Two weeks left until July. And you know what that means.
Rumorfest 2006 is about to erupt, any minute now.
So we want you to be ready. We want you to be educated. We want you to know the truth about all those names you've been hearing and reading and fantasizing about.
And the truth is, most of them are figments of scouts', sportswriters' and talk-show hosts' imaginations. So here they come, the 10 juiciest Rumor Central candidates of the summer of 2006 -- and our educated appraisal on their real dealability:
It would almost be easier to list the teams that haven't asked the Marlins about Willis than the teams that have. But the list of shoppers is known to include the Yankees, Dodgers, Mets, Cardinals, Phillies, Braves, Diamondbacks, Tigers, Rangers and Rockies.
OK, now the bad news: Every one of those teams had better start working on Plan B, because it looks less likely, by the day, that the D-Train is leaving this station.
One team says it was told this was going to be all owner Jeffrey Loria's call. And Loria is under so much pressure from MLB to get a ballpark built and keep the team in South Florida, it's going to be almost impossible to justify trading the charismatic face of his franchise. So enjoy those Dontrelle rumors for what they're worth -- because even his most frenetic pursuers are beginning to conclude none of them will ever happen.
You never know what A's GM Billy Beane might do come July, because he has done it all over the years. He has bought. He has sold. He has bought and sold at the same time. He has dealt his potential free agents. He has kept his potential free agents. Uh, that about covers it.
But it has all been done in the name of winning -- when there's a chance to win. And with the AL West looking eminently winnable again this year, how can the A's possibly move their best starting pitcher?
It was doable, in theory, when Rich Harden was healthy and pitching depth looked like this team's biggest weapon. But only the stock market has a more uncertain prognosis than Harden, who is now down with a strained ligament in his elbow. So unless that picture changes, don't bet your copy of "Moneyball" on Zito's going anywhere.
When the Nationals were 13-27, they looked like a team ready to sell off everything but the wallpaper. Then, however, they turned into one of the hottest teams in baseball, winning 17 of their next 24. Then they U-turned again and got swept in a four-game series at home by Colorado. So now they're in about the most uncomfortable position of any team out there.
Are they contenders, or not? And even if they're not, is there any worse way for new owners to make an entrance than with a massive everything-must-go sale?
"Think about it," said one NL executive. "Why would new owners want to come into a city and create the perception they're tearing up their club? There's nothing more important in baseball than perception. And if the perception is that all these people want to do is save money and dump players, they'll get killed. So they're walking a thin line."
Granted, new team president Stan Kasten is on a mission to rebuild the farm system. So they'll do plenty of listening. But they won't deal everybody, because that's dangerous. If they do trade a pitcher, though, either Hernandez (who makes $8 million this year and $7 million next) or Tony Armas Jr. (a future free agent) will get real popular real fast. The Mets and Yankees both have Hernandez on their shopping lists. They're not alone.
Speaking of Nationals heading for the auctioneer's stand, Soriano is clearly first in line. He has made it clear almost nothing can stop him from charging into free agency this winter. So he is leaving his team with virtually no choice but to listen to all offers.
But that doesn't necessarily mean Soriano is a goner, either. The Nationals are telling clubs they'll want at least two sure-thing prospects back (since they'd get two high draft picks as compensation if they hold onto him). And an official of one interested club says, flatly, they won't get that.
"Here's the problem," the official said. "This guy thinks he's a 15-to-16-million-dollar-a-year player. And I don't know of any team that would be willing to trade for him and extend [his contract] at that level. So that means he's just a rental. And if they want back what we're hearing they want back, I don't think they're going to get it. So my prediction is, he'll wind up staying there."
Then again, he might be the best bat on the market. So it's never safe to assume the Yankees or Dodgers would buy that logic.
If Soriano isn't the most alluring hitter available, Lee could be. But contrary to popular belief, he isn't yet.
An official of one club who has talked to the Brewers says he expects them to at least make a run at trying to sign Lee to an extension in the next couple of weeks. And while he's probably too expensive for them, they won't actively shop him until (A) they know they can't keep him and (B) they know they can't contend.
That's the likely outcome. But it's not a fait accompli. If Lee does get plopped on the trade-mart shelves, every club chasing an outfield bat will grab a shopping cart -- especially the Dodgers, Cardinals and Yankees.
If there are 20 teams looking for starting pitching, all 20 have an eye on the Cubs. But Kerry Wood and Mark Prior make teams nervous. So Maddux is the guy who could zoom to the top of the trade-rumor charts if the Cubs decide to dangle him.
Maddux doesn't have a no-trade clause. But he does appear to have an understanding with the Cubs' poobahs that they'll trade him only if he wants to go -- and only where he wants to go. And if he wants to go anywhere, which is no sure thing, it would almost certainly be just out west (i.e., not New York).
"You know the place I keep hearing?" one front-office man says. "Arizona. For a guy who lives in Vegas, that's the perfect spot."
Abreu's name shows up in the New York tabloids almost as often as Angelina Jolie's. But no matter how ugly the Phillies looked in that series against the Mets, they're not going to pull the plug on the season when they're as talented as any wild-card contender in their league. And they're not going to FedEx Abreu to the Bronx for a couple of Florida State League hotshots.
So the odds of the Phillies' dealing Abreu or Pat Burrell in midseason are slimmer than Lisa Kudrow. They both have total no-trades. They both are owed humongous dollars ($15 million plus at least a $2 million buyout for Abreu next year, $27 million for Burrell in 2007-08). And the Phillies wouldn't move either of them without getting a legit ace back. Which would be, well, who, exactly?
But the Phillies are sending signals they're looking to retool, get younger, bring in more guys out of the Aaron Rowand School of Hard Noses and import a true, proven, top-of-the-rotation arm/leader. They're just more likely to work on that mission over the winter than in July.
The Angels, Tigers, Dodgers, White Sox and Cardinals salivate at the thought of reeling in this guy. And why not? He's 24. He gets better every year. He can play left field or center. And he has a club-friendly contract that could keep him under control through 2010.
But all those attributes also make him extremely pricey. The Angels have been balking at including Ervin Santana in any deal for Crawford. But the fact is, it appears the Devil Rays won't move Crawford, one-for-one, for anybody.
An executive of one team says the Devil Rays are more interested in getting three, or even four, players back for Crawford -- two high-ceiling prospects and two young big leaguers. And most, if not all, of that package would need to be pitching. If that's the price, it's a price you rarely see paid in July. If anyone could command it, though, Carl Crawford might be the man.
What Willis is to the Marlins, Hunter is to the Twins. So what Willis is to the pitching market, Hunter is to the outfield market.
A juicy name to toss into Rumor Central? You bet. A name you're likely to see in the old Transactions column on July 31? A definitive nope.
Just as the Marlins need Willis to lend credibility to their 4,983rd campaign to get a ballpark built, the Twins need Hunter to justify the ballpark money all their favorite governmental pals just laid out for them after years and years of work.
The Twins hold a $12 million option on Hunter for next year, which they can now afford. And officials of three different interested teams say they don't think the Twins can take a chance on unleashing the kind of backlash they'd absorb for dealing Hunter.
"That's tough for them to do right now," one assistant GM says. "They finally got that stadium. They got people to step up and build it. And those people love Torii Hunter in Minnesota. He's the new Kirby Puckett. So how do you trade him?"
Ken Griffey Jr.
Griffey was a rumorfest unto himself last July (especially to the White Sox). But there figures to be a lot less buzz this time around, for two reasons:
1. In case you hadn't noticed, the Reds happen to lead the NL wild-card pack. So they're telling everyone they're not looking to mess with their core.
2. Griffey still has a minimum of $29 million coming over the next two years. And he's still a pull, strain, tear or fracture waiting to happen. So as an official of one club looking for outfielders says, "You tell me how we can possibly take Griffey. How? He has all that money left, and he's always one step away from going down."
So who is going to get traded?
Too early to answer that question with any certainty. But all of these players will almost certainly be out there (or are already):
Pitchers: Jeff Weaver, Rodrigo Lopez, Bruce Chen, John Thomson, Jason Johnson, Kyle Lohse, Victor Santos, Kip Wells, Oliver Perez, Odalis Perez, Glendon Rusch, Ramon Ortiz, Jeremy Affeldt, Elmer Dessens, Roberto Hernandez, Salomon Torres, Damaso Marte, Chris Reitsma, Rudy Seanez, Joe Borowski.
Hitters: Craig Wilson, Jose Guillen, Juan Pierre, Julio Lugo, Aubrey Huff, Shannon Stewart, Rondell White, Mark Grudzielanek, Reggie Sanders, Tony Graffanino, Matt Stairs, Jay Payton, Bobby Kielty, David Dellucci, Jeff Conine, Kevin Millar, Jeromy Burnitz.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.