Schilling thrust into the spotlight

Let's get one thing straight: Curt Schilling didn't start all this.

His current employers, those payroll-lopping Arizona Diamondbacks, shot off the starter's gun by indicating to several teams they would be willing to trade the right-handed co-CEO of their local Aces Inc.

Then George Steinbrenner, as he's wont to do, booted this story into full-scale, back-page, talk-show, five-alarm media frenzy by ordering his baseball people to explore what it would take to make Schilling a Yankee.

And so, for the last week, Schilling's phones have done more ringing than the phone bank at the Crisis Intervention Hot Line. Every once in a while, he's picked them up. And every once in a while, he's answered the questions about where he might be willing to throw his next pitch.

But Schilling didn't start this. He's just the rider in the first car on the roller coaster.

"When you go to the bottom of the barrel and get to the basic facts, this is pretty simple," Schilling told Rumblings and Grumblings. "I'm not going to be in Arizona beyond this year, and I know that. So when I'm asked by my owner, 'Would you go to the Yankees?' what are my choices, really?

"I can stay here and pitch the last year of my contract in Arizona, and then walk. Or I can talk about possibly getting a three-year extension to go to New York and have a chance to win a world championship. If those are my choices, why wouldn't I at least agree to listen?"

And so he has. Which has since been reported by every major media outlet except Good Housekeeping.

But does that mean Schilling will be a Yankee by the time you're finished reading this column? There's a better chance of Steinbrenner selling the team to the Baseball Writers Association of America than there is of this trade happening imminently.

There are indications that when the Diamondbacks and Yankees contingents huddled at the GM meetings, Arizona asked for Nick Johnson and Alfonso Soriano and a prospect. And the Yankees were expected to assume not just Schilling's $12-million salary for next year, but also more than $16 million in deferrals. And take back either Matt Mantei or Junior Spivey.

So the Diamondbacks are going to have to adjust to the reality that, in this era, when you attempt to move a large contract (or contracts), you can't expect much talent back. If they don't, this deal isn't happening -- not now, anyway.

Arizona also has to come to grips with the high hard one that it has almost no other options. It's not as if Schilling is willing to listen to just any team that feels an urge to knock on Jerry Colangelo's door in an attempt to make some headlines. Schilling has a complete no-trade clause and total control over the next year of his life.

"There are two teams the Diamondbacks know I'll talk with if they try to make a trade with them," Schilling said. "That's the Yankees and Phillies. Other than that, there are no hidden factors, no hidden agendas."

He told the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jim Salisbury this week that if he has to go somewhere, the Phillies would be his first choice, "because that's home, and it's comfortable. That team has a chance to win the World Series. There's a new park. I love the fans there. The chance to pitch in that environment would be cool."

But he also understands that, at this point, the chances of finishing his career as a Phillie are slimmer than Jennifer Aniston.

For one thing, the Phillies have a policy of not deferring any contract money. So either Arizona would have to agree to pay the deferrals, or Schilling would have to restructure the contract.

For another, the Phillies have so many long-term, big-buck contracts on the books already, it seems unlikely they would be willing to offer Schilling more than a one-year extension, with a possible vesting option.

Finally, it's believed that Arizona's asking price started with Brett Myers and Jimmy Rollins. But the Phillies view Myers as a Schilling waiting to happen -- except that he's 14 years younger, isn't eligible for arbitration yet (let alone free agency) and can't become a free agent until 2008.

So unless just about every dab of paint on that canvas changes colors, a return to Philadelphia doesn't add up. And beyond that, Schilling isn't interested in turning his life into an auction at the moment. So it isn't worth the energy to start dreaming up other teams that could work into this hunt -- including the oft-mentioned Red Sox.

"I've given nobody else any indication that they would be a team I'd consider," he said. "My position is clear. I've told the Diamondbacks that I would talk to the Yankees and that I would talk to the Phillies. And that's it."

Originally, of course, the Yankees weren't even on that list. As recently as last Friday, in fact, when Schilling was asked on "Tthe Dan Patrick Show" if he would OK a deal to New York, he replied: "Probably not." But he did say "probably," now didn't he?

" 'Probably not' doesn't mean 'no,' " he said. "That's why I said 'probably.' You know me. If I meant no, I would have said 'no.' That interview came at a point in time where I was in the midst of working this thing out with my wife -- what we wanted, what we were going to do, what we were going to decide. So I was in the midst of going from, 'I don't know,' to, 'I'd talk.' "

But Schilling also makes it clear that "I'd talk" isn't the same thing as "Where do I sign?"

"I'm still not sure what's going to happen," he said. "All I've done is, I've agreed to talk to them. In the grand scheme of things, that doesn't mean anything. I'm willing to talk. That's the only change in my stance."

But if you're going to read these tarot cards, they all point toward The Bronx.

Trading Schilling is still the Diamondbacks' most clear-cut way to open enough payroll space to make budget and deal for a one-year rental of Richie Sexson. And Schilling is an astute enough observer of the baseball scene to know that the free-agent crowd, a year from now, will include Pedro Martinez, Javier Vazquez, Matt Morris and Kerry Wood. And at 38, he'll be considerably older than all those other aces.

"So common sense plays a big part in this," he said.

And if he's going to be a sensible businessman about this, given his alternatives, wouldn't it be wiser to negotiate his best deal with the Yankees now than to wait and take his chances in a year? Heck, yes.

"You know," Schilling laughed, "it's not rocket science."

But let's get this straight one last time: Schilling didn't launch this rocket.

"I've known this was coming," he said. "I've known since last spring, after they signed RJ (Randy Johnson) and Gonzo (Luis Gonzalez). It's all about the economics. I know that. I understand this game. I understand how it works. I understand the economic situation. The economic situation is the main reason I'm leaving -- probably the only reason I'm leaving."

But Schilling always wanted to be the next Roger Clemens, not the next Alan Greenspan. And now that can happen, in more ways than one.

Schilling didn't invent the economic indicators that got him into this mess. But if they wind up indicating him all the way up the Major Deegan Expressway, you get the feeling Schilling will know exactly what exit he needs to take.

Yankees Rumblings

  • We hereby authorize you to ignore every headline you read this winter linking the Yankees with Vladimir Guerrero. Sources who have spoken with the Yankees say they're convinced Guerrero has no serious interest in playing in New York, and they're wary of being used to drive up his price tag. Not that any player would ever do something like that.

  • The good news for the Yankees is that the threshold for teams that have to pay the luxury tax will go up next season, from $117 million to $120.5. The bad news is, the Yankees have no shot at getting under that threshold -- and that means the tax rate they pay on every dollar over $120.5 million will nearly double, from 17.5 percent to 30 percent.

    And if they're not below $128 million in 2005 or $136.5 million in 2006, their tax rate will hit 40 percent. So if George Steinbrenner enjoyed watching his luxury-tax dollars at work as the Marlins were upsetting the Yankees this October, he should really get a charge out of future Octobers, as even more of his dollars go to the teams he's trying to beat.

    But if all the Steinbrenner fans in all those other owners boxes thought the tax would stop the Boss from spending to win, they need to consider Plan B. The tax has acted as a quasi-cap for most teams, but not the Yankees. They've chosen to pay it, which is the way this system works. And they're budgeting to pay it down the road.

    Good thing, because there's just about no scenario in which they won't pay it.

    They already are on the hook in the (gulp) 2006 season for $75 million to five players -- Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Mike Mussina. Assuming they re-sign Andy Pettitte, that should get them close to $90 million. And don't even think about how much money Alfonso Soriano will be looking for by then, assuming he isn't dealt.

  • How legit are those rumors about the Astros signing Pettitte? Well, the Astros have tried their best to act serious, because they understand Pettitte is seriously interested in them. But teams and agents that have spoken with the Astros think there's no way they could even come close to the four-year, $52-million deal the Yankees are reportedly ready to hand Pettitte.

    "I don't see it," says one NL executive, "not unless they move (Richard) Hidalgo. I think a lot of that talk is just window dressing, to allow them to massage the wounds from trading (Billy) Wagner."

    And what are the odds of the Astros moving Hidalgo? Here's one rival GM's assessment of how much of Hidalgo's salary ($12 million, plus a $2-million buyout) the Astros would have to eat to trade him: "My guess is, maybe $8-9 million."

    As the Pettitte rumors have hogged the headlines, though, the Astros have seemed much more intent on adding set-up men. They've been in hard on Chad Fox and Mike Timlin, to name two. And in the meantime, they've also been exploring the possibility of re-signing Brad Ausmus if he'll take a one-year deal.

    Phillies Rumblings

  • When the Phillies and Astros finally got down to serious name-swapping in the Billy Wagner deal, the Phillies originally had four prospects they wouldn't discuss: first baseman Ryan Howard and their three best pitching prospects -- Cole Hamels, Gavin Floyd and Taylor Buchholz.

    They then removed Buchholz from the untouchables list when it became clear that if they didn't, the Astros were packing up their closer and keeping him.

    What puzzled some clubs was the Phillies' unwillingness to deal Howard, who nearly won the Florida State League triple crown but is blocked by Jim Thome.

    Now, however, other teams that have talked with the Phillies say they believe the club was saving Howard as its key chip in another deal -- whether that be Javier Vazquez, Brad Penny or some other starting pitcher that gets salary-dumped this winter.

  • The Phillies once figured to be one of the teams most likely to chase a top free-agent starter this winter. Indications now, however, are that they're more likely to trade for one of the numerous starters who are currently a year from free agency.

    That would mean they're even more of a long shot to re-sign Kevin Millwood, who probably has priced himself out of the Phillies' range now that they've added Wagner.

    Just Thome, Pat Burrell, Bobby Abreu and Wagner would have $40 million coming in 2005, assuming the Phillies pick up Wagner's option, as expected.

  • How good can Buchholz be some day? One scout who has seen him extensively says: "I'll tell you this. He has one hell of a curveball. He has as good a curveball as Kerry Wood or Josh Beckett, and he has the same feel with it. He has nasty bite and deception on that pitch. And his fastball is above-average, with heavy movement."

    More Rumblings

  • One GM predicted last week that Greg Maddux will wind up in Boston. But every indication is that Maddux prefers to stay in the National League, for all sorts of reasons.

    "He's at the stage of his career," says one baseball man, "that he needs the bottom of those National League lineups, to chew up a couple of easy innings."

    Incidentally, clubs that have spoken with the Braves say Maddux isn't as sure a bet to leave Atlanta as most people seem to think. There's some hope now they can sign him at a reduced rate -- although that sure isn't how agent Scott Boras is talking.

    Maddux's preferred list of clubs, according to an executive of one team that has inquired about him: Atlanta, then one of the NL West teams not located in Colorado (probably in this order: Giants, Dodgers, Padres, Diamondbacks).

  • If the Expos' San Juan deal with MLB ever gets finished, MLB is believed to have promised that their payroll would stay in the same range as last year ($45-46 million).

    That would, theoretically, leave them potential wiggle room to re-sign Vladimir Guerrero to a backloaded deal in the neighborhood of five years, $75 million. Another wrinkle to that contract that some baseball people have speculated about would be a clause that would allow Guerrero to opt out of the deal if the Expos aren't sold or moved by some date to be named later.

    No matter what economics class you took in school, though, you know there's no way the Expos could afford both Guerrero and Vazquez. And they might have to trade Vazquez whether they hang onto Guerrero or not.

    But a return to health by Tony Armas Jr. would allow GM Omar Minaya to hit the pillow a lot more peacefully as he contemplates dealing Vazquez. And it might not be until close to spring training before the Expos know whether Armas has made a full recovery from shoulder surgery.

    So those teams lining up for Vazquez ought to know it could be weeks before that line moves an inch.

  • There is talk in Florida that Mike Lowell's agents, Seth and Sam Levinson, are supposed to have their first serious conversations with Marlins president David Samson late this week about a long-term deal that would keep Lowell in Florida. If they can't agree, Lowell would join Curt Schilling and Richie Sexson at the top of the Human Trade Rumor charts.

    But Lowell's future will be just one component of a fascinating offseason in Florida. The Marlins need to be recognizable when they hit the field next opening day, so none of their newfound fans consider this to be 1997-98 revisited. But management has concluded they can't bring back everybody -- and not just because doing that would cost close to 90 million Jeffrey Loria bucks.

    They watched the 2003 Angels trot out almost an identical team to the World Series champs -- and finish 19 games out of first. So you can expect to hear Marlins honchos mention that as they begin to make changes this winter.

    "It's not the money you spend," says Samson. "It's how you spend it. I don't know how much our payroll will be yet. But no matter what it is, how do you know if you can recapture the magic from year to year? You have to make all the right decisions. It's not about dollars spent. It's about recapturing that magic."

  • Speaking of teams in Florida, after watching Delmon Young and B.J. Upton in the Arizona Fall League, one scout says: "Man, Tampa Bay will be a fun club in about two years."

    Upton, Young, Rocco Baldelli, Aubrey Huff and Carl Crawford loom as big-time building blocks. But the Rays still need lots of other blocks around them.

    They have talked about signing Mike Cameron (.223, 30 HR at Safeco Field the last four years; .286, with 67 HR everywhere else) to play center field next year. Which would enable them to move Baldelli to right and shift Huff either to first base or DH.

    But since the Rays have no more than $10 million to spend to fill all their needs, they're unlikely to hand half of it to Cameron, unless Lou Piniella sells owner Vince Naimoli on it.

    It's a better bet that they'll try to sign four or five players in the $1.5-2 million neighborhood later in the winter. If they're the right players, this is a team with enough ingredients to finally cross the 70-win continental divide.

  • The Mets have already taken huge steps to rebuild their talent-evaluation operation by bringing in Al Goldis from the Reds. Now it appears they're still trying to convince Fred Ferreira to leave Florida for a key position in professional and international scouting.

    One reason that has raised at least a few eyebrows is that Ferreira is tight with Vladimir Guerrero from their days together in Montreal. And one baseball man with ties to the Mets says that he wouldn't be shocked to see owner Fred Wilpon lead a charge at Guerrero or A-Rod.

    "I think Fred is obsessed with bringing a big name into New York," our source says. "And he might do it whether it makes sense or not."

  • Despite the return of Trevor Hoffman, don't rule out Rod Beck opting to go back to San Diego as a setup man. The Padres are trying to convince Beck that Hoffman's workload will still be limited by his recovery from two shoulder operations. So it's plausible Beck could collect the 14 saves he needs to reach 300 even if Hoffman is the official closer.

    Headliners of the week
    More baseball headlines you probably missed -- from the hilarious online humor site, ironictimes.com:

  • Baseball: Steinbrenner Fires Himself
    But not before taking a few parting shots at himself.

  • White House Receives Praise From Major League Baseball
    Thanks to global warming, playoffs can extend all the way into November.

    Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to send Jayson a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.