Chicago's two baseball teams are riding a Red Line train to nowhere this season. The White Sox, a major disappointment, are 36-53 and last in the American League Central entering a Saturday doubleheader in Philadelphia. The Cubs have actually shown signs of improvement at 41-50, but they continue to view the art of roster building through a long-term prism.
Things are a little more promising on the transactions market, where you need a new JumboTron to keep up with all the activity and speculation.
Much of the attention so far has focused on pitching. The Cubs recently dealt Scott Feldman to Baltimore, clearing the decks for a potentially more momentous trade involving Matt Garza. The White Sox shipped lefty reliever Matt Thornton to Boston on Friday, and have two bigger chips, starter Jake Peavy and reliever Jesse Crain, coming back from injuries that have put a temporary crimp in their appeal.
Beyond the pitching, the Chicago teams are awash in available outfield bats, with two players in particular heating up at just the right time.
White Sox right fielder Alex Rios created a stir this week against Detroit when he went 6-for-6, tying an American League record for hits in a nine-inning game. He's on a pace for his third career 20-homer, 20-steal season and is tied for first in the AL with eight outfield assists.
On the city's North Side, Cubs outfielder Alfonso Soriano recently made some waves with a pair of two-homer games in a four-day span. Soriano has eight home runs in his past 14 games and needs only 13 more big flies to join the 400 club and three more to pass Johnny Bench and move into 57th place on MLB's career list.
Rios and Soriano aren't the only outfielders who look like trade bait. The Giants, regarded as likely buyers a couple of weeks ago, are inching perilously closer to "sell" mode, which means Hunter Pence could be available. The Mets would also consider moving Marlon Byrd, who is looking awfully spry this summer. But judging from the nibbles the Mets have received on Byrd, teams seem to regard him more as a 35-year-old former PED offender than a guy who ranks 18th among big league outfielders with an .804 OPS. Unless the Mets can get a return they think is commensurate with Byrd's performance this season, they might hang on to him, as they did with Scott Hairston last summer.
Unless the Miami Marlins get an unexpected urge to trade Giancarlo Stanton or the Dodgers entertain offers for Andre Ethier, that's the best of the bunch. As an AL general manager points out, the big outfield bats who would help teams as rentals are all playing for contenders and aren't going anywhere. That list includes Boston's Jacoby Ellsbury, St. Louis' Carlos Beltran, Cincinnati's Shin-Soo Choo and Texas' Nelson Cruz, whose status is further complicated by his involvement in the Biogenesis scandal investigation.
"Usually this time of year, most of the guys that get traded are pending free agents," the GM said. "When you have a bad free-agent market, you're not going to have a great trade deadline."
Pirates a trade player?
Which teams could be players in the outfield trade market? Talk to front-office people and scouts, and they mention the Pirates, Rangers, Yankees and possibly the Reds, Royals and even the Blue Jays. The Braves, amazingly, might have to consider at least a temporary fix in light of the leg injuries incurred by Jason Heyward and both Upton brothers.
But most of these teams are in a position to be choosy. Cincinnati is hoping to get Ryan Ludwick back from a shoulder injury in August. Texas is focused on right-handed bats. The Royals think they might have filled their right-field void with David Lough, although he needs to improve upon those three walks in 166 plate appearances. And, for all the speculation in Pittsburgh, Jose Tabata is hitting .304 with an .817 OPS in 45 games this season. He probably deserves more time to show that he could be the answer.
Competing MLB executives say the Pirates have expressed more interest in acquiring a left-handed-hitting outfielder than a righty bat, given the struggles of Travis Snider. Raul Ibanez and Norichika Aoki are among the names that have made the rounds in trade speculation. But Ibanez has 24 homers for a modest $2.75 million salary, so the Mariners would expect a lot in return even though he's 41 years old. And Aoki ranks second to Ryan Braun on the Milwaukee roster with a .363 on-base percentage and is signed to a club-friendly two-year, $2.5 million deal that includes a $1.5 million club option in 2014. So it's hard to envision a scenario in which Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin would trade him, much less to a divisional opponent.
If the Pirates really are motivated to acquire a left-handed-hitting outfielder, they might have some common ground with the Cubs, who have two potentially available lefty bats: Nate Schierholtz and David DeJesus.
One MLB front-office man thinks Pittsburgh GM Neal Huntington will make some kind of move to try to bolster his offense, even if it's similar to the modest deals that brought Gaby Sanchez and Snider to the team last July. The Pirates are smack in the middle of the NL Central race even though they're tied for 26th in the majors with 351 runs scored.
"I think Neal has been tentative in the past," the executive said. "Probably to his credit, he hasn't really believed they were all that good. This year is probably a little different. I think he'll make a move."
Trade speculation magnets
Any trade scenarios involving Soriano are inevitably clouded by his financial situation. He is signed for $18 million this year and next year, in the final season of a seven-year, $126 million contract. In addition, as a 10-and-5 service time player, Soriano has veto power over any trade.
Soriano is a mixed bag for lots of other reasons. Although the new defensive metrics show he's playing a better brand of outfield this season, he's an average left fielder at best and ideally would spend some time at designated hitter. He has a .379 career batting average (33-for-87) with an OPS of 1.118 as a DH. Yes, that's a limited sample size, but it can't hurt the Cubs' efforts to shop him to AL teams.
Soriano also has a long-standing reputation as a good guy in the clubhouse, which makes a difference for any contending club looking to make midseason acquisitions.
"Unfortunately, the whole trade discussion is always swirling around him," said Cubs general manager Jed Hoyer. "But he's been a great teammate. He works hard with all the young guys, and he's been really productive for us."
White Sox GM Rick Hahn has reason to believe he can acquire a more lucrative package of talent in exchange for Rios. At 32, Rios is five years younger than Soriano. He's a capable defender with a strong arm and the ability to play center field for stretches here and there. Under the circumstances, Rios also has a reasonable contract. He's signed for $12.5 million this year and next year, with a $13.5 million club option for 2015.
Nevertheless, there's a perception in some quarters that Rios is not the type of impact acquisition who is going to carry a contending team to the promised land. Two National League talent evaluators used the term "low energy" to describe his style of play.
"When his team struggles, he tries to do too much, and that puts him in a funk," one scout said. "That's who he is. I'm not sure how he would do if you brought him into a situation and expected him to produce with big expectations."
For what it's worth, Rios' coaches and teammates with the White Sox don't appear to regard that as a concern.
"He has a chance to be an impact pickup for somebody because he plays on both sides of the ball," said White Sox hitting coach Jeff Manto. "He doesn't get enough credit for his defense. And when he's swinging the bat, he hits the ball as hard as anybody.
"We'd all be happy for him [if he got traded to a contender]. But let's put it this way: Twenty-four guys and seven coaches would be disappointed if we traded him. That's the impact he has in the clubhouse and on the coaching staff."
The White Sox acquired Rios in a stealth move in August 2009, when former general manager Kenny Williams submitted a waiver claim and the Blue Jays allowed Rios to walk and let Chicago pick up the $60 million-plus that remained on his contact. Rios has been about as up-and-down as it gets in his tenure with the White Sox. In 2010, he hit 21 homers, stole 34 bases and posted a wins above replacement of 3.2. The next year, he finished with an OPS of .613 and a WAR of minus-1.7. Last year, Rios rebounded to hit 25 homers, steal 23 bases and finish 15th in American League MVP balloting.
All things being equal, Rios would prefer to stay put -- even on a team that's headed nowhere.
"Obviously you have mixed feelings," Rios said Friday from Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. "You spend so much time with a group of guys, you create a connection with them. For a trade to happen all of a sudden, it's tough. To go to a new team, it takes a little time to create that connection again.
"Hopefully it won't happen. I really like this place -- the organization, the city, my teammates, the staff. It's a good overall package. At the same time, you have to see it as something that can happen at any point and you have to be prepared for it."
As the White Sox founder and the trade market continues to shake out, Rios has no idea what will transpire. The only certainty is at least 2½ more weeks of questions, speculation and apprehension in the clubhouse as players await their fate. That's a malady afflicting the teams on both sides of Chicago.