telephone conversation, “he’s going to be a Mariner.”
Zduriencik was firm in his statement. In fact, he said it twice. I suppose he could change his mind between now and the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. But for now, that’s that.
Even without Hernandez, the next two weeks should bring a torrent of trade activity. Here’s a rundown of the most-talked-about candidates, along with how they fared over the weekend.
COLE HAMELS, PHILLIES
By the end of this month, Hamels could be (a) pitching elsewhere or (b) enjoying a nine-figure extension with the Phillies. If that is a distraction to him, it isn’t showing: Sunday, Hamels allowed one earned run over eight innings in a victory over the Colorado Rockies.
My colleague Tracy Ringolsby reported that the Angels, Rangers and Dodgers had scouts in Denver to watch Hamels pitch. One would assume they were impressed. Hamels is from Southern California, so perhaps the Angels and Dodgers believe they could re-sign him once he becomes a free agent after this season.
RYAN DEMPSTER, CUBS
If the Cubs intend to trade Dempster at his highest value, don’t be surprised if he’s moved within the next week.
Dempster, 35, has been regarded as a near-term health risk, since he just missed roughly three weeks with a sore right lat. But he returned from the disabled list with 11 scoreless innings, including six in a Saturday win over Arizona.
Dempster leads the majors with a 1.86 ERA. It’s hard to imagine he will pitch any better, and the Cubs won’t want to risk a re-injury of the lat muscle. Enough clubs are interested that Theo Epstein has the chance to act quickly; the Dodgers and Tigers are among the most serious, sources say.
MATT GARZA, CUBS
Speculation about the Toronto Blue Jays’ interest in Garza won’t stop — nor should it. The Blue Jays are enamored with Garza’s experience in the AL East and had two scouts at his start Sunday. Garza didn’t disappoint: seven shutout innings, seven strikeouts.
The Dodgers and Tigers could pursue Garza if they don’t end up with Dempster. The Rangers and Angels can’t be dismissed as possibilities, either. But the Jays remain perhaps the most plausible destination, because of the richness of their farm system and desire to have Garza in their rotation next year.
ZACK GREINKE, BREWERS
Greinke has had a strange July. As a result of his first-inning ejection in Houston just before the All-Star break, he became the first pitcher since 1917 (Red Faber, Chicago White Sox) to start three team games in a row.
Behind the historical footnote, Greinke’s numbers aren’t pretty. He’s allowed a .932 OPS and 14 earned runs in 14 innings this month. A limited sample size, yes, but clubs may be concerned that his performance dipped just as trade rumors began to swirl around him. At this point, Greinke ranks behind Hamels — and maybe even Dempster — among the free-agent-to-be pitchers. Even at this late hour, a contract extension could take him off the trade market.
JUSTIN UPTON, DIAMONDBACKS
Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers is listening. But Upton isn’t hitting.
The Pirates, seen as one of the most serious Upton suitors, dispatched a scout to Wrigley Field over the weekend, where Upton’s Diamondbacks were playing the Cubs. He saw Upton go 0 for 10. Upton is now hitting .254 with no home runs in his past 17 games.
Even though Upton is viewed as a bounce-back candidate for the long term, he’s going to have to show something at the plate in the coming days for Towers to obtain fair-market value. And since Upton is under contract through 2015, there’s no guarantee he will be traded at all.
SHANE VICTORINO, PHILLIES
Something that should grab your attention: A high-ranking executive with one club predicted that Victorino will be the first of the big-name players to move. But he’s having the poorest of his eight seasons in Philadelphia, with a .179 batting average over his past 10 games.
The Dodgers are known to have interest in Victorino, who would supply the offense they’ve lacked in left field while perhaps becoming the leadoff man. Other teams that have scouted Victorino recently include the Rangers, Tigers, Pirates, Marlins and Giants.
Victorino, 31, is in the final year of his contract. If he’s moved, the acquiring club will hope he’s revived by the opportunity to win again.
CARLOS QUENTIN, PADRES
A funny thing happened on the way to Quentin becoming the big-ticket power hitter on this year’s trade market: He batted .135 with one home run in a 10-game stretch that ended Sunday.
He’s still having an excellent season (.907 OPS) and would be a significant upgrade in a corner outfield spot for the Pirates or Orioles. But it’s not as if a dozen teams are after him. The better Quentin plays over the next two weeks, the better the chance GM Josh Byrnes is satisfied with one offer he receives.
JOSH WILLINGHAM, TWINS
First, let it be said that Willingham deserves a sizeable amount of credit. He signed the long-term contract that some doubted he would receive — three years, $21 million — and he’s justifying the investment with a monster first season in Minnesota.
Now, he’s in demand again. In a market starved for right-handed power, Willingham has 22 home runs. He clobbered three over the weekend.
Twins GM Terry Ryan isn’t the type of executive to trade a player four months into a long-term contract. But this team needs impact starting pitching, and a trade of Willingham might be the best way to get it in the near term. The consensus is that if Willingham is dealt, it won’t be until very close to the deadline. The Dodgers would love to have Willingham’s bat in left field, but it’s not clear if there is a good trade match between the clubs.
FRANCISCO LIRIANO, TWINS
Let’s forget, for a moment, about Liriano’s ERAs from 2009 (5.80), 2011 (5.09) and his two postseasons (5.87). For once, this isn’t about the long-term promise (and consternation) of Liriano’s mercurial left arm. Now is what matters. And now looks pretty good.
Since returning to the rotation May 30, Liriano is 3-3 with a 2.83 ERA in 57 1/3 innings. In other words, he’s pitched better than fellow left-hander Hamels over the same number of starts. That is why the Blue Jays and Angels, among other clubs, are showing interest.
The best part: Liriano has less than $3 million on his contract for the rest of this season, making him cheaper than Hamels, Greinke and Dempster. All of them, like Liriano, will be free agents after this year.