Passan: When aces could move, and more big trade deadline storylines

One week before the trade deadline, teams around Major League Baseball are starting to get antsy. For 10 consecutive days in what is supposed to be the most intriguing, transaction-heavy time of the year, teams have not struck a single player-for-player deal. This July has put the dead in deadline.

MLB had hoped eliminating waiver trades in August would supercharge the weeks leading up to July 31. On the contrary, since Philadelphia acquired Jay Bruce in early June, only three teams have endeavored to enhance their playoff chances via trade: The New York Yankees dealt for DH Edwin Encarnacion in mid-June, the Boston Red Sox got starter Andrew Cashner on July 13 and the Oakland A's picked up Homer Bailey on July 14.

Since then, nothing. July has provided little, if any, clarity in standings rendered opaque with mediocrity. Of the 15 teams in the National League, 12 are on pace to win between 74 and 86 games. When one team struggles and starts to look like a seller (Pittsburgh), another goes on a run and plays itself out of that designation (San Francisco).

The lack of clear sellers has emboldened them to ask for strong returns. Buyers are waiting for prices to come down, fearful of overpaying. The ever-shifting market -- players available one day may not be the next and vice versa -- makes it especially difficult to read. Grinding it to a halt even more is that some of the best available players are not slated to hit free agency this winter. It's quite the security blanket: Sellers can compare offers now to what they believe they can get this offseason and hold out for the right package.

"Would someone just please make a trade?" one manager said Tuesday, as if uttering the words would will it to be. His wish is likely to be answered sooner than later, though executives do believe the vast majority of deals will occur closer to July 30 and up through the 4 p.m. ET deadline on the 31st. Currently, they say, the stalemate that has manifested itself over the past month or so remains in place, with the exception of a few players. Generating the most buzz Tuesday night was ...

1. Marcus Stroman, who pitched Wednesday for the Toronto Blue Jays. One executive with interest in Stroman questioned whether he would make that start, believing Stroman could be dealt before.

Such speculation is commonplace this time of year, though multiple executives said they've been led to believe the Blue Jays will deal Stroman before July 31. He is in the midst of perhaps his best season, posting a 2.96 ERA over 21 starts and posting a 57.1% ground ball rate, the second highest in the major leagues. And even more alluring, the 28-year-old is not a free agent until after the 2020 season.

The number of teams that have inquired about starting pitching this month is bountiful. There are those with clear, abundant needs (Milwaukee, Houston, Minnesota, New York Yankees, Atlanta, Philadelphia), others whose desire isn't quite as acute but is very real (Oakland, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles Angels) and even those trying to buy and sell simultaneously (San Diego, Cleveland, Texas). In fact, the Rangers' plans to move ...

2. Mike Minor have come into focus in recent days, and while he made his scheduled start Wednesday afternoon, it is likely his last with Texas. The Rangers, rival executives say, are seeking a significant return for Minor because of strong interest in acquiring him.

The allure of Minor goes beyond his public numbers: a 3.00 ERA, 136 strikeouts in 135 innings and, according to Baseball-Reference.com, 6.0 wins above replacement, the most pitching WAR in all of MLB. (FanGraphs, which uses a different formula, credits Minor with 2.7 WAR, good for 19th best in baseball.) Two teams' internal metrics assign significant weight to Minor's performance this season because of strong competition and pitching at Globe Life Park, a hitters' paradise.

As with Toronto and Stroman, Texas doesn't have to trade Minor. His $9.5 million salary next season is plenty reasonable, and the Rangers could keep him around to start opening day as they christen Globe Life Field, their new $1.1 billion retractable-roof ballpark set to open next spring. The potential paucity of impact pitchers available, though, may bring the Rangers even greater value as they look to replenish an injury-wracked farm system. The fluidity of the market is that real, as ...

3. Madison Bumgarner so clearly illustrates. In this space last week, it was said, quite pointedly, that the San Francisco Giants were sellers in spite of a recent hot streak. Teams around baseball were operating on that premise, and some in the Giants organization believed it as well. The reality was the front office had yet to decide unequivocally how to treat the deadline. And since that day, all the Giants have done is go 5-1 and win four extra-inning games on walk-off hits.

The latest, a Pablo Sandoval opposite-field job, supported another strong outing from Bumgarner, who in his past half-dozen starts has a 2.00 ERA and 41-6 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Teams always have seen Bumgarner as a desirable rental, and when San Francisco was 34-46 on June 27, trading him seemed a certainty.

Then the Giants won 18 of 22 and crept to within two games of the second NL wild card. Barring a collapse over the next week, the Giants may find themselves incentivized to hold onto Bumgarner. Selling in the midst of a hot streak is particularly difficult because of the message it sends to players and fans. They don't care that the Giants were actually outscored over their past six games. There is value to winning now, to a competitive last two months, and it may well outweigh what can be gained in a deal.

All it takes is one offer to change that. Brandon Woodruff, the linchpin of a struggling Milwaukee rotation, is out until September with an oblique strain. Houston, which coming into the season believed its farm system would fortify its rotation, needs at least one starter. Bumgarner is the exact sort of pitcher who would look great alongside Jose Berrios and Jake Odorizzi in Minnesota. The Twins aren't on Bumgarner's eight-team no-trade list, which includes the Astros, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs, Phillies, Red Sox and Yankees. That's another potential mitigating factor, one that doesn't exist for ...

4. Will Smith, whose value has been high all year. While the Giants' winning has certainly changed the calculus, it also provides an interesting sort of leverage in any trade discussions. Instead of just one option -- sell -- the Giants have a cornucopia. They can sell. They can sell a player, maybe two. They can sell and buy. They can buy marginal improvements. Or they can stand pat.

Certainly there's a scenario in which Bumgarner stays in San Francisco and Smith joins another team's bullpen. Smith brings everything. He's excellent (2.44 ERA). He throws with a desirable arm (left). He's cheap (about $1.5 million for the remainder of the season). He strikes out batters (65 in 44⅓ innings, to just 11 walks). He can go multiple innings if need be (two in Tuesday's win).

In a similar class is Tony Watson, who has the ERA and desirable-arm parts. Because of escalators in his contract, Watson is likely to make $10.5 million this season, which doesn't entirely nullify his market but keeps him a tier below Smith. Seeing as the desire for relief pitching this time of year is endless, Watson is still a plenty-good option, depending on the Giants' eventual appetite for upgrading a mediocre farm system. If the price on ...

5. Felipe Vazquez dropped and the Pittsburgh Pirates seemed motivated to move him, it would bump Smith and Watson from those top spots among left-handed relievers available. That has not happened -- and executives do not believe Pittsburgh will soften its stance on Vazquez despite dropping to 46-54.

Over the next two seasons, the Pirates owe Vazquez $12.5 million total. Then they've got two more club-option years after that at $10 million apiece. It is a spectacularly valuable contract considering Vazquez's performance: 1.91 ERA, 66-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio, only three home runs in 42⅓ innings.

Is it right for the Pirates, then, to be seeking the sort of return the Yankees got in 2016 for Aroldis Chapman (Gleyber Torres) or Andrew Miller (Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield)? Of course. The Pirates should want more than that. While Vazquez is a number of teams' dream acquisition, the prospect package would need to be, well, sort of like the one ...

6. Edwin Diaz fetched from the Seattle Mariners when he got traded to the New York Mets. And the one the Mets are asking for during discussions for Diaz.

Yes, the Mets have been open to dealing Diaz, according to sources. This is not out of a desire to get rid of him but rather a desire not to potentially shut out avenues by which they can improve a moribund team. They'll do it, but only if they hit a home run.

The sort of home run, one executive said, that has them "asking for more than they gave up for him," referring to the offseason blockbuster in which the Mets acquired Diaz and Robinson Cano for Jarred Kelenic, now one of the top 20 prospects in baseball, and Justin Dunn, another top-100 talent.

Problem is, Diaz isn't pitching like Vazquez or Chapman or Miller. His ERA is 4.81. He has not been arguably the best reliever in baseball, as he was last year. He has been too inconsistent, too prone to meltdowns, and giving up at least two front-line prospects is a tough sell when Detroit's Shane Greene or Toronto's Ken Giles provide solid trade alternatives at a fraction of the price.

The Mets under new general manager Brodie Van Wagenen are a wild card. There's Diaz. There's the (slim-but-still-real) possibility that starter Noah Syndergaard could be moved. There's ...

7. Zack Wheeler coming off the injured list Friday to make one last start before the Mets try to deal him. The 29-year-old right-hander hit the IL with one of the ugliest two-word combinations in the baseball dictionary: "shoulder fatigue." Subsequent throwing sessions have gone according to plan, and Wheeler told reporters he felt good and was ready to face the Pirates.

Judging a pitcher's fitness based on one performance isn't exactly the definition of rigor or due diligence, and the offers on Wheeler, whatever they may be, are likely to reflect that. The Mets could just hold on to Wheeler, and one source this week wondered whether they would consider tendering him a qualifying offer -- a one-year deal for around $18 million -- this winter. His performance hasn't reflected it, with a 4.69 ERA, but Wheeler's peripherals are promising, and opposing teams are tantalized by his talented arm.

Should Wheeler go, he may not be the only Mets starter on the move. Left-hander Jason Vargas turned in his best performance of the season Wednesday: 6 shutout innings, 1 hit allowed, 8 strikeouts. Pitchers like Vargas and Cincinnati right-hander Tanner Roark may well be the ones who wind up getting moved on July 30 and 31 should the industry conclude ...

8. Trevor Bauer actually remains in Cleveland. The Indians' posture this July has left a number of executives in the industry confused. Some think they are primed to be aggressive and deal Bauer. Others believe they're simply not inclined to do much at all.

It would be unprecedented -- a potential playoff team selling its best pitcher at the deadline -- and certainly would need to return an enormous package of players, including at least one who can help chase the first-place Minnesota Twins.

The Indians do lead the AL wild-card race, a game ahead of second-place Oakland and three in front of the Tampa Bay Rays and Boston Red Sox, who are in a virtual tie. Despite conversations about selling, the Red Sox are increasingly unlikely to do so, according to sources. The Rays have considered adding to help stop their free fall. Oakland is on the hunt, too.

Cleveland is almost a bizarro-world version of San Diego. The 47-53 Padres, teams said, have been assertive in talks -- and they'd like to buy a front-line starting pitcher the ilk of Bauer or Syndergaard. At the same time, they're talking with teams about dealing closer Kirby Yates and outfielder Franmil Reyes, among others. The Indians, meanwhile, are good -- 16 games above .500 with a positive run differential -- and still have considered, dating back to the winter, getting rid of a front-line-type starter.

Part of it is that next year Bauer will cost upward of $20 million in arbitration. For the Indians, that's a bug. Other teams see that as a distinct feature, the extra year of club control as alluring as Bauer's raw stuff. Otherwise known as the ...

9. Robbie Ray corollary. Great raw stuff, an extra year of club control. And yeah, it's easy for sellers to ask for plenty when the market is this volatile, but there's a very good argument to be made on the value of control.

Look at this winter. Teams that want to improve their pitching staffs -- i.e., all 30 -- have only a finite number of free agents who are even in Ray's neighborhood. Astros star Gerrit Cole is clearly the top free-agent pitcher this winter. He's looking at perhaps a $200 million deal. In the next tier are Bumgarner, major league ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu and Twins standout Jake Odorizzi. Wheeler and Alex Wood, who hasn't pitched this year, are young and talented. Cole Hamels and Wade Miley are solid veterans.

And ... there's not a ton more, at least in terms of starting pitchers to really change a team's fortunes. Ray has looked at least something like that pitcher in the past and at times this season. He has struck out 162 in 123 innings. He also has walked 58. He regularly hits the mid-90s with his fastball from the left side. His velocity also has ticked down in recent years.

It's part of what makes Ray so fascinating. His ceiling is mansion-high. And whatever team doesn't get Minor or ...

10. Marcus Stroman may consider Ray. That's how it works this time of year. All it takes for the dam to break is one trade -- or, at the very least, a ticking clock. Needs are needs, and not addressing them can be the difference between a good season, a great season and a championship season.

You see it every night. Tuesday reminded that the Twins need, at very least, a reliever -- now. So do the Braves, come to think of it. And the Nationals? They need two. Kansas City has Ian Kennedy and Jake Diekman, and Arizona has Greg Holland and Andrew Chafin, and for anyone who wants to go with the starter-reliever combo meal, Pittsburgh has Jordan Lyles and Francisco Liriano.

It's not exactly NBA free agency, where everything feels ... big. With a weak free-agent class coming and the best players in it on contending teams, there's a real possibility that 4 p.m. rolls around July 31 and Minor and Stroman are two of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- names dealt. And don't even bring up the practically nonexistent market for hitters, where Corey Dickerson, Nicholas Castellanos and David Peralta, who is on the injured list, constitute the best of the best.

It is July, of course, and all it takes is one team to get weird. Crazy deals can come together in hours and what once seemed anticlimactic, even lifeless, can feel positively alive.