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Time to buy, time to sell

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July 21

Go back to March and consider this possibility: The Minnesota Twins would be trying to put together a package to get Pedro Astacio from the Colorado Rockies, while neither the Indians, Braves or Dodgers can afford the veteran right-hander.

That's just the way it is in this odd season.

Woody Williams
Woody Williams is one of many players who could change uniforms before the end of the month.

"We have a chance, and it's been our year in a lot of ways, going back to Kirby (Puckett) being elected to the Hall of Fame," says Twins GM Terry Ryan. "We have a good team. We could use a little power sock, but we have David Ortiz coming back; he is, after all, our cleanup hitter, and he changes our lineup. But we could use another veteran pitcher, and I'm trying to do something about it."

Ryan is looking at a number of possibilities, from Astacio to Baltimore's Jose Mercedes, to San Diego's Woody Williams and Sterling Hitchcock, to Tampa Bay's Albie Lopez, and all other available starters.

"We haven't played that well lately, but I don't worry about that too much because of our manager's ability to take care of those things," says Ryan. "I just want to give him a little more help."

The fact that the Twins are buyers 10 days before the trading deadline is one of the best stories of this season. But the fact that the Rockies are buried in last place is an even bigger surprise.

"We have to figure out what works in our park," says Colorado GM Dan O'Dowd. "What we've tried obviously hasn't worked, so we have to get younger, cheaper and more athletic."

"Dan is really the fulcrum for a lot of the activity between now and the deadline a week from Tuesday," says an American League GM. Indeed. The Twins, Cardinals, Astros, Giants and Blue Jays are all in the scrum for Astacio. Every team looking for a shortstop is in on Colorado's Neifi Perez. There are two or three teams also interested in Jeff Cirillo. Gabe White, Mike Myers and Brian Bohanon are left-handed and breathing, and thus subject to inquiry.

The first trade the Rockies made was when they sent Todd Walker to Cincinnati for Alex Ochoa, who gives the Rockies an athletic outfielder who can throw and hit for some power and could be very dangerous in Coors Field, a la Jeffrey Hammonds. O'Dowd is looking for a lot of outfield depth to go with Todd Hollandsworth, Juan Pierre and Larry Walker, and not just because Pierre is young, Hollandsworth has been hurt and Walker's elbow is bothering him.

"This outfield wears guys down," says O'Dowd, which is why if Toronto has the right package with Shannon Stewart, it may win the Astacio sweepstakes.

Minnesota is clearly a buyer. Colorado is a seller. "The team I watch is Oakland," says one AL GM. "I guess they are buyers and sellers, although I think with their pitching, if they hold onto Jason Giambi, they can win the wild card. I wouldn't want to be in (A's GM) Billy Beane's shoes."

"I'm happy to be in my shoes," says Beane. "Do I have to be prepared for anything in the next 10 days? Of course. But right now I'm focusing on getting into the playoffs and taking my chances with (Tim) Hudson, (Mark) Mulder and (Barry) Zito." Translated, that means that with three major free agents, in an ideal world he could trade Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon, get cheaper, solid major-league players in return and take the extra money and add a couple of short-term players to try to win.

The A's have been on a roll this month, and given the fact that they came from 7 games back to catch Seattle last season leads them to believe that they will peak in the second half, especially given the emergence of Jeremy Giambi (how many brother tandems have ever combined for a 2.000 OPS?) and the expectation of a strong finish by Eric Chavez and Damon.

But if they lost five out of six this week, what would that do? "I don't know," says Beane. "But I'll try to be prepared for anything."

The White Sox are a good example. They got within six games of the wild card this week, then got whooped by Cleveland, dropped the opener of this weekend's series to Boston on Friday and were once again back shopping both veterans like James Baldwin and exploring the offseason unsignables, Keith Foulke and Magglio Ordonez. By the way, don't call White Sox GM Ken Williams unless you have a package that's even better than what the Royals require for Jermaine Dye, which is substantial. In fact, Williams wouldn't mind being a buyer and a seller, because he has a team that even if it drops out this season could contend in 2002.

The Mets are buyers and sellers, as well. They have shopped Robin Ventura, Todd Zeile, Rick White and Dennis Cook, but would like to add talent to retain interest and get right back into the favorite spotlight for next season. Hence they're listening to offers for Glendon Rusch. As for Al Leiter, if they're going to contend in 2002, where do they get another Leiter except by paying $16M a year to Chan Ho Park in the offseason? They can't. The Astros asked about Leiter, but were told by his agenst, the Brothers Hendricks, that he does not wish to pitch there. The Brewers are buyers and sellers, with Mark Loretta and David Weathers being discussed. The Orioles are one of the most aggressive buyers and sellers, as GM Syd Thrift wants a Dye/Ordonez bat and will trade most any pitcher on his staff other than young right-hander Josh Towers.

We all know the sellers. New Pittsburgh GM Dave Littlefield wants to move Mike Williams, Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal. He would prefer to not trade Todd Ritchie and doesn't want to even think about moving Jimmy Anderson or Dave Williams. Toronto may move Jose Cruz Jr. and Stewart, who has been shopped a lot of places for both pitching and a young No. 1 catcher. The Mariners think they can get Cruz for a combination involving Joel Pineiro, Brett Tomko and Rob Ramsay. Montreal is selling, but while they'd like to deal closer Ugueth Urbina (Boston is still interested, although the Sox wonder why he pitches every day and has to throw 92 with a change rather than his old 95 with a split), Lee Stevens and Graeme Lloyd, they also have to consider if they want to part ways with Milton Bradley (Cleveland has shown an interest) and Michael Barrett as a number of teams are interested in both of them.

Tampa Bay still hopes to deal Fred McGriff to the Cubs and move a catcher and other veterans, but pitchers Bryan Rekar and Albie Lopez got hurt this week, hurting the chances of moving them. San Diego thinks it has buyers for Woody Williams and Sterling Hitchcock. Cincinnati will talk about most every reliever on its team except Danny Graves and they still might deal Pokey Reese. Texas is shopping Randy Velarde, Rick Helling and Darren Oliver as long as Pudge Rodriguez doesn't push harder for a trade. Detroit has Tony Clark and Roger Cedeno ("given his ability to get on base the last three years and his power, I'd rather have him than Damon," says one AL GM). Anaheim talks, but not about Jarrod Washburn (7-1 since May, with No. 2 starter stuff) or Scott Schoeneweis; Troy Percival's price is a new theme park, but there is interest in Garret Anderson, who might blossom in another environment.

And the buyers?

The Yankees. GM Brian Cashman keeps talking about getting El Duque and David Justice back, but the hits their thin pitching staff took this week locked them in a death race with Boston. But other than Nick Johnson, what do they have to trade to get Anderson, Dye, Ordonez or someone of that ilk? Maybe Beane will trade Jason Giambi to the Yanks, Red Sox, Cubs or Mets, but right now he sees no possible deal worth changing his mind on trying to get a deal done with his superstar. In fact, he is so sure he won't trade Giambi that he hasn't even asked to call up reports on the Yankees farm system.

The Red Sox. "I'm really encouraged by the fact that we get Nomar Garciaparra and Carl Everett back right at the deadline, two middle of the field All-Stars," says GM Dan Duquette. "Now we should get Jason Varitek back not long after that, and Varitek is worth a run a game to our team."

Duquette has been searching for a bat, but doesn't think right now there is one difference-maker; he wants to bring up Izzy Alcantara for lefties and certain hard-throwing right-handers, and believes Juan Diaz could help by the end of the season. So he is concentrating on pitching, either another closer to complement Derek Lowe, Rod Beck and Rich Garces (and he has not counted out Urbina), or another starter that would allow Rolando Arrojo to go back into the setup role.

"Some of the guys we've looked at aren't better than what we have," says Duquette, "especially if we get two out of the group of Pedro Martinez, Bret Saberhagen and Frank Castillo back. Pedro threw (Friday) and we are encouraged. But we'll keep looking." Boston did look at Astacio, but the reports on his career path for the last season got them off the veteran.

Cleveland. If the Indians deal -- and they have a lot of things juggling out there -- it will be at no cost increase. The same right now is true of the Braves, who say they can't add more than $1 million for the rest of this season. In the right situation, that might change now that they'd added a reliever named John Smoltz and a starter named Kevin Millwood.

St. Louis has been one of the most active buyers, looking for a closer and a starter. If the Cards will trade Bud Smith, they might get Astacio, and have been in on Percival, Isringhausen, Todd Jones and all other relievers (Roberto Hernandez is a costly item). They have looked at Williams, Hitchcock and others.

Seattle may shop only for a left-field bat. The Dodgers don't have much money or tradeable talent, but would like a veteran starter and a shortstop. The Phillies, meanwhile, may have waited too long to make a deal.

The Giants have waited all season for Shawn Estes (whom they have discussed moving) and Livan Hernandez to get going, and when they reeled off good starts this week it made them wonder if they could move a pitching prospect like Kurt Ainsworth to get a Dye or an Astacio. The Giants believe they can catch Arizona, which is trying to get a veteran starter to fill in for Robert Ellis. Albie Lopez was the leader, but now he may be out of the question.

Everyone knows Cubs GM Andy MacPhail, like his counterpart in St. Louis, Walt Jocketty, will try to seize the moment. But so may Gerry Hunsicker in Houston. If Astros owner Drayton McLane can take on the Astacio money -- $3 million this year, or $4.2 million this year if you don't exercise the $9.2 million option for next season -- the Astros could get him in a package involving Daryle Ward, Tony McKnight and perhaps even Scott Elarton. Hunsicker has also weighed a Ward-Rusch deal. "I won't be pressured into making a bad deal by media or clubhouse forces," says Hunsicker. "But we've got a very good team and have a chance to win."

In 1998, Hunsicker made one of the great deadline deals, sending Freddy Garcia, John Halama and Carlos Guillen to Seattle for Randy Johnson, and everyone thought the Astros were headed to the World Series only to be derailed by Kevin Brown, Hitchcock and the Padres. But this deadline may be different. "Unless Giambi or Percival is traded, there is help, but no one to change races," says one AL GM. "It's really a store full of fill-ins."

"The way I look at it," says Duquette, "we're getting a super shortstop, an All-Star center fielder and an All-Star catcher at the deadline. That said, we're also not concerning ourselves with the wild card. We need to win our division and think about nothing else."

Around the majors
When Rangers owner Tom Hicks handed out the $252M for Alex Rodriguez with Pudge Rodriguez's contract -- for a third of A-Rod's annual payout -- up at the end of the 2002 season, everyone knew there would be problems for his club. There was discussions about dealing the game's best catcher before he became a 10/5 man the first week of June, but Hicks backed off and said he wanted to re-sign Pudge. Two proposals and no response from Hicks later, the heat is being turned back on the club. And while it's unlikely agent Jeff Moorad and Rodriguez will force a trade before the trade deadline, it is likely they will push for one in the offseason. One possible destination is the Mets, if Mike Piazza chooses to rest his knees and take his Hall of Fame bat to first base.

Then there is the question of whether or not Ken Griffey Jr. will eventually push for a deal out of Cincinnati. Griffey, who accepted a deal far below market value to return home and has restructered his agreement to help the club sign players with a restricted payroll, is scared about his torn hamstring, which doctors have said isn't a serious risk despite the conditions at Cinergy Field. Griffey also is sensitive to what he believes is the notion that he is to blame for the team's disappointing season. He and many around him believe that he should shut it down and rest the hamstring and try to get it healed for next season.

"I don't think I could do it and not be run out of town," he says. Somedays, he's fine. Others, not so fine, and the hamstring -- which is torn away from the bone -- restricts his swing and his movement in center field.

"The doctors have publically stated that he cannot hurt it any more, and that, in fact, it will get better playing," says GM Jim Bowden. "We would never put his career at risk."

The Reds should learn in the next two weeks if Barry Larkin will play again this season with his "sports hernia." When Bowden traded Alex Ochoa to Colorado for Todd Walker, the Reds GM did say that "this means we're not trading Dmitri (Young)." While he did say that "our people think Walker has really improved at second base, and if he hits 20 homers and knocks in 80 runs at that position, he can really help us," there was no promise about the future of Pokey Reese in a Cincinnati uniform. If Larkin is out the remainder of this season, Reese may not go, but he likely will be an offseason move.

Why many draft picks remain unsigned
Many assumed that when the Twins signed St. Paul high school catcher Joe Mauer to his five-year, $5.15 million contract with the buyout from football, that the doors would open and most of the other players at the top of the draft would sign, as well.

"That's not going to happen," says one agent. "I think you'll see that the Mauer signing will make it more difficult for those next five players to sign, because most of them are not going to get off their positions, and the teams are more firmly entrenched."

After Mauer, RHP Mark Prior (Cubs), RHP Dewon Brazelton (Devil Rays), RHP Gavin Floyd (Phillies), 3B Mark Teixeira (Rangers) and RHP Josh Karp (Expos) remain unsigned. Prior and Teixeira are looking for dollars far exceeding Mauer's deal. Floyd wants $7M and isn't afraid to go to college. In addition, the ninth pick, RHP Colt Griffin (Royals), remains unsigned, although Kansas City is close to signing its second pick, South Carolina high school OF Roscoe Crosby for something in the vicinity of $1.75M, although he will play football at Clemson and is considered a potential franchise wide receiver.

"The Commissioner's Office is trying to hold prices down and slot bonuses," says one scouting director. "So this is going to be a staredown in the next month. I think you're going to see at least a half-dozen first-round picks remain unsigned."

Management uses two of the top pitchers from last year's draft as examples for Prior, Brazelton, Karp and Griffin. The Twins got RHP Adam Johnson, the second overall pick, signed right after the draft, and he is now in the starting rotation of a first-place team, in a pennant race, getting big-league meal money and pay schedules and ticking his way towards arbitration rights.

The seventh pick, high school RHP Matt Harrington, turned down a $4M deal from the Rockies, ended up pitching in the Northern League and was taken this June in the second round by the Padres. Problem is, Harrington has had arm problems, was shut down and asked for his release from the independent league, and the Padres offered him somewhere in the vicinity of $500,000. There are several general managers who believe that Harrington has an insurance policy that the arm problems may enable him to collect something close to his original Rockies offer, which doesn't say much about his desire to play.

But the agents are convinced that the Commissioner's Office, which reviews offers and signings, is orchestrating the signings, which is why 14 of the 30 first rounders remain unsigned. For evidence, there is the case of Jeremy Bonderman, the Washington high school pitcher who got into the draft as a junior. The A's took him with the 26th pick, tendered an offer and had what appeared to be an agreement for $1.5M right after the draft. According to sources, heat was applied to Oakland owner Steve Schott, the offer was withdrawn and the club is now offering $1M, and Bonderman is unsigned.

"Until agents are convinced that teams aren't afraid to not sign top draft choices," says one general manager, "we will continue to throw away millions to unproven players. It's silly. The sun rose and set when Harrington didn't sign, and the Rockies can argue that not signing him was a break. If Prior, Brazelton, Teixeira and the rest of those college juniors want to go play in the Northern League or go back to college, fine. Brazelton might be in the Tampa Bay rotation by the All-Star break next season. The values of the game have been twisted."

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