Once more, the Houston Astros have made life a little easier for Yankees general manager Brian Cashman. Six years ago, the Astros made a late and winning bid for Randy Johnson, then of the Seattle Mariners, and Cashman breathed more readily, knowing that the Big Unit would be pumping fastballs in the National League rather than for the Cleveland Indians, the Yankees' biggest rival at that time.
Cashman had ignored the rants of owner George Steinbrenner and made the determination then that the Yankees, who were in the midst of their 125-win season, didn't need to trade a cluster of prospects for a player who was only a couple of months away from becoming a free agent. And he made the same decision in recent weeks as Kansas City GM Allard Baird dangled star center fielder Carlos Beltran.
Beltran is a star player, yes, but he would not have made the Yankees much better. They already are scoring runs, already have two center fielders in Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton, and a deal for Beltran would have all but forced manager Joe Torre to use Jason Giambi as his first baseman every day. For the Yankees, the most compelling reason to acquire Beltran would be to ensure that he wouldn't be in Boston or Oakland.
But Baird moved Beltran to the Astros, where he should help Houston immeasurably, and Cashman can now fully focus on the Yankees' glaring need for a starting pitcher. With Beltran headed to Houston, the best position player comes off the board, and the contenders can readjust their sights.
Yankees: Everybody is waiting for Seattle GM Bill Bavasi to wave a white flag and put Freddy Garcia on the market, but to this point Bavasi has held off -- despite the fact that the Mariners are farther behind the leaders in the AL West than the Royals are in the AL Central.
Assuming Garcia becomes available at some point, it figures the Yankees will be very aggressive. Garcia is 28, he has pitched well in the postseason, and he is open to signing a contract extension before becoming a free agent in the offseason.
And let there be no doubt: The Yankees will need a big-time, sure-thing starter in the postseason, when their offense will not easily make up four- and five-run deficits against more talented pitching staffs. Jose Contreras might have better peace of mind with his family out of Cuba, but that won't necessarily give him the pitching confidence he clearly lacks in big moments. Jon Lieber is completely at the mercy of his control, and when he doesn't have it, he is terrible. Mike Mussina can be very effective, but he has been more erratic, his margin for error in each start diminished; same with Kevin Brown.
Brad Halsey, the rookie left-hander who will pitch Friday against the Mets, is intriguing because of his composure and his ability to move to the ball to both sides of the strike zone -- shades of Andy Pettitte -- but the Yankees won't bank on him. That's not how they operate.
The staff is being propped up by the bullpen trio of Mariano Rivera, Tom Gordon and Paul Quantrill; without them, the team ERA is 4.96. Overall, the Yankees have outscored their opponents by 42 runs, less than three other AL teams -- the White Sox (62), Boston (48) and Texas (48) -- and the same as Oakland. The lineup of All-Star sluggers has masked a serious problem.
If not Garcia, the Yankees could consider the likes of Jamie Moyer, Russ Ortiz, David Wells (the modern-day Billy Martin for Steinbrenner), or perhaps even Randy Johnson, if he's presented with an opportunity for an extension.
Boston: Beltran was the best possible player for the Red Sox, who need to get back some of the depth that made their lineup so dangerous in '03. In many respects, Arizona's Steve Finley would be a perfect fit. Interestingly, however, no matter what player Boston adds, the same simple dynamic remains in place for the team: The Red Sox need Pedro Martinez to be sound and dominant in October to be a factor.
Oakland: The Athletics face the same quandary as the Cleveland Indians in the '90s -- they keep scrambling for the final pieces for postseason greatness, as their window of opportunity remains open. At some point -- when the Big Three is broken up because of money or injuries -- the window will close.
The Indians could never quite put together the starting pitching to match the other components of the team; right now, Oakland needs a little more juice in its offense, and better results from its bullpen, which should be helped by the addition of Octavio Dotel.
Only Cleveland has fewer saves than the Athletics (13 for the Indians, 14 for Oakland), and the ERAs of Oakland's primary relievers are 5.28, 5.68, 5.23, 6.23. Dotel might have some league adjustments to make and he might not be suited for closing games regularly, but he does give manager Ken Macha a weapon with his 12.98 strikeouts per 9 innings.
The Athletics have relied heavily on their starters, and they have struggled against other contenders; their record against Anaheim, the Yankees, Boston and Texas is 10-15. An upgrade was needed.
Houston: Perhaps the worst part of the Astros' team was its defense, particularly in the outfield; the trio of Lance Berkman, Craig Biggio and Richard Hidalgo was all but immobile. But in Beltran, the Astros get a legitimate center fielder who can cover ground in the gaps, and the fact that he is a switch-hitter should balance a Houston lineup that has been mostly right-handed.
The departure of Dotel leaves a big hole in the bullpen, in a summer when there aren't many good middle relievers available; the stock of the Dodgers' Guillermo Mota is soaring, and Jose Mesa is suddenly coveted. But the Astros must think about winning now, this year, because Houston is an old team.
Texas Rangers: They will not make radical moves to upgrade this team, with the Rangers' pitching still developing. But there will be tweaks in the roster, a pickup here and there, because no team plays with more intensity on a daily basis than Texas. The Rangers will be the team nobody wants to play in August and September.
Florida Marlins: They will be a very dangerous team if they get their pitching in order, but the Marlins need somebody to get the RBI that Derrek Lee used to get for them. Jeff Conine is hitting .179 with runners in scoring position, and has 24 RBI in 217 at-bats; Hee Seop Choi has generally improved, but with runners in scoring position, he's generated 16 strikeouts in 44 at-bats. The Marlins don't have to rush to make their changes, because the market will be filled with RBI guys in late July and August.
White Sox: Chicago needs pitching, wants pitching, and will get pitching. It will be in the Freddy Garcia hunt.
Giants, Padres and Dodgers: Caught in the purgatory that is the NL West, none of these teams is good enough to run away from the pack, but all have needs to address. The Giants' manhandling of L.A. this week makes it more like San Francisco will be a buyer rather than the seller that executives with other teams thought they would become in July.
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.