Memorial Day is considered the first signpost of a baseball season: where the races are on that day, the unscientific theory goes, is where they will end up at the end of the season. If so, we are in for fabulous races in every division, and very few teams will be out of the running.
At the end of play on May 31, 13 of the 16 National League teams had between 23 and 30 victories -- none of the 13 was more than 5½ games out of first place. The American League was a little more spread out, but with potential to get tighter. Such parity could mean great excitement down the stretch, but perhaps less activity at the July 31 trade deadline.
"Parity,'' says Mike Flanagan, the Orioles' VP of baseball operations, "means not a lot of movement.'' Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said if things stay the same, "no doubt there will be fewer deals. There are some small-market teams such as ourselves, the Reds and the Pirates that are used to being sellers, but if we're in the race, that could change.''
The Reds, the surprise team in the National League, entered this season thinking they might be selling players at the end of July to cut payroll and re-stock the system with younger players. But the Reds were in first place on Memorial Day. Logically, that would mean no trade for Ken Griffey Jr. or Sean Casey, the NL's leader hitter, or a number of other players.
The Diamondbacks have played horribly, but in the weak NL West, they haven't given up yet on the season. No matter what, it's unlikely that they will trade Randy Johnson, who is a 10-and-5 man (10 years in the majors, five with the same team), which brings no-trade rights. Center fielder Steve Finley, who is a free agent at the end of the season, "would bring great value to a contender,'' says one AL GM. But Finley also is a 10-and-5 man, meaning he can reject any trade. The D-Backs have others to trade whether they're in or out of it, including pitcher Elmer Dessens and closer Matt Mantei, but Arizona may have to pay part of Mantei's contract.
If the Mets aren't out of it, maybe they'll keep Al Leiter. If the Pirates are hanging around, maybe they won't trade Kris Benson. If the Brewers are it in, they may keep veteran infielder Craig Counsell and second baseman Junior Spivey. If the Braves don't falter, they'll likely keep right-hander Russ Ortiz, who is a free agent after this season, and try to win the NL East. If the Rangers are in it, they'll keep veterans Eric Young and Herbert Perry, who could help contenders coming off the bench. If the Indians stick around in the AL Central, maybe they'll hang on to shortstop Omar Vizquel, who nearly went to Seattle in the offseason.
And then there is the curious case of the Expos. They are out of it, so, in theory, they would be sellers. But, they are also for sale. They might want to keep their best players to improve the market value of the club. "But there's another side to that,'' said one NL GM. "Maybe they'll strip that club to the bone, cut payroll even more, and start over fresh.''
At this point, maybe only six teams will be looking to sell by the end of July. The Royals, unless they get back in the race, will be looking to unload, starting with center fielder Carlos Beltran, who has great value, but will be a free agent after this season. Logically, he would bring more now than he would at the end of July because he could help a contender for four months instead of two, which would help justify the large package a team would have to give up to get him. The Royals surely will move other veteran players, including third baseman Joe Randa. The A's, in fact, just lost their third baseman for six weeks.
If the Mariners don't get back in the race, they will also sell. Pitcher Freddy Garcia has value, as does second baseman Bret Boone, but they could look to move other veteran players. The Rockies could be sellers, also. So will the Blue Jays, but their biggest piece, Carlos Delgado, has no-trade rights, he will be a free agent after the season and likely would ask a new team for a contract extension, which would make a deal more difficult.
There is a lot to think about. "We're 60 days into the season, we have 60 days until the trade deadline,'' says Melvin. "That's a long time. A lot could change between now and then.''