As the weekend began there were 18 teams (10 AL, eight NL) over .500, compared with 16 in 2011. There were 22 teams within seven games of a playoff spot (either division lead or wild card). At the same time last year, there were 17 teams within seven games of a playoff spot.
If you want to make a deal this year, you’d better get out in front because if you want a Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza, or Francisco Liriano, there are likely 8-10 teams with which you’re competing. So be prepared to expose your farm system to a raid. And if you don’t want anyone to touch your top prospects, you probably won’t have what it takes to make a blockbuster deal.
“Some of the demands out there are ludicrous,” said one NL adviser. “We asked about a lefty pitcher and they asked us for our best pitching, best hitting, and a couple of other established players. I said, ‘Are you kidding me?’ That’s why I’m thinking despite all the talking, I’m not sure much is going to get done.”
When Larry Lucchino came out and said last week on WEEI that the Red Sox were looking to do something bold, did that mean they were willing to give up some of their top prospects to get an established player or two to help their playoff chances?
Because without giving up your best prospects, it doesn’t appear top pitchers will be available.
So far, the Sox have not been willing to give up what Cubs president Theo Epstein wants for Garza.
The addition of the second wild card has brought about this frenzy of talk, which has already resulted in a 10-player deal between the Astros and Blue Jays Friday in which the Jays wound up with lefthanded starter J.A. Happ and reliever Brandon Lyon, as well as promising reliever David Carpenter, while the Astros obtained outfielder Ben Francisco and highly touted pitching prospect Joe Musgrave, among others.
Baseball people were trying to decipher the deal, who it benefited, and why it happened in the first place. Only the two teams seem to know for sure.
There was talk earlier last week that the Marlins approached the Red Sox about Hanley Ramirez and closer Heath Bell, and Carl Crawford’s name came up. The idea of Crawford being traded doesn’t seem to make sense. Crawford has indicated he will likely need Tommy John surgery, so why would any team even engage in talks with the Red Sox about him?
It seems rare that a deal involves only major league-level talent and not prospects. The Sox do have extra outfielders; they have an attractive player in Jacoby Ellsbury who they may not be able to sign long-term. They have an underperforming pitcher in Jon Lester, who is 28 with a reasonable contract who could fetch a bounty.
The biggest prize would be Felix Hernandez, who could net the Mariners established players, but the thought of that still appears to be pie in the sky as Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik scoffs at the thought of trading his ace.
While the Sox have interest in Garza, they don’t in Dempster, who is 2-1 with a 1.71 ERA against AL teams in three starts, including a gem against the Sox last month in Chicago.
What’s interesting is that GMs are really operating under some new rules that could impact their thinking. First, the limitations in the draft (mostly a cap for each team) mean that some teams are fearful that the inventory of prospects they have will diminish over time if they keep trading them for veteran players.
Another big issue is that teams can no longer obtain draft-pick compensation for players acquired with these trade-deadline deals. So teams with players on the verge of free agency — such as Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, and Carlos Quentin — may decide to deal them and get what they can because they won’t necessarily be able to settle for draft picks anymore if they keep them.
Teams that keep their free agents will only receive one compensatory pick instead of the two they used to get. And the team must make those free agents qualifying offers and only receive compensation (if the player then leaves) if the offer is within range of the average of the top 125 player salaries, which should be about $12.5 million.
Any team that signs a free agent will also lose a first-round pick and that will no longer go to the player’s former team.
So losing a free agent isn’t what it used to be. For years, the Athletics would lose free agents and be happy to settle for draft-pick compensation. They built their organization that way, but now that’s tougher to do. So teams should be more apt to deal, unless they are the Phillies and are trying to keep Hamels.
So, will these rules help or hinder trades?
We’ve published Scott Boras’s comments a few times. He believes there will be fewer deals over time because of the many limitations on teams in the draft and the pool being so much smaller. While it may not necessarily show up in the first year, Boras’s conclusion may be accurate down the road.
“I think if you need to make a deal to help your team win, you make the deal,” said Red Sox GM Ben Cherington.
Smaller-market teams may not feel quite the same way.
The next few days should be interesting, chock full of rumors, but major deals?
Some folks in the game remain skeptical.
Apropos of something
So, what may some of the other AL East teams do at the trading deadline?
If you’re the Yankees, the only possible moves would be to acquire an outfielder knowing that Brett Gardner won’t be around after he had elbow surgery, and possibly add to the bullpen. GM Brian Cashman is of the opinion that you don’t fix what’s not broken, and nothing appears to be broken on this Yankee juggernaut that’s running away with the division.
The Orioles, who have been hanging around second place and clumped with Tampa Bay, Boston, and Toronto, could really use starting pitching, especially with Jason Hammel on the disabled list after knee surgery and sidelined for at least a month. They’d love to be able to do something big for Zack Greinke, but the likelihood is slim that Dan Duquette could make that happen.
The Orioles only have one pitcher remaining from their original starting five this season, Wei-Yin Chen, the 27-year-old rookie from Taiwan via Japan, who is 8-5 with a 3.80 ERA in 19 starts. The Orioles replaced original starters Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Hammel with Miguel Gonzalez, Chris Tillman, and Zach Britton. Right now, Tommy Hunter is the most experienced pitcher on the staff with 69 starts.
The Orioles are also looking for a hitter with high OBP capability. San Diego third baseman Chase Headley (.364 OBP) comes to mind.
The Rays, who have no timetable for Evan Longoria’s return, need hitting in a big way if they’re to make a legitimate run. They obviously have pitching to trade, but they never seem to be able to match up on a pitcher-hitter deal. Hideki Matsui is fading and not the answer, so they’re once again looking for a low-cost but dependable bat. Would it be crazy to think they’d try to add Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton, brother of Rays outfielder B.J. Upton.
In their deal with the Astros, the Blue Jays addressed some bullpen needs in David Carpenter and Brandon Lyon, and in the rotation with J.A. Happ, but they’re still in need of a hitter, especially now with Jose Bautista out indefinitely.
That would appear to be their next move.
Apropos of nothing
1. The Reds started an all-righthanded lineup against a righthanded starter Tuesday against the Diamondbacks; according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time a team started nine righthanded hitters against a righty starter was April 22, 2005, when the Astros did it against the Cardinals.
2. Kicking themselves? The Braves offered Cody Ross a two-year deal in the offseason and the Giants came back with another one-year offer, but Ross chose the Red Sox’ one-year, $3 million deal, knowing his swing was made for Fenway. Don’t think he’ll have to worry about not getting a multiyear deal next season. Random Ross note: Braves second baseman Dan Uggla is his best friend.
3. One of the funniest rumors I’ve heard was the Red Sox being interested in Diamondbacks shortstop Stephen Drew. All the Sox need is another player who takes forever to return from an injury. And by the way, Arizona GM Kevin Towers confirmed the Sox have no interest in Drew.
4. I give Royals GM Dayton Moore and Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd all the credit in the world for cutting their losses on lefty Jonathan Sanchez and righty Jeremy Guthrie, respectively. Moore designated Sanchez for assignment after his record dropped to 1-6 and his ERA climbed to 7.76 after allowing seven runs in 1⅓ innings in a 9-4 loss to the Mariners. Then he traded him for O’Dowd’s flop — Guthrie, who was acquired for Jason Hammel and reliever Matt Lindstrom. Hammel really blossomed for the Orioles. Sanchez was a major bust considering he was traded for All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera. In the end, the feeling, according to one NL scout, is, “Maybe Sanchez is more comfortable in the NL and Guthrie is more comfortable in the AL.” Yep, that must be it. Guthrie, 3-9 with a 6.35 ERA, did have two 17-loss seasons in the last three years for the Orioles.
5. Joe Maddon’s Tampa home was once owned by original NFL Buccaneers coach John McKay.
6. I think some of the best times are the pregame, sitting in the Sox dugout and listening to Dustin Pedroia go off on any topic that flows from his brain. Tremendous stuff.
7. As we wrote a few weeks back, teams are now kicking themselves that they didn’t go after Kevin Youkilis hard. But the Red Sox certainly felt better about the deal after beating the White Sox three out of four last week. And Youkilis keeps dealing with injuries, missing the last game against Boston with hamstring tightness.
8. Ross (one year, $3 million), Fernando Rodney (one year, $2 million), Juan Pierre (one year, $800,000), and Wilson Betemit ($1 million as part of a two-year, $2.75 million deal with a vesting option for 3.2 million in 2014) are among the bargains in baseball. Hiroki Kuroda at one year, $10 million is pretty good, too.
Updates on nine
1. Peter Bourjos, CF, Angels — Angels GM Jerry Dipoto doesn’t want to deal him, but he knows he’s the major chip in trying to acquire pitching help. The Angels went through a 20-game stretch in which they were 10-10 and their starters had a 5.35 ERA. Only Jered Weaver had been producing, putting the Angels in the starting pitching market.
2. Brett Myers, RHP, White Sox — In need of veteran help, the White Sox acquired him Saturday from the Astros for a pair of minor leaguers and a player to be named. Myers had 19 saves and a 3.52 ERA for Houston.
3. James Shields, RHP, Rays — The Rays have to decide soon whether they think the 2012 season is one in which they can make it happen. Given their lack of offense and an uncertain timetable on the return of Evan Longoria, it’s a tough call. Shields hasn’t had the best of years, but he’s battle-tested in big games, relatively young at 30, and he has a reasonable $9 million option. Shields has been struggling, going 3-6, 5.00 over his last 14 starts and allowing 10 or more hits in four of his last five. “I definitely would love to stay here the rest of my career,’’ Shields said. “But I also do understand this is a business and things could change. I’m really not too worried about that.’’
4. Kelly Shoppach, C, Red Sox — He remains a viable option for teams needing a catcher, such as the Mets, who have scouted Shoppach. The Sox certainly are in position to deal him with Ryan Lavarnway in Pawtucket. Colorado’s Ramon Hernandez, 36, is another option, though he’s struggled with a .193 average this season. The Rays have sniffed around on him.
5. Alex Gordon, LF, Royals — We keep mentioning him as possible trade bait for the Royals, who are trying to acquire more pitching after the Jonathan Sanchez misfire. With Brett Gardner having surgery, don’t dismiss possible interest by the Yankees in Gordon, who has been the Royals’ leadoff hitter.
6. Jason Vargas, LHP, Mariners — The Orioles, Tigers, and Royals have made inquiries on Vargas. He’s not one of the top guys out there, but could provide a steady hand in the middle to back end of the rotation and augment a hard thrower with his finesse style.
7. Matt Garza, RHP, Cubs — Is he really what the Red Sox want? Garza has only pitched seven or more innings five times in 18 starts, has allowed 7.9 hits per nine innings, and came out of Saturday night’s game with cramping in his right triceps. He’s also allowed 15 home runs, and occasionally has the yips while throwing to bases. He’s 5-7 with a 4.02 ERA, but did pitch very well July 15, in which he went seven innings, allowed five hits, one walk, and struck out seven. Garza has a year remaining on his contract after this season. The Cubs could be interested in Daniel Bard. Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Jason McLeod obviously have a strong history with Bard.
8. Denard Span, CF, Twins — Other than Francisco Liriano, Span has become the Twins’ best trade chip (since it doesn’t appear they’ll deal Josh Willingham). If they traded Span, they could move Ben Revere to center field, and promote Chris Parmelee from Triple A Rochester to play right field. Aaron Hicks, their 2008 first-round draft pick, is another center fielder who looks like he’s turned a corner at Double A New Britain. The Twins had discussions with the Nationals about Span last July. He is batting .279 with a .346 on-base percentage and nine stolen bases. Span, 28, is playoff-tested and making just $3 million this year. He’ll make $4.75 million next year and $6.5 million in 2014, and has a $9 million option for 2015 with a $500,000 buyout.
9. Justin Upton, RF, Diamondbacks — He hasn’t drawn as much interest as expected. One team very interested, however, is the Pirates, who thought the Diamondbacks’ asking price was prohibitive. They may also be interested in B.J. Upton. The Pirates have also tried to pry Billy Butler from the Royals and Shane Victorino from the Phillies.
From the Bill Chuck files: “There have now been 35 occasions this season in which pitchers have gone at least eight innings and came out with a no-decision, three times each for Cliff Lee and Felix Hernandez.” Also, “The Red Sox lead the majors with 65 second-inning runs. The Marlins have scored only 23. The Sox also lead the majors with 57 eighth-inning runs. The Rays have scored only 22.” And, “No team has allowed as many first-inning runs as the Red Sox, who have permitted 76. The Nationals have allowed only 33.” . . . Happy 68th birthday, Sparky Lyle.
Nick Cafardo can be reached at Cafardo@Globe.com and follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.