Royals general manager Allard Baird is ready to listen to offers for Carlos Beltran, a center fielder who can hit and run and play excellent defense, and could have an impact on his next team well into October. Baird would, in most circumstances, be swamped with overwhelming offers for such a player.
But Baird probably won't get a deal worthy of Beltran because superagent Scott Boras represents the free agent-to-be. Rival general managers are assuming there's virtually no chance they can sign Beltran before he would become a free agent in the off-season. Boras' history is that when he has a player of such high stature, he always takes him onto the open market, where he can pit competing teams against one another and drive up the bidding.
Jason Giambi was the last player to get a contract of $100 million or more when he signed with the Yankees after the 2001 season; Beltran will probably be the next, with the Yankees, Boston, Baltimore, San Diego and other teams prepared to woo him.
So when you trade for Beltran before the July 31 deadline, one GM said this week, "you know it's strictly a rental situation. With another player, maybe, you could make him feel really comfortable after you get him, give him a feel for your clubhouse and your city, and then you can negotiate a long-term extension before he hits the market. If you went after a player like that, you might be willing to give up an extra prospect, or give up one of your best young guys."
"But there's no hope with [Beltran]. Boras is not going to sign, and that's going to affect what you're willing to give up."
Boras' presence figures to affect the volume and quality of offers Baird hears -- and so far, other GMs say, Baird is shooting very, very high.
"For what he's looking for, I think he might have a long wait -- maybe until the All-Star break, or right up to the deadline," says another GM. "He wants your best guys, and that's pretty steep for a someone who is going to walk away when the season is over."
Baird is looking to get a top-flight catcher or third baseman. "We're still playing for this year," Baird told the Kansas City Star, "but we're now willing to listen to offers for players who might not fit with our plans for next year. We have an eye on 2005. No doubt about it."
A look at some of the teams that may or may not consider swapping for Beltran:
1. San Diego Padres:
Could be the favorite, because they might have the greatest need among all the teams involved in the bidding. In the first year of Petco Park, they are making a push to win the NL West in a year when the division is eminently winnable: The Rockies are awful, the Arizona Diamondbacks are fading, the Giants are being propped up by Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt, and the Dodgers continue to struggle to score runs.
The Padres have good pitching, other decent parts to their team -- and a glaring need for more RBI help in their lineup. If Beltran was added, then other hitters would slide down and the Padres would have more depth in the middle of their order. Reportedly, the Padres and Royals have talked about a deal involving third baseman Sean Burroughs and minor league outfielder Xavier Nady for Beltran and veteran third baseman Joe Randa.
2. Boston Red Sox:
They've got some chips to deal, but in a year when they are loaded with players who are eligible to become free agents -- Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, and two others who are represented by Boras, Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek -- do they want to take on another player who could walk away? Probably not. It's more likely the Red Sox will be among the many teams chasing after the summer's most coveted player, Seattle right-hander Freddy Garcia.
3. New York Yankees:
Many executives in the game expect Beltran will wind up with the Yankees in the off-season. But right now, when the Yankees have to deal from their scant group of prospects, their most glaring need is clearly starting pitching, with some concern also in the bullpen. Kevin Brown hurt his back the other day, Mike Mussina strained his groin Friday, Jose Contreras might eventually be better suited for the bullpen. If GM Brian Cashman is calling the shots, rather than owner George Steinbrenner, then it's a certainty that the Yankees' priority will be pitching.
4. New York Mets:
GM Jim Duquette met with Baird in Kansas City on Friday, and it might be that the Mets -- forever nudged and pushed by the perception that they don't go the extra mile to get players like Vladimir Guerrero -- could be goaded into giving up third base prospect David Wright, or maybe even Jose Reyes, whose MIA season has made him a pariah on the talk-radio cycles.
But making a deal like that would be a huge mistake, along the lines of the Mo Vaughn trade they made. Even in a year when the NL is filled with mediocre teams, the Mets are a badly flawed team with other weaknesses -- shortstop Kaz Matsui, middle relief -- that eventually would take them down, Beltran or no Beltran.
And imagine the backlash if the Mets traded a top young player for Beltran -- only to see him flee to the Yankees in the off-season. Steinbrenner would pay double to make sure that happens.
5. Oakland Athletics:
Beltran is to make $9 million this season, meaning he is still owed a little less than $6 million for the rest of the season. That would be a problem for Oakland GM Billy Beane. And in past years, Beane has generally made midseason deals for players he can keep for another year or two -- Jermaine Dye, Johnny Damon -- and not free-agents-to-be.
On the other hand, the Athletics are moving closer to the day when they will not be able to hold together their talented starting rotation; their window of opportunity will close, eventually, and Beane might want to go for it. The longer that Beltran remains with K.C., the better the chance the Athletics make a move for him.
7. Los Angeles Dodgers:
Their weak offense could use help, of course, but the Dodgers are looking around for pitching, with Hideo Nomo throwing too many floaters. More likely to be involved in the Garcia dealings than for Beltran.
A sleeper in this whole thing. Beltran would fit in pretty nicely, and the Marlins -- with their strong starting pitching -- are poised for a stretch run. Might help more to get a couple of good middle relievers.
Chicago White Sox:
Pitching is their No. 1 priority.
Won't make a major mid-season transaction push until next year, when their team has matured another season.
Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer, and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.