Attentive baseball fans must have thought they were in a time warp when they saw a couple of recent maneuvers by Cincinnati general manager Walt Jocketty. In a span of four days, the Reds signed 41-year-old Russ Springer to a minor league deal and made an offer to former St. Louis closer Jason Isringhausen.
With all due respect to those two bullpen warhorses, the moves tell you all you need to know about the state of this year's trade market.
"I think the best word to describe it is underwhelming," one National League scout said. "You can pretty much pull the names out of a hat."
That hasn't stopped a lot of teams with pennant aspirations from trolling for upgrades. The Boston Red Sox rank 12th in the American League in bullpen ERA and could use some late-inning help for Daniel Bard and Jonathan Papelbon. Detroit wants an arm to replace Joel Zumaya. The Los Angeles Angels and Dodgers, New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays could all stand to add a reliever. Philadelphia and Minnesota still might have a move left in them.
The problem: Affordable, effective relievers are hard to find, while overpriced or underperforming bullpen pieces are falling out of trees. The Houston Astros will gladly talk about Brandon Lyon -- he of the three-year, $15 million deal -- but aren't so interested in discussing Matt Lindstrom. Kansas City would have to be blown away to consider moving Joakim Soria, a two-time All-Star who's under contractual control through 2014.
Rest assured, someone will be traded in the next week. Since 2005, Roberto Hernandez, Jeremy Affeldt, Eric Gagne, LaTroy Hawkins, Kyle Farnsworth, Arthur Rhodes, Rafael Betancourt, George Sherrill, John Grabow, Damaso Marte and Joe Beimel have changed teams in late July.
During that same span, Chad Gaudin, David Weathers, Jon Rauch, Chad Bradford, Scott Eyre, Eddie Guardado, Scott Schoeneweis and Guillermo Mota have been dealt in August, so the July 31 deadline doesn't necessarily mean the end of the trade activity.
If you think the names below are yawn-worthy, just imagine how front office people must feel.
"It's hard enough to predict how relievers are going to perform over the next couple of seasons," an American League assistant GM said. "Are these guys going to be better than what you already have? And how much do you give up for a guy who's a flip of the coin?"
Matt Capps, Washington (23 saves, 3.02 ERA)
Remember when Washington and the Chicago Cubs were competing to sign Capps after Pittsburgh non-tendered him in December? It turned out to be a big win for the Nationals and a boon to Capps' career. Capps is fourth in the National League with 23 saves, his fellow players selected him to the All-Star team and he's brought some stability to the back end of the Washington 'pen. That's not a bad return for Washington's $3.5 million investment.
So what happens now? The Nationals could maximize their return if they act boldly and move Capps. Opponents are batting .291 against him, so it's not as if he's been untouchable. Drew Storen is expected to take over as Washington's closer next season, and it's hard to envision the Nationals paying Capps $5 million-plus to be their eighth-inning guy.
The flip side: The Nationals energized the fan base when they brought up Stephen Strasburg, and they're wary of letting the entire season unravel in August and September. Washington GM Mike Rizzo didn't respond to messages seeking comment, but teams that have talked to Rizzo get the impression he won't move Capps without getting an awful lot in return.
"They're so focused on building that team back to respectability," an AL executive said. "To them, finishing seven or eight games under .500 is a lot better than finishing 15 games under .500. It means a lot to their business moving forward. In the end, I think they should consider trading him. But they don't seem that motivated to do it right now."
The Nationals are 10-23 since June 10 and a season-worst 14 games below .500, so that might give Rizzo the push he needs to take the plunge.
Octavio Dotel, Pittsburgh (20 saves, 4.62 ERA)
Evan Meek has a 1.03 ERA and a 0.87 WHIP, and Joel Hanrahan is rapidly evolving into a strikeout machine, which leaves Dotel as the third-best pitcher in the Pittsburgh bullpen. The consensus is that general manager Neal Huntington envisioned flipping Dotel at the deadline when the Pirates signed him to a one-year, $3.5 million contract in January.
Dotel has been with eight teams and pitched in the postseason three times, so he's not going to get flustered by a pennant race. But he's more a setup guy than a closer at age 36. He walks too many hitters, and lefties have a 1.097 OPS in 54 at-bats against him this season. The thought of Dotel facing Ryan Howard, Chase Utley, Adrian Gonzalez or Joey Votto in a big spot for a contending club in September is a little cringe-inducing -- and those are just the National League's lefty sluggers.
"He can maybe pitch the seventh inning for you," an American League scout said of Dotel. "He has some good cut-life on the fastball, but he's kind of a high-wire act back there."
Teams looking for a more low-profile Pirates pickup might check out D.J. Carrasco, who has limited righty hitters to a .661 OPS this season.
David Aardsma (17 saves, 5.22 ERA) and Brandon League, Seattle
The consensus is that Aardsma is going to change addresses between now and the deadline. He's 28 years old and pitching for his fifth organization. You have to wonder if that breakout 38-save, 2.52 ERA season with Seattle in 2009 was an aberration. Aardsma's fastball registers in the mid-90s, but it's also straight. A National League scout said he's not exuding much confidence on the mound these days. That's putting it charitably.
"He doesn't hold his release point well enough," another scout said. "He still has quality stuff, but it gets flat and he elevates too much. He's gotten away from pitching inside, too. I'd still take the guy, personally. The worst-case scenario is that he could be a valuable setup guy for you."
Detroit has been mentioned as a potential landing spot for Aardsma, and he fits the profile because the Tigers like hard throwers, and pitching coach Rick Knapp is one of baseball's best, most patient teachers. Indications are the Tigers view Aardsma as the best of a weak bunch rather than a significant upgrade.
Seattle GM Jack Zduriencik is less inclined to trade League, who is 27 years old, still reasonably priced at a tick over $1 million and a candidate to close if Aardsma leaves town. The Mariners gave up Brandon Morrow to acquire League, and Morrow has 119 strikeouts in 107 innings with Toronto. So Zduriencik could take a PR hit if he trades League for a substandard return.
There was some surprise in baseball circles recently when Zduriencik traded away righty reliever Mark Lowe in the Cliff Lee deal. Lowe has had injury issues and will probably miss the entire season with a back injury, but he's only 26 and has a big arm.
"That's just what Texas needs -- another guy who throws near 100," an NL scout said.
Scott Downs (30-to-8 K/BB ratio, 2.52 ERA), Kevin Gregg and Jason Frasor, Toronto
Gregg, who signed a one-year, $2.75 million deal in February, is the classic turnaround candidate. He's a solid guy in the clubhouse, is putting up respectable numbers in the AL East and has been with five organizations, so he can fit in just about any team's bullpen dynamic as a seventh- or eighth-inning contributor.
Downs is significantly better than Baltimore's Will Ohman and Oakland's Craig Breslow, the other lefties on the trade market, but there's a catch: He projects as a Type A free agent, so if the Blue Jays keep him and offer him salary arbitration in December, they'll receive two draft picks as compensation. Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos has to receive a better package in trade to make it worth his while to move Downs now.
Frasor, a human trade rumor since last winter, hasn't helped his value with an uneven performance this season. He was terrible in April, lights-out in May and mediocre in June. He's been good again in July. He goes as his control goes.
Chad Qualls (8.35 ERA, .367 batting average against) and Aaron Heilman, Arizona
Arizona GM Josh Byrnes and manager A.J. Hinch might still be employed if the team's bullpen weren't such a disaster. No pitcher was more integral to that meltdown than Qualls, who's been terrible against lefties and righties, day and night, home and road, in the dry heat of the desert and the humidity of the road.
Qualls' knee bothered him throughout spring training, and it cost him velocity and sink on his pitches. When the bad numbers kept piling up, he lost his confidence and the problems compounded.
"He didn't respond to adversity very well," one D-backs watcher said.
It's in everyone's best interests for Arizona interim GM Jerry DiPoto to move Qualls, who's a free agent this winter and needs a decent finish to have a fighting chance on the open market. Qualls has about $1.8 million still owed to him this year, and the Diamondbacks will be on the hook for all or most of it if they plan on trading him. The more money DiPoto kicks in, the better the chances are he'll get a usable warm body in return.
Kerry Wood, Cleveland (eight saves, 6.30 ERA)
Wood has been a $20 million bust in Cleveland, so it's only fitting that as the trade deadline approaches, he's on the disabled list with a blister. That gives general manager Mark Shapiro and assistant GM Chris Antonetti a brief respite before they start hammering the phones again in an effort to move him.
Barring a setback, Wood will return early next week, a few days ahead of the July 31 deadline. Since Wood still has about $4.5 million left on his contract, he should have little trouble clearing waivers and being available for the taking in August. The obvious questions are: (1) How much money is Cleveland willing to eat to get a deal done; (2) how much can Wood help a team down the stretch? It's almost certain to be in a setup role, since the contending teams are pretty much set at closer.
Between Wood's injuries and the losing in Cleveland, he's had a hard time settling into a groove. Wood looked dazzling during a three-day stretch in late June, when he struck out six in three innings and notched three straight saves against Cincinnati and Toronto. But that was the exception to the rule.
"I think he pitches a little tentatively at times and uses his cutter too much," a scout said. "When he stays with his fastball and curveball, he's still got knockout stuff. I've got to believe they can get him to a club that's in need of some depth."
Leo Nunez, Florida (22 saves, 2.79 ERA)
The Marlins have had a knack for breathing life into relievers' careers, for varying lengths of time. Armando Benitez, Todd Jones, Joe Borowski, Lee Gardner, Joe Nelson, Kiko Calero and Dan Meyer are among the pitchers who've taken advantage of the heavy air, big ballpark and ample opportunity in Florida.
Nunez, 26, is the latest beneficiary, with 48 saves over two years and a 41-to-9 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season. Nunez is cost-effective at $2 million, and he's not eligible for free agency until 2012. But the same attributes that make him appealing to trade suitors make the Marlins equally resistant to trading him. If owner Jeffrey Loria thought his team was good enough to justify firing manager Fredi Gonzalez after a 34-36 start, then the Marlins are going to need someone to close next season.
"He can really miss bats in a back-end role for someone," a scout said of Nunez.
Florida might be willing to listen on Clay Hensley, who's quietly struck out 50 batters in 40 1/3 innings and become the Marlins' latest bullpen find.
Trevor Hoffman, Milwaukee (7.50 ERA, eight HRs allowed in 30 innings)
"He's not a real target of too many clubs, I can tell you that," a National League front office man said.
Yeah, we figured that.
Could Milwaukee general manager Doug Melvin try to do Hoffman a personal courtesy and move him to a contending team for one last run at glory? Perhaps. Hoffman has 596 career saves, but he's lost his closer's job to John Axford, so the Brewers don't even have the incentive of keeping him around to promote a run at 600 to sell a few extra tickets.
The problem, of course, is that Hoffman is 42 years old and perilously close to the end. His workload has to be closely monitored, and all the savvy in the world can't make up for a lack of stuff. Hoffman has induced a swinging strike 6 percent of the time this season, compared to 12.1 percent in San Diego in 2008.
"There's nothing left," a scout said. "The changeup and fastball have backed up into each other."
It would be nice to see Hoffman go out in a more upbeat scenario, the way Greg Maddux did with the Padres and Dodgers. If you read Dirk Hayhurst's book "The Bullpen Gospels," you know what kind of intangibles Hoffman brings to a clubhouse.
"He still throws strikes, and he's not going to be scared by anything," an AL assistant GM said. "He's obviously not anywhere near what he used to be, but he still has an incredible amount of respect within the game. He can walk into any clubhouse and have immediate credibility, and there's something to be said for that."
Hoffman appears to rank down Melvin's list of movable bullpen parts. Carlos Villanueva and Todd Coffey are potential trade chips for the Brewers, and Kameron Loe has pitched very well since his return from Japan. It might be time for Melvin to cut his losses with lefty Manny Parra, who's gone from a hot starting prospect to a liability at age 27.
Kyle Farnsworth, Kansas City (3-0, 2.41 ERA)
One big positive to acquiring Farnsworth: He's a great guy to have around during bench-clearing brawls.
He's also having a heck of a year in Kansas City, with a 31-to-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 1.12 WHIP (compared to 1.52 and 1.53 the past two seasons).
"On the right day he's a shutdown guy -- and he's been better than the guy who's had his hair on fire his whole career," an NL scout said. "But when he does it for a bad ballclub, that sends a little bit of a message, too."
Farnsworth knows the drill around this time of year. Detroit traded him to Atlanta at the deadline in 2005 and reacquired him from the Yankees in late July 2008. He can still ramp it up to 97 or 98 mph, and he's added a two-seam fastball to his repertoire as a complement to the heater.
"I think he's learned a little bit that sometimes less is more," an American League scout said.