For the Astros to fire Beltran back onto the market, or even to contemplate trading Clemens, they would have to announce to the world -- and their massive ticket-buying public -- that they're blowing up the season.
And for that to happen, says GM Gerry Hunsicker, "things would really have to get desperate."
Granted, if you just peruse those NL Central standings, things might look desperate. But look again. True, the Astros were 9½ games out in the division heading into Thursday. But there's this modern contraption called the wild card to fall back on. And they were just 3½ games back in that nine-team free-for-all.
So unless their always-unpredictable owner, Drayton McLane, wakes up one morning and decides to unload, Hunsicker is inclined to hang onto his stars and play it out.
"We've put so much into this year," the GM says, "that trading guys like that only makes sense if A) we think we're out of the wild card, and B) we can get something back that makes sense."
But despite the Beltran rumor frenzy before the Royals traded him, K.C. GM Allard Baird didn't appear too enthused about anything he was offered other than the deal he eventually made. So why would a better offer show up on Houston's doorstep, even if the Astros did decide to dangle Beltran?
And when it comes to Clemens, the No. 1 local icon in the Houston metropolitan area, ask yourself this: The Astros are averaging nearly 40,000 customers a game when Clemens pitches -- vs. just over 37,000 when anyone else pitches. So how nuts would they be to trade him -- for anything or anybody?
"Roger has been such a story, such a draw," Hunsicker says, "that just from an attendance standpoint, I don't know how you could make a case for trading him."
So if you study the big picture at all, you should understand why Hunsicker says this Beltran-Clemens talk is "absurd." After all, the Astros based many of their hopes for this year on assumptions they might have the best rotation in baseball. And they've been able to run that rotation out there together for only a half-dozen turns all season. So they'd love to see what might happen if they got that whole group healthy.
And their list of eight prospective free agents includes Clemens, Beltran, Craig Biggio and Jeff Kent. So how can the Astros not go out of their way to give this team a full shot in what almost certainly will be its last roundup in this form?
"This group deserves the opportunity to win," Hunsicker says. "And our intention is to give them that opportunity."
There's no indication the Marlins did any more than ruminate about the possibility of pursuing Nomar Garciaparra. But one high-profile player they are believed to have interest in is Pirates catcher Jason Kendall.
You don't need to be related to Pudge Rodriguez to know why. In their first year of the post-Pudge era, Marlins catchers rank 28th in the big leagues in RBI (28) and slugging (.312). They're 26th in batting average (.229). And only the Cardinals' catchers have fewer homers than Florida's three. That's a monstrous tumble from last year, when Marlins catchers hit .284, with 19 homers, 94 RBI and a .451 slugging percentage.
So Kendall would be a perfect fit. He was last seen hitting .308, with a .387 on-base percentage, and playing as well defensively as he has in years.
But to make a trade workable for the ever-thrifty Marlins, the Pirates would need to digest a big hunk of the $38 million Kendall has coming through 2007. And they've balked in the past at eating even half of the contract.
But teams that have spoken with Pirates GM Dave Littlefield say he is so driven to get Kendall's contract off the books, he undoubtedly wouldn't place anywhere near as high a price tag on Kendall as he has on Kris Benson.
Indications are that the two teams haven't had any more than exploratory talks. But that, apparently, is because the Marlins want to wait another week or two to see where they are in the race and to prioritize their needs. So could this still happen? Don't touch that dial.
But the Pirate least likely to be located in Pittsburgh next month is still Benson. One interested club says it's been told there are still seven or eight teams actively stalking Benson.
But Littlefield wants a young impact bat -- preferably at a corner infield position, although it's also possible Littlefield would take an outfielder and move Craig Wilson to first base. And that price tag is going to be tough for many teams to meet.
The Mets would trade Ty Wigginton but not David Wright. The Phillies would trade Placido Polanco but not Chase Utley. Texas would deal Kevin Mench but not Adrian Gonzalez. And that explains all the speculation that Benson eventually will end up in Minnesota, where the Twins might have more high-level position-player prospects than any team in the game.
Littlefield won't comment on the specifics of any offer. But he's getting tired of reading that his demands for the best pitcher on the market are "outrageous."
"I've done enough deals now," he says. "Nothing is outrageous. All you have to do is say no."
Oh, and in case you're wondering, the Pirates' stunning hot streak of the last couple of weeks hasn't changed anything. They still figure to be the Wal-Mart of the trade-deadline world, selling off just about anything anyone might need.
"As well as we've played," Littlefield says, "we're still seven games under .500 and 13½ games out of first. So we haven't changed our position. The goal is to win a championship. And we have a long ways to go to be a championship team."
Besides Benson and Kendall, the Pirates are fielding calls on Jose Mesa (whom they'll almost certainly move) and right-handed setup men Salomon Torres and Brian Meadows (whom they're more reluctant to move). They're planning to hang onto all their young left-handers (John Grabow, Mike Johnston and Mike Gonzalez). But if Randall Simon ever starts to hit, his annual deadline journey to a contender should arrive right on schedule.
Multiple sources have corroborated a report, by the Bucks County Courier Times' Randy Miller, that the Phillies and Cardinals have discussed a Kevin Millwood-and-Placido Polanco-for-Matt Morris-and-Steve Kline swap. And it was no coincidence the Cardinals' special assistant, Bob Gebhard, was in attendance for Millwood's start Thursday against the Mets.
This would be a fascinating deal, in which two first-place teams essentially exchange disappointing No. 1 starters. But it's hard to understand why this deal would make sense for the Cardinals.
Morris may be a lame duck in St. Louis. But dealing him would be a dangerous threat to the chemistry of a team with the best record in the National League.
But Millwood did send signals last winter that he would love to pitch for the Cardinals. And Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan has never-ending faith in his ability to "fix" guys with good stuff who get mechanically out of whack.
Still, Millwood's continuing struggles (13-16, with a 4.80 ERA, in his last 42 starts) wouldn't make him an upgrade over Morris right now. So an executive of one NL team says the Cardinals' only real incentive to make this trade would be to add Polanco, a long-time Tony La Russa favorite.
"Polanco would be the key to the deal," the exec says, "because you figure the two starting pitchers are either a wash, or St. Louis gets the worst of it. So to make this deal, they'd have to be sure Polanco was some kind of answer."
Whether that trade goes down or not, several clubs report that the Phillies have been dangling both Millwood and Polanco in assorted deals for other prospective free agents. But they either would need to get a pitcher back for Millwood, or have another deal in place for someone who could replace him in the rotation.
Of the prospective free-agent starters out there, the only one who might need a change of scenery more than Millwood is Derek Lowe. And Lowe never pitched better, you'll recall, than he did under current Phillies pitching coach Joe Kerrigan.
There has been no indication the Red Sox have any interest in Millwood. But an assistant GM of a third team that has talked to Boston went as far as to predict that Lowe will be traded in the next month if the Red Sox can find a decent replacement.
Meanwhile, teams that have talked to the Phillies say they have explored deals for just about every pitcher with any shot to be available -- Benson, Lowe, Barry Zito, Randy Johnson, Ramon Ortiz and even Gil Meche. They also undoubtedly would have interest in Jamie Moyer, Paul Wilson, Cory Lidle and Tony Armas Jr. if they ever make it onto the market.
But they've been telling clubs they won't deal Utley, Ryan Madson or their two elite pitching prospects, Gavin Floyd or Cole Hamels. And they would only trade Eastern League home run leader Ryan Howard for a player they could keep beyond this season.
So it's possible they could end up trading lesser prospects, and/or Polanco, for two relief pitchers and then move Madson into the rotation.
New York-New York Rumblings
The Yankees have been telling people they backed off Kris Benson because they didn't believe he could win a big game in October in New York. But other clubs that have been in contact with Pittsburgh say it was actually the Pirates who told the Yankees they just don't match up, because of the Yankees' dearth of upper-level position-player prospects.
According to various sources, the Yankees also have made runs at Johnson, Moyer, Odalis Perez, Russ Ortiz and Morris -- but have gotten nowhere. The first four are unavailable. And the Yankees don't have a pitcher to flip back to St. Louis in a deal for Morris.
The Mets are another team that has been in on just about every starting pitcher on the market. But rather than dangle their top prospects, they're trying to get other clubs interested in third baseman Ty Wigginton, a guy who did nothing but help his value by homering four times in six games this month.
They could have a match with either the Angels (for Ramon Ortiz) or Reds (for Lidle or Wilson). But the Reds haven't decided if they're buyers or sellers. And the Angels have been slow to decide whether they even want to move Ortiz.
Nevertheless, clubs in contact with the Mets are convinced they'll eventually trade for both a starter and a reliever.
More Rumor-Mill Rumblings
Two sources that have had conversations with the Cubs and Expos say the two teams are talking about a deal to send Orlando Cabrera to the Cubs.
One source describes the chances of this trade happening as "a good possibility." But the Cubs are understandably concerned about Cabrera's dismal numbers (.238, 23 RBI and only 11 doubles -- after three straight 40-double seasons). So this is no lock to get done.
Although teams continue to barrage the Expos with calls about Livan Hernandez, Tony Armas Jr. and Jose Vidro, clubs that have talked with Montreal say the only players the Expos are actively shopping are Cabrera and former closer Rocky Biddle.
The Giants are foraging for a reliever and an outfield bat but have told teams that their two best pitching prospects, Merkin Valdez and Matt Cain, are unavailable. The Giants also have their usual money issues, meaning Preston Wilson and Steve Finley are almost certainly out of the question.
The Giants undoubtedly would be more interested in Jeromy Burnitz and Danny Bautista if they dealt with Colorado or Arizona. But indications are that even if either or both get traded, those teams wouldn't deal them within the division.
Teams that have called the Tigers say Ugueth Urbina isn't available -- yet. But that could change in the next three weeks. And if it does, a number of teams would line up fast -- particularly if Urbina is as willing to be a setup man this time around as he was when he was dealt to Florida last summer.
Nevertheless, Urbina's 4.91 ERA (up from 2.81 last year), climbing walk rate (22 in 33 innings) and slightly diminished velocity have made some of those interested clubs nervous.
"Look at Urbina's day-by-days sometime," says one GM. "We're looking for a definitive upgrade on what we have. We already have guys who put up zeroes one day and crooked numbers the next."
But an executive of another team in the bullpen market says: "To me, he's the most desirable guy out there, because he's done it."
If the Marlins can't find a way to trade for Kendall to upgrade their catching, clubs that have spoken with them report they also have interest in the Diamondbacks' Brent Mayne and the Mets' Vance Wilson. Florida also continues to shop for bullpen help. And it isn't out of the question the Fish could deal for another bat, now that they've fallen to 13th in the league in runs scored.
Despite talk that the Braves were ready to move Andruw Jones for Magglio Ordonez, an official of one club that has been in steady contact with Atlanta says he's convinced the Braves and White Sox never got beyond "mild conversations" on that, or any deal.
The Mariners obviously felt otherwise, though. One reason Seattle decided to move so fast on the Freddy Garcia trade is a belief that the White Sox were going to turn around and trade for Russ Ortiz and Jones.
Who is the most available future Hall of Famer in baseball at the moment? Has to be Roberto Alomar.
"Man," said an official of one club, "they'd just about pay you to take Alomar."
Really Rumbling And Grumbling
All signs continue to point toward Bud Selig making a call on the Expos' future home by the end of July or early August. But as Steve Fainaru's brilliant series in the Washington Post this month pointed out, there are still two gorillas in Selig's room to complicate an otherwise-simple decision.
One, obviously, is Peter Angelos. But the other is the racketeering suit brought by Jeffrey Loria's former limited partners in Montreal (who now, involuntarily, hold a small piece of the Marlins).
The suit gives those partners 90 days to file an injunction blocking any sale or move of the Expos. So the longer Selig delays a decision, the dicier the timetable could become.
But one hooked-in source says MLB remains confident it will be able to "handle" that situation "at the appropriate time." In other words, if you're looking for a logical translation of that statement, it might not just be Angelos who will need to have a big check written to him to pave the way for a move to Washington or Northern Virginia.
Virtually every baseball person we've surveyed about the Freddy Garcia trade thinks the Mariners made a great deal.
Double-A prospect Michael Morse "can really swing the bat," said one scout. And Miguel Olivo should solve the Mariners' catching problems for the next five years.
Meanwhile, the White Sox had no choice but to sign Garcia long-term after paying a price that steep to get him. But not everybody is convinced he's a safe bet to justify his $27 million over three years.
"That's a little rich for me," says one GM. "There was a time when he looked like he was going to be a big-time guy. But the graph hasn't continued to go up at the same rate. He's still good. But I wouldn't say he's dominant anymore."
Maybe baseball ought to think about starting a Coach of the Year award. Look around at the improvement some teams have made, and it's obvious certain coaches are having a huge impact.
"I've got to tip my cap to Mike Maddux," says one assistant GM. "Here's a guy with a great feel for what he's doing and a way of teaching that clearly works. Guys always seem to get better under him. When he was in Houston, he had (Roy) Oswalt, (Wade) Miller and (Brad) Lidge in Double-A. And he turned them all into rising stars, too."
Even if the Braves aren't ready to unload Andruw Jones, they probably wouldn't mind if all those trade rumors at least served as a wakeup call for one of baseball's most enigmatic players.
An executive of one club who spoke with Atlanta officials recently says the Braves are disappointed that Jones has gotten heavy, rarely takes fly balls off the bat in batting practice and has remained so inconsistent offensively that they've had to drop him to seventh in the lineup.
But an executive of another NL club says the longer the other NL East teams allow the Braves to hang around, the more dangerous they'll become. And it isn't just because they're about to get Marcus Giles and Horacio Ramirez off the disabled list.
"All these guys have been hearing all year is that they're not good enough to win anymore," the exec says. "And for guys like this, who have won this much, there's no better fuel than that. Nobody else in baseball has that intangible. Nobody else can get more out of having everyone else think they're the underdog. You put that together with Bobby Cox at the helm and John Schuerholz making deals, and they might be the most dangerous team in baseball right now."
Finally, the trading deadline may be a fun time to be a fan, slurping up a thousand rumors a week. But it sure isn't the favorite time of the year for a lot of players -- even players with no worries of being dealt.
Mets pitcher Al Leiter thinks baseball should consider limiting the number of deals each team can make -- so a club like the Yankees couldn't just add players at will and a going-nowhere team like the Pirates couldn't unload everybody but the batboys.
Leiter's suggestion is to assign Type-A, B and C rankings to players before the trade deadline the way baseball does to free agents every winter. Then a team would be limited to trading away, or acquiring, only two Type-A or B players a year during the season.
"I think it would be great for the game," Leiter says. "It would be great for fans to call the talk shows and debate which two moves their team should make. And it would make teams more accountable for their decision-making.
"That way, the deep-pocketed teams couldn't just keep tweaking and tweaking. And a team like we were last year couldn't just trade away a bunch of players. You could trade (Armando) Benitez and (Robbie) Alomar. But you couldn't trade Benitez and Alomar and (Jeromy) Burnitz and (Graeme) Lloyd and Sanchez. I think there's a lot of merit to that idea."
And you know what? We do, too. We were never quite willing to go along with a proposal often made by former Mariners GM Pat Gillick to eliminate deadline deals entirely, because people do love those deals. But they actually love rumors more than they love the trades themselves.
So keep Rumor Central in business -- but keep the trades themselves within reason -- and everybody should be happy.