Rating the Rumors

Welcome to the silliest time of the year in sports.  Over the next couple of months, you will hear and read some of the most patently absurd trade rumors you will read all year in any sport.  Baseball is the one major sport in which trades occur fairly frequently, so the rumors fly year around.  But in the weeks counting down to the July 31 trade deadline, they become especially baroque and fantastic, with more than half involving the Yankees trading for every other team's all stars.  So here's a look at what's being said and how likely it is to happen.

Jeff Weaver to the Pirates
This one is especially choice because it has the Yankees surrendering one of their worst pitchers and getting back one of the National League's best hitters and perhaps the only reason people in Pittsburgh ever buy a ticket to see a baseball game: Brian Giles.  The possibility of Giles being exchanged in this deal is pretty small: if the Yanks would agree to cover all of Weaver's salary for the duration of his contract and the entire Pirate's payroll for the next 300 years, I can see the Pirates agreeing to this deal.  Short of that, I'd say no way.  

There is a secondary rumor that the Yanks will get Pirate's ace Kris Benson in return.  Benson is a little more doable; if the Yanks covered Weaver's salary or added a real prospect (of which the Yankees have exactly one above A-ball, pitcher Brandon Claussen) then I can see how the Pirates might be tempted.  Otherwise, the deal makes absolutely no sense, and since Cam Bonifay is no longer the GM of the Pirates, it's not likely to happen.

A more likely scenario is the Yanks dealing Weaver and paying most of his salary to Cincy in exchange for Jose Guillen.  Guillen is a cheaper version of Raul Mondesi - good arm and defense, power bat - and would give them some payroll relief next year after Mondesi is allowed to leave via free agency.  

Carlos Beltran to anyone
The Dodgers seem to be the best fit for Beltran.  Royals GM Allard Baird says he wants a major league ready infielder (second or third base) in exchange for Beltran and the Dodgers aren't particularly enamored with their current third sacker, Adrian Beltre.  Although he is eligible for a significant pay raise, with the poor year he's having it's unlikely he'll command a major increase this winter.  The Dodgers are rumored to have a number of prospects that they could include to sweeten the deal.   More than any team in baseball, the Dodgers could use Beltran's offensive production and with Brian Jordan's frequent trips to the whirlpool and DL, they could move Dave Roberts to left and upgrade their defense in the process.  

There are rumors that the Yanks will be involved in the pursuit for Beltran, but unless they are willing to put Hideki Matsui and his $8 million contract on the bench, I doubt it will happen.  Plus, I don't believe any major league GM is dumb enough to believe that Drew Henson is a viable prospect and he is about the only notable minor leaguer the Yankees have who fits Baird's positional criteria.

Other possibilities include the Mets, Orioles, Angels and Rangers.  The Mets don't have anyone standing in the way of playing Beltran on the major league club and could certainly use the help offensively and defensively in the outfield.  However, they have little in the way of prospects, so even though they would gladly take on the salary, there's little reason for the Royals to simply dump Beltran this year.  The O's are in the same boat as the Mets - they have a spot open but little to offer, unless they are considering parting with Brian Roberts.  The Angels have the problem of taking on more salary and they don't really have a position available for him.  The Rangers have plenty to offer and they've shown a willingness to take on salary.  However, if you were the Rangers, would you deal Hank Blalock or Mark Teixeira (the rumored targets of the Royals) for Beltran?  Given that both of those guys are still two years away from arbitration and the Rangers are still two, maybe three starters away from seriously contending, I wouldn't, especially since Shannon Stewart (who was the Jays' centerfielder before Vernon Wells came along) could probably be had for less this winter.

Rondell White, Mark Loretta and Rod Beck
Obviously, the Padres will be sellers this season and they have some decent pieces to offer the contenders: Rondell White, Mark Loretta and now Rod Beck, who looks like he's cemented the closer spot for as long as he's in San Diego.  The Padres would love to get a catcher and a second baseman and Florida's Ramon Castro and Luis Castillo are likely targets.  But unless the Marlins fall out of the East race fairly quickly, they'll be reluctant to part with either.  Castillo is only available because he's eligible to make more than a million dollars at the end of the season.  Still, why would the Marlins take on salary if they're looking to dump salary?  My guess is that White goes to the Oakland A's to help solve their outfield woes.  When he's healthy, he gets on base (.355 or better in 4 of his last 5 years) and has some pop in his bat.  In return, the Padres could get Adam Piatt, who's seems to have fallen out of favor with the A's, and/or Esteban German or Mark Ellis.

The Padres will also get several offers for versatile Mark Loretta.  The Cubs need someone much better than Mark Grudzialanek if they hope to hold off St. Louis, Houston and now Cincy.  Loretta fits the bill quite well, playing good defense at second (Grudzialanek's range is below average) and he gets on base at a nice clip: 38% over the last 2 years.  With the Cubs plethora of solid arms in the minors, this deal seems too good not to happen.

Rod Beck has looked very solid on his return to the majors and the asking price for him will be far more reasonable than what clubs are asking for "more established" closers.  With as many contenders having bullpen issues as there are, one of them will give up a low level prospect for Beck, if only for insurance.  Beck to the Yankees in exchange for Mark Phillips, who was the linch-pin in the Rondell White for Bubba Trammell deal, would be a most ironic twist on this season.  However, the Cardinals are the more likely destination for Beck, as he would make good insurance for Isringhausen and meets their salary concerns.

Mike Lowell to the Cubs
This soap opera has been going on just as long as the Hillenbrand for Kim deal did, so it's bound to happen.  The Cubs need a third baseman, can take on the salary and have the prospects to deal to get him.  Unfortunately, the last time they dealt with the Marlins, they gave up Dontrelle Willis and have been kicking themselves ever since.  Still, Matt Clement has been a decent addition for them, so it's not like they traded Willis for Shawn Estes.  Houston just passed them in the standings, taking over first place, so the sooner the Astros put some distance between themselves and the Cubs, the sooner this deal will happen.  There is some debate as to whether the Cubs will deal Carlos Zambrano, Juan Cruz or Todd Wellmeyer for Lowell.  My guess is that if they can get away with dealing Zambrano (who's listed age is 22, but is suspected to be more like 25) then he's the guy they should deal.  Bobby Hill is also likely to be included.  

Once again, the Yankees are rumored to be involved in the pursuit of another star player, but unless someone changes the rules and allows the Yankees to play 9 fielders, 2 of them at third base, Lowell isn't going to the Yankees.  Robin Ventura has been very good for the Yankees, both offensively and defensively and they already have Todd Zeile backing him up.  That, and there is no way the Marlins will take just Claussen when they can get a much better arm plus an infielder from the Cubs.  

The Dodgers are also rumored to be vying for Lowell's services, but they simply don't have the wealth of prospects to offer that the Cubs do and it makes no sense for the Marlins to trade one third baseman who's eligible for free agency (Lowell) for another (Beltre).

Armando Benitez and Roberto Alomar
The Mets are in sale mode, but they don't have much to offer other than Benitez and Roberto Alomar.  Alomar will make a decent fit somewhere (St. Louis, LA, Cincinnati Chicago) and there are at least half a dozen teams that could use Benitez.  The problem is that both guys come with significant baggage and significant salaries.  Alomar looks like a shadow of his former All-Star self and Benitez still hasn't squelched the perception that he coughs up the leads in big games.  So until the Mets come down from the idea that they can get good prospects for these guys, neither one is likely to move.  My guess is that Benitez ends up with the Mariners, traded for a minor prospect.  

I believe Alomar has a better market.  He's won championships, he still possesses good defensive skills and there is still a chance that he could produce like he once did; he's only 34.  Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Oakland seem like the most likely pursuers with Oakland having the most to offer the Mets.  The big question is how much salary is Oakland willing to take on this season to chase down the Mariners?  Or are they content to take what they have and fight it out for the wild card?  Second on the list would be LA, who need Alomar's offense and can meet most of the Mets requirements.  Cincinnati could deal Jose Guillen, Felipe Lopez or Brandon Larson for Alomar, but would probably regret doing so.

Chuck Finley returns
I wonder if Chuck Finley's agent, Randy Hendricks, also represented Jody Reed a while back.  After being let go by the Red Sox in 1992, Reed had a very strong year in LA in 1993.  After the season, the Dodgers offered Reed a 3-year deal that was worth several million dollars.  If I recall correctly, it was in the neighborhood of $2-3 million per year.  He refused because he though he was worth more and ended up playing for the Brewers the next season for around a million.  He again posted a solid season and again was offered a multi-year deal (2 years this time for between $1-2 million a year).  He again refused and ended up playing for the Padres in 1995 for major league minimum, which at the time was a little over $100,000.  

I bring this up because Chuck Finley appears to be on the same path.  Several teams have inquired about Finley and judging from last year's stretch performance with the Cardinals, he could be a very useful member of just about any team's rotation.  The Angels invited him but only as a reliever.  No dice.  The Astros, Cardinals and Red Sox have apparently expressed interest but there seems to be a sticking point on salary.  Finley apparently wants $2 million and is willing to end his career if he doesn't get it.  The Astros seem like the perfect fit for him - 2 stud right-handers in front of him and a terrific bullpen to back him up - but apparently money or staying on the West coast (whichever his reason du jour might be) is more important to him than a chance to finally win a championship ring.  

(update: 6/24/03 - Kurt Ainsworth might be out for the season with a broken shoulder blade, which might prompt the Giants to enter the Finley sweepstakes.  If they sign him, chances of them also trading for an established closer grow dimmer)

The closers
There are simply too many rumors and permutations to list as to which closer is going where, so I will just list where I think the guys are going.  First, I doubt the Red Sox will deal for a big name closer.  I suspect they will offer a lesser minor leaguer for Tom Gordon and make him their closer.  The Red Sox don't have many quality minor leaguers and their history of giving away quality prospects for half-season rentals is just to long and painful for them not to have learned by now.  Gordon is the most effective reliever they can get for a lesser prospect and that's what they will do.

Ugueth Urbina will be traded to the Giants for one of the Giants' young starters.  The Dodgers will make several moves, thus putting pressure on the Giants to shore up their bullpen.  While Tim Worrell has done a decent job as interim closer, the rest of the bullpen has been average at best.  Urbina would not only give them the stopper at the end, but also allow them to move Worrell into the set-up, effectively shortening games to 7 innings.  

My feeling is that most of the reputed deals won't happen.  Only a few of them significantly change the team's chances of winning and most  general managers are risk averse, especially when it comes to trading away the future.  I suspect the Yankees will find some bullpen help, but that may be about all they do unless Nick Johnson's wrist injury is much more serious than is being reported.  It would not surprise me to see Beltran stay in Kansas City this season, especially since the Twins aren't showing much interest in running away with the division.  I see the Cubs as the big domino in the NL, so if they make the deal for Lowell and possibly Loretta, the others will deal to keep up with them.  Otherwise, it could be a fairly quiet summer in the National League.