A week or so ago, when Ubaldo Jimenez's name first popped out there in the Rumor-verse, it felt like a trial dirigible -- the kind of name a team floats into the ozone just to see what happens.
On Tuesday afternoon, we heard an official for a contending team utter these momentous words about the Great Ubaldo:
"My guess is, they move him."
That's because the Ubaldo talk these days is no idle chatter. The Rockies are "really engaged," said one AL executive. And multiple teams echo those sentiments.
The Reds are in. The Yankees and Red Sox are in. The Rangers, Tigers and Blue Jays are on this trail. An executive of one club involved in these talks says he was told that two National League teams, yet to be identified, are working on this deal, as well. Other clubs are conjecturing that one of them almost certainly is Washington.
So that tells us six to eight teams are actively talking to the Rockies, with four days left until the trading deadline. If you think they're all just checking in to get some tips on the best ski lodges in Aspen, better think again.
"You don't do this with your best pitcher," said the official quoted at the top of this column, "unless you're ready to trade him."
If indeed the Rockies really are ready to trade this guy, you have to understand what this means.
It means, for one thing, that it's time to boot Carlos Beltran out of the top spot in the Rumor Central power rankings. Here's why:
Beltran is a difference-maker, but he's also a two-month rent-a-bat with a bad knee who won't even get his new team a draft pick when he bolts this winter.
Jimenez, on the other hand, is a 27-year-old smokeballer who won 19 games last year, throws 96 mph, has a 3.03 ERA (and 71 K's in 71 1/3 innings) since June 1, and is under contract for a mere $9.95 million total over the next two seasons. And guys who fit that profile NEVER get traded away at the trading deadline.
"Of all the players out there, or potentially out there, he has the most value," said an official of one team in this derby. "Because he's a starting pitcher. Because of his age. Because of his contract. So if they trade him, they should bet a bigger return than any other guy on the market."
By remarkable coincidence, that's a sentiment the Rockies happen to agree with wholeheartedly. So the Neiman Marcus price tag they've attached to Jimenez hasn't shown any signs of slipping.
That price is still, in the words of one club, "three or four really good young players." And one of them has to be a high-end pitcher who can be plugged into the Rockies' rotation by the middle of next season.
So for the Yankees, that would mean Ivan Nova -- plus two or three jewels from their system. For the Reds, it would mean Homer Bailey or Travis Wood -- plus the cream of that prospect pool (though one source adamantly denied reports that either Aroldis Chapman or catching stud Devin Mesoraco would be part of this package). For Detroit, it would mean the conversation would have to start with Max Scherzer or Rick Porcello (whom the Tigers have refused to discuss). And, well, you get the idea.
Are the Rockies going to get what they want? Our first inclination is to be skeptical. But remember, the Rockies look at this as the kind of shopping opportunity that doesn't come along every July. So what they've told all the teams they've talked to is: "If we get our price, he's yours. And if not, we'll keep him. Period."
So where is Ubaldo going? The Yankees were described, by one source who spoke with them, as having "strong interest," even though they've downplayed that interest for the most part. The Red Sox have stayed involved from the beginning, and Rockies scouts were spotted all over their system over the last few days.
But an official of one other club believes "the team [the Rockies] really want to do this deal with is Cincinnati, because they've got the young starting pitching to give back. So I think that's where this is going."
Other clubs report they expect these conversations to last into the weekend, and possibly right up until the deadline. If you'd asked us a week ago, or even 48 hours ago, if we thought this would ever get this far, we'd have said, "No way." But, as we said, not anymore.
"He's definitely out there," one exec said. "This is no smokescreen. This is legit."
The Phillies are a team that loves to stalk The Big Deal this time of year. And it's now become clear to clubs that have spoken with the Phillies that if that Big Deal is for a bat, almost all their bullets are being aimed at Hunter Pence.
In fact, over the last 24 hours, two different front-office men -- neither of whom works for the Phillies or Astros -- told us they believed the Phillies "had a deal for him" earlier in the week, only to have Houston back off.
When we ran that scenario past one Astros official, he refused to discuss any specific player. What he did say was that his team is still willing to listen to just about anything, and that it hasn't said no to any specific proposal.
Other clubs say the Astros have told them they would still need to be "overwhelmed" to trade Pence, in particular, because their team is a month away from being sold -- and Pence might be the only reason anybody in Houston would want to buy a ticket to see them next year.
But if they're offered a package built around high-end young pitching, they'll listen. So it's believed the Phillies structured a deal around their best hitting prospect, first baseman Jonathan Singleton, and their best pitching prospect, Jarred Cosart -- both of whom are playing for Class A Clearwater -- plus another second-tier pitching prospect. But the Astros have been telling clubs they need four sure-thing players if they deal Pence. And the Phillies haven't shown a willingness to strip their system that bare, or to include rookie starter Vance Worley in any trade.
So in the end, other teams still expect Houston to hang onto Pence, at least for now, and focus on moving Wandy Rodriguez and/or Brett Myers, while picking up as little money in those deals as possible. And if it turns out Pence is unavailable, the Phillies would probably focus more on smaller moves -- Jason Giambi, Jeff Francoeur, Ryan Ludwick, bat-off-the-bench types and bullpen arms.
Other teams remain certain the Braves are GOING to add a bat. And as Buster Olney writes Wednesday, with Brian McCann heading for the disabled list, they need that bat more than ever.
But teams that have spoken with the Braves say they're holding firm on keeping Mike Minor and their top pitching prospects (Julio Teheran and Arodys Vizcaino) out of any deal -- and that includes any conceivable package for Carlos Beltran, Pence or B.J. Upton.
An executive of one club predicted Tuesday that the Braves would wind up dealing for Josh Willingham. But for what it's worth, the White Sox continue to scout Atlanta's system, in case they decide to move Carlos Quentin.
The Red Sox continue to talk with the Dodgers about Hiroki Kuroda, the Mariners about Erik Bedard and the A's about Rich Harden. But if they're confident by the weekend that Clay Buchholz is coming back, they've told those teams they'll most likely pull the plug on those conversations. Buchholz wouldn't affect their interest in Ubaldo Jimenez, however. An executive of one team that has spoken regularly with the Tigers predicts they'll eventually trade for Kuroda or, if that falls through, for Jeremy Guthrie. While they'll monitor Bedard's start Friday, he appears to be just a back-burner option for Detroit. Among the prospect names Detroit is said to have made available in the right deal: Pitchers Andy Oliver, Casey Crosby, Chance Ruffin and Bruce Rondon. Teams that have spoken with the Padres continue to report they have very little interest in moving Mike Adams, that they don't think they match up with the Cardinals on Heath Bell, and that they're still telling clubs like the Rangers and Phillies that they're prepared to keep Bell if the offers don't equal the value of the two high-compensation picks they'd get back if they lose him.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His latest book, "Worth The Wait: Tales of the 2008 Phillies," was published by Triumph Books and is now available in a new paperback edition, in bookstores and online. Click here to order a copy.
Follow Jayson Stark on Twitter: @jaysonst