CLEARWATER, Fla. -- Welcome to that time of year you've waited for all winter.
No, not the arrival of spring.
The arrival of the trade-rumor season.
Opening Day looms, right over the horizon. Those 15 extra guys in uniform in everybody's spring training camp know they're items in the transactions column waiting to happen.
So scouts hover. Cell phones ring. And
Boy, do we hate to break this to you, but just about nothing dramatic is likely to happen in this next week and a half.
"There are never as many spring training deals as you imagine," says one AL executive. "Spring training deals are more fiction than fact."
Here's what isn't fictional, however: Many of the names you're hearing are on that rumor circuit.
There are some very recognizable pitchers in the display window. But this is shaping up as a very strange market.
Only a couple of teams are shopping for starting pitching, and it's generally low-budget starting pitching. At least a dozen and a half clubs, on the other hand, are prowling for bullpen help that isn't there. And no one seems excited by the thin supply of available bats.
So here's a look at the end-of-spring trade-bait catalog for your perusal. Because pitching is always the focus this time of year, here are the five most prominent pitchers currently out there on the Home Team Shopping Network:
Jon Lieber (1.50 spring ERA)
When the Phillies traded for Freddy Garcia in December, they thought they'd have no trouble moving Lieber by April, most likely to the Rangers, Cardinals, Blue Jays, Orioles or Yankees. Little did they know. After four months of this talk, they still have found surprisingly little serious interest in a guy who had a 3.38 ERA in his last 11 starts last season and has pitched well this spring. So the latest rumor making the rounds is that they'd think about spinning Lieber for an impact bullpen arm. But who's that? So the only place Lieber seems likely to move is the bullpen -- until some starter goes down, in Philadelphia or elsewhere.
Byung-Hyun Kim (9.00 spring ERA)
The Rockies have shopped Kim relentlessly and Josh Fogg, without much success. Oakland kicked the whitewalls on Kim earlier this spring. But one club that has talked with the A's says they're "not actively interested" in him right now -- and "haven't even put a lot of effort into [acquiring] any starting pitching," for that matter. So Colorado even has tried marketing Kim as a bullpen option. But an executive of one team in the middle-relief market says: "Everything we've heard is that he doesn't want to pitch out of the pen anymore -- and I'm not sure I'd have a lot of faith in him out there."
Armando Benitez (0.00 spring ERA)
It's always fascinating to hear the wide divergence of opinions on Benitez. An official of one club looking for late-inning reinforcements says of him: "We're not that desperate yet." And another team rumored to be in on him, Seattle, appears to be a mirage. But Florida continues to hover in case the Giants decide they can afford to deal him. Unless the theoretical heir apparent, Brian Wilson, convinces them he's dependable, however, we'd bet Benitez goes nowhere. An aging team, with a new $126 million starting pitcher (Barry Zito) and no closer, isn't a pretty sight. So how can the Giants afford to trade this guy -- especially when you consider they'd have to digest most of his $7.6 million paycheck?
Jorge Julio (2.45 spring ERA)
The Diamondbacks have allowed Julio to become this spring's Human Trade Rumor. But that's nothing new for him. As one scout quipped when Julio's name came up, "Some guys are always available. They're available on the Fourth of July. They're available on Thanksgiving." So the moral of that story is that Julio is a fellow who doesn't fit everywhere. But a spot like Florida, with distant fences and zero big-market pressures, could be a fit. Whether the Marlins want to give up Yusmeiro Petit, the young pitcher Arizona wants back, is still a major stumbling block.
Chad Cordero (0.00 spring ERA)
Here's another closer who is available in theory. But teams that asked about him say the price was so high, they U-turned immediately. So his days in Rumor Central are numbered -- until July, anyway.
Bats on the market
Jacque Jones, Aaron Rowand, Ben Broussard, Jose Molina, Ryan Langerhans, Reggie Sanders, Mark Sweeney, Jason Lane, Brady Clark, Kevin Mench, Geoff Jenkins, Chris Shelton, Marcus Thames, Todd Walker, Lance Niekro, Emil Brown, Larry Bigbie, Erubiel Durazo.
Triviality: Only two players have stolen at least 20 bases in every season of this decade (2000-07). Bet you can't name them. (Answer later.)
Spring Rumblings and Grumblings
Yes, Aaron Rowand is available in the right deal. And yes, the White Sox spent a lot of time scouting the Phillies this spring. But those rumblings of a Rowand-for-Boone Logan swap are about as preposterous as trade rumors get. Clubs that have talked with both teams say the White Sox won't move "any significant bullpen piece." And the Phillies are "not interested in moving their center fielder for a sixth-inning guy." Incidentally, here's one baseball man's assessment of the oft-rumored Rowand-for-Scott Linebrink deal: "Completely dead." The Padres haven't shown any inclination to break up their sensational bullpen. Josh Hamilton continues to make the Reds a candidate for the Greatest Rule 5 Pick of This Millennium award. And it's now clear why the Reds moved up in that draft to take him: They were convinced that the Marlins and Phillies were both maneuvering to try to grab him first. 6-foot-5, 275-pound Pirates masher Brad Eldred has caused a stir among a few AL teams this spring with his .784 spring slugging percentage. "He's taken a step forward," says one scout. "He's starting to hit good fastballs. I've seen him against guys throwing 92-93-94, and he's gotten to it." But the Pirates are in no hurry to move Eldred, even though he's blocked at first base by Adam LaRoche. They've even tried him in right field this spring, and manager Jim Tracy says: "I've seen much worse [right fielders] playing in the major leagues." The Brewers have been a one-stop shopping outlet all spring for teams in the outfield market. But one club that has been speaking with them says they've pulled back their efforts to deal Clark, Mench or Jenkins until Laynce Nix recovers from an oblique injury. The Brewers also are telling teams they're holding onto Turnbow. But one NL executive says: "I'd trade him right now -- while he's throwing strikes." Two scouts who have been watching Sammy Sosa this spring give virtually the same scouting report -- and it isn't one that should cause you to start chiseling Sammy's name on the comeback-player-of-the-year trophy quite yet. "I know the numbers are good," says one scout. "But it's pretty tough to get me to buy into that one. He's really geared up for the fastball, and he's hit a few of them so far. But the next week or so is when we'll find out if he's for real." Donald Fehr on the idea of a post-World Series Real World Series matching the MLB and Japanese champions: "That's an idea whose time will come. But it's probably a ways away." Fehr says he can't even foresee any serious conversation on that subject until after the 2009 World Baseball Classic.
We've been asking scouts this spring to pick players they think might be ready to explode to a whole new level. Among the names they've tossed out there: Erik Bedard, Adam Loewen, Brian McCann, Dan Haren, Jamie Shields, Ian Snell, Cole Hamels, Felix Hernandez, Matt Cain, Howie Kendrick, Brad Hawpe, Garrett Atkins. One scout on Bedard: "He's got a chance to be a Cy Young candidate. He's a left-handed Roy Halladay." And here's another name to get worked up about, courtesy of one AL executive: "John Lackey looks like he has a chance to be the best pitcher in the league right now." Here's our read on the current state of the NL East: The Phillies are much more worried about their bullpen than the Mets are about their rotation. The Mets seem to have very few concerns about Mike Pelfrey or John Maine, and they'll take their chances on Oliver Perez. And Omar Minaya isn't second-guessing his lack of free-agent activity at all. "Our young pitchers at least have upside," Minaya says. "I don't know that the guys that were out there in the free-agent marketplace, aside from [Barry] Zito and [Daisuke] Matsuzaka, had upside." The Astros sound more confident every day that Roger Clemens eventually will head back to Houston. Finally, we don't know what this means. But the always-entertaining coolstandings.com has been playing out the 2007 season using 2006 stats. And no division was more shocking than the AL East, where the Red Sox started out (better sit down for this) 91-24 -- a 128-win pace -- which included one 30-game stretch in which they went 29-1. Feel free to check this out for yourself.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.