Trading frenzy develops fever pitch

Rolen deal leaves Thome as last big position player believed to be on market

July 30, 2002|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

Baseball's looming July 31 trade deadline always generates anticipation of a last-minute trading frenzy by contending clubs desperate to shore up their rosters for the stretch drive, but the next two days could pass without much excitement.

There still are several teams searching for pitching help, so the possibility remains of one final burst of activity before clubs are required to pass players through waivers in order to complete a trade. It just doesn't seem very likely, because of the volume of trading activity that has taken place over the past six weeks.

In fact, the trading period may have reached a high point yesterday, when the St. Louis Cardinals acquired third baseman Scott Rolen from the Philadelphia Phillies for Bud Smith, Mike Timlin and Placido Polanco.

The Rolen deal leaves Indians first baseman Jim Thome as the only impact position player still believed to be on the market, and there is some question whether the Indians really have any intention of trading him.

The number of quality pitchers available also has decreased dramatically as several rebuilding teams moved quickly to shed payroll and deal marquee starters to upper-division clubs.

The Indians, conceding the American League Central race to the runaway Minnesota Twins, traded two of them - overpowering young right-hander Bartolo Colon to the Montreal Expos and veteran Chuck Finley to the St. Louis Cardinals.

The Florida Marlins also unfurled a white flag, trading pitcher Ryan Dempster to the Cincinnati Reds and star outfielder Cliff Floyd to the Expos, and the Detroit Tigers dealt Jeff Weaver to the overstocked Yankees.

In an era when quality pitching is perceived to be in very short supply, the supply of solid starting pitchers available in the midseason trade market was surprisingly large. No doubt, there are a few more pitchers to be had for the right price, but there don't appear to be that many motivated teams left to bid on them.

"I think the landscape for some teams as far as being in [contention] or out of it was determined a little earlier this year," said Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, who has dealt for fifth starter Ted Lilly and veteran second baseman Ray Durham during the past month. "Cleveland, for example, decided quickly that they were going to rebuild and started that process a little early.

"There still could be a number of moves, but I don't sense the fervor of previous years. You can tell by the phone activity."

No sense holding your breath in Baltimore. Early speculation that the Orioles might move starters Scott Erickson and Sidney Ponson has given way to the much stronger probability that the club will keep the developing pitching staff intact for a possible wild-card challenge in 2003.

The complicated process of completing a major trade has been further complicated for Orioles vice president for baseball operations Syd Thrift by an ownership edict that the Orioles do nothing that would increase their current payroll.

The only good reason for the Orioles to deal one of their core starting pitchers would be to acquire a star quality position player in return.

Cleveland still may move Thome, but the Orioles would have to sign him to a expensive long-term contract extension to justify a deal that diminishes the pitching staff. End of conversation.

Owner Peter Angelos has made it clear that he's not interested in committing to pay anyone $10 million or more per season, especially during a summer in which he is a participant in baseball's labor negotiations.

"I think everybody is in the same situation," said Thrift. "That's what it sounds like to me."

Since the Orioles have no realistic chance of competing for a playoff berth this year, they have no reason to acquire anyone on a short-term basis.

The July 31 deadline really was made for teams like the first-place Cardinals, who are contending for a division title and have enough money and young talent to acquire the help they need.

The organization was stunned by the tragic death of starting pitcher Darryl Kile five weeks ago, but general manager Walt Jocketty moved decisively to shore up the rotation with the acquisition of Finley. Though the Cardinals continue to seek pitching help, they made another dynamic move with the acquisition of Rolen, who recently expressed interest in signing a long-term deal with the Cardinals.

"We are very pleased and excited to add Scott Rolen to our lineup," Jocketty said in a statement. "He is an All-Star, a proven run producer and an excellent defensive player."

Of course, tomorrow's deadline does not make it impossible to complete a deal down the stretch, but the process gets much more complicated. Teams can acquire players during the final two months of the regular season, but those players must clear waivers before moving to a new team and they must join their new club by Aug. 31 to be eligible for the postseason.

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