Uh-oh. It's that time again. Time to start checking Rumor Central every 20 minutes. Time to start counting the scouts in the stands every time Johnny Cueto pitches. In other words ...
It's trade season.
"It happens every year at this time," one AL executive said the other day. "The draft is over. Then the phone calls start."
We count just 43 shopping days left until the always momentous July 31 trading deadline. And while there aren't many sellers that are open for business right now, that'll change.
So here's your handy-dandy guide to the names you should keep an eye on between now and the deadline. They're all so sellable, they should have a UPC bar code on their caps. And by the way, all of our predictions are total speculation. So take them with a whole shaker of salt.
Cole Hamels, LHP, Phillies
Stop us if you've heard this before. Hamels is the No. 1 attraction on this market. And nothing has happened to change that since the Phillies rolled the dice and held on to him last winter.
"If anything," said one NL exec, "his market value is higher than it was two months ago."
The list of teams that could be a fit is as long as ever. But clubs that have talked with the Phillies are still complaining that general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. remains "fixated" on players those teams have continuously balked at trading, with one exec saying that at some point, Amaro will have to be "more creative" to get a deal done.
But the Phillies think it's a seller's market, and feel as if the 3½ years (and about $90 million) left on Hamels' contract actually make him more, not less, attractive. So they're being exceptionally patient with their soon-to-be-ex-ace, as they wait for somebody to get desperate.
Our prediction: Hamels winds up in Texas with minutes left before the deadline.
Johnny Cueto, RHP, Reds
Cueto threw a scare into the pre-deadline shopping crowd by missing a start last month with a tender elbow. But he has a 2.84 ERA in four starts since, with a 26-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. So if he keeps that up for the next month, he'll be a huge attraction with the rent-an-ace crowd.
A bunch of teams that have checked in report the Reds are hanging on to Cueto and their other prominent trade chips until the All-Star Game has come and gone. But after that, they're looking for what one NL exec described as "big-time, top-of-the-heap prospects" in return. And given that the Rays didn't even get that sort of haul last year for David Price, who had a season and a half of control remaining, it'll be interesting to see if someone is willing to pay that freight.
Our prediction: Cueto lands with the pitching-hungry Dodgers on July 28.
Ben Zobrist, LF/2B, Athletics
Pick an Oakland Athletic. Any Oakland Athletic. Billy Beane's clearance sale is on. And that's a comforting feeling for shoppers across the land.
"You always know that's a place you can call," said one of the execs quoted earlier. "Billy is open to anything. And there's nothing he wouldn't talk about. You never know what he might do."
But other teams believe the A's will move Scott Kazmir and closer Tyler Clippard before Zobrist, whose disabled list stint and slow start have depressed his value, at least temporarily. Down the road, though, "he's got a lot of trade value," said another NL exec. "If people feel he's healthy and he resembles his normal self, he fits on anyone's roster, because of all the positions he can play."
Our prediction: Zobrist to the Cubs, for a reunion with the president of his fan club, Joe Maddon.
Francisco Rodriguez, RHP, Brewers
The Brewers were the first team in baseball to plummet to 20 games out of first place. So their sell-off could start at any time. But other teams view Kyle Lohse (6.44 ERA, about $6 million of salary remaining) and Matt Garza (5.07 ERA, with two more guaranteed seasons remaining, at $12.5 million a year) as "Plan B or Plan C" type options, said one exec. In other words, they're the kind of guys who inspire you to "wait and see if you can do better."
Rodriguez, on the other hand, is having another one of those years in which he proves that his doubters continue to underestimate him (a 1.13 ERA, 12 hits and 26 strikeouts in 24 innings). The Brewers have acquired him four different times now but have traded him in midseason only once (in 2013). And despite his great start and their appetite for moving him, he's still a tough sell.
One big reason is, he's not a rental this time around. He has $5.5 million guaranteed next season, plus a $6 million option or $4 million buyout for 2017. And the closer market appears very limited. But you'll be hearing his name a lot over the next few weeks.
Our prediction: Stays right where he is.
Jonathan Papelbon, RHP, Phillies
Of all the Phillies' trade chips -- and we count somewhere in the neighborhood of seven players they'd like to move -- they're pushing harder to export their closer than any of the others.
After showing no inclination last July or last winter to eat much of his salary (about $8 million left this year, plus a sure-to-vest $13 million option for next), they've reversed that stance this month. But as we mentioned two paragraphs ago, the list of contenders looking for closers is short (Blue Jays, Cubs and possibly the Mariners if they get back into contention).
So other clubs believe the Phillies won't be able to move Papelbon unless (A) they get more "realistic" about what they need in return, or (B) Papelbon changes his stance on going to a team that would use him in tandem with its current closer. Could a team like the Dodgers, for instance, entice him to set up for Kenley Jansen in the name of winning, if they were to guarantee his vesting option (with financial assistance from the Phillies)? There were rumblings the Dodgers kicked the tires on him last winter, so you never know. Just a thought.
Our prediction: Papelbon gets dealt to the Blue Jays before July 4.
Aroldis Chapman, LHP, Reds
Since we're on a closer roll, we can't overlook the best of them all. On one hand, Chapman is the only closer out there whom other teams drool over. And unlike Papelbon, who can block deals to 17 teams, Chapman has no control over where he ends up. So it won't be just clubs looking for pure closers that have interest.
On the other hand, the Reds have all major deals on hold for another four weeks, until after the All-Star Game. So teams in need of immediate help might not be able to wait that long. Nevertheless, he's a dominator who can't be a free agent until after 2016. And "he's on the short list of the very best guys out there," said one of the execs quoted earlier. So next to Hamels, he might be the biggest difference-maker on the shelves next month.
Our prediction: Gets traded to the Dodgers to form a scary, late-inning, swing-and-miss tag team with Jansen.
Carlos Gonzalez, RF, Rockies
We get very little sense from clubs that have spoken with the Rockies that they think they can get enough back for Troy Tulowitzki to justify trading him now. ("Nobody trusts him enough," said one NL exec, "to give them what they'd want.") But if anyone wants to take on a hefty enough chunk of the nearly $47 million CarGo has coming, that could be a whole different story.
Gonzalez still has his selling points, you know. He's only 29. He's been mostly healthy all year. And he's hit .324/.358/.595 over his past 19 games. On the other hand, he's just a .228/.288/.404 hitter away from Coors Field. He hasn't played more than 110 games in a season since 2012. And his contract triggers a $1 million relocation payout if he gets traded. So he'd need to have a big month to get someone interested. Then again, there appears to be a massive shortage of outfield bats on this market.
Our prediction: Still with the Rockies on Aug. 1.
Jeff Samardzija, RHP, White Sox
Teams that have spoken with the White Sox paint them as a team that still thinks it can make a run and really doesn't want to sell. But this is also a club that has spent exactly one day all season over .500 (May 18) -- and has gone 10-18 since, to drop 10 games out of first in the formidable AL Central. So if reality sets in, how can the White Sox not talk about Samardzija, who is a few months from free agency and appears determined to test the market?
"I think they're one of those teams that will try to buy and sell," said another NL exec. "I could see them taking a short-term asset like Samardzija and flipping him for a longer-term asset. But they've got a lot of good core pieces. So that won't be a total rebuild."
Our prediction: Samardzija to the Giants, who had interest in him last winter.
Aramis Ramirez, 3B, Brewers
Lots of buzzing out there about which position players the Brewers might be willing to move. Carlos Gomez? Jonathan Lucroy? Jean Segura? Even if GM Doug Melvin is open to it, his owner, Mark Attanasio, is likely to have other ideas. But Ramirez, who has said he's going to retire after this season, is in a whole different category.
You could envision a team like the Giants taking a shot at him. But every team we've mentioned him to acts totally disinterested.
"Who would take him?" asked one GM. "He makes a lot of money [$14 million]. He's not playing well [.209/.248/.382]. He can't play defense anymore. Unless they pay a ton of money, he's not going anywhere. That's my guess."
Our prediction: That's our guess, too. Not going anywhere.
Mike Napoli, 1B, Red Sox
No matter how low the Red Sox sink, other teams don't expect their July approach this year to resemble their July sell-off last year. They're more likely to use their prospect depth to be buyers, for pieces they can put in place beyond this year. So don't cross them off the Cole Hamels shoppers list just because this year hasn't gone so hot. He's exactly the type of player they'd be likely to chase, regardless of the July standings.
But if they lop off any veterans, it's not hard to guess who'd be on the block. And the list starts with Napoli, whose .393 slugging percentage and impending free agency make him about as expendable as anyone on the roster, if they get in an expending kind of mood. But what are Napoli's selling points? "A bad year and $16 million," said one of the execs quoted above. "That's a bad combination."
Our prediction: Gets released on Aug. 1.