John Donovan
Thursday January 20th, 2005

The National League East, wound tighter than Larry Bowa in a Phillies' team meeting, just got a whole lot tighter. The NL West, still up for grabs, just got a whole lot weirder.

And somewhere, the strangely silent Yankees are dialing ferociously, just trying to remain a player.

Baseball's annual front office Olympics went into the bottom of the ninth Friday night, but it still seems like a long way until this game will be over. A flurry of meaty trades threatened to change the landscape in the East, yet everyone in baseball was looking out West for the trade that didn't happen.

Or, at least it hasn't happened yet.

Despite billions of rumors that predicted the contrary, Randy Johnson, the big lefty whom the pitching-poor Yankees covet, was still wearing a Diamondbacks' uniform late Friday. In fact, Johnson was still pitching for the Diamondbacks. He made his regularly scheduled start against the Rockies amidst more hot air and dirt than any 10 Phoenix summers.

Whether Johnson remains in Arizona for the immediate future was the question of the night in baseball, and it may not be determined until sometime Saturday. The trading deadline is at 4 p.m.

What we do know is this: The talking's not done.

While at least a couple of teams angled to land the Big Unit -- including the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Angels and Arizona, which may want to keep its ace despite his wishes to be traded -- other teams concentrated on getting better in their own ways.

No team was more successful in that area than the Marlins, who traded away a stalwart of their rotation, righty Brad Penny, and first baseman Hee Seop Choi to the NL West's Dodgers, addressing three needs in doing so. The Marlins got a bat for the middle of their lineup in reacquiring former Marlins outfielder Juan Encarnacion (who will go to right field for the World Series champs); they got the premier setup man in the league in Guillermo Mota; and they got a good defensive catcher who also can hit in Paul Lo Duca.

The deal was so bizarre from the Dodgers' end of things -- they needed help for the rotation, but giving up those three players for Penny seemed batty -- that speculation immediately centered on the next move. Arizona's Johnson could be moving to L.A., it is rumored, even though he reportedly has said he will waive his no-trade clause only to go to the Yankees.

And for a sideshow to that circus, how's this? The Dodgers made a deal to get catcher Charles Johnson from the Rockies -- to replace Lo Duca, it seems -- but as of late Friday, the catcher had not decided whether he would waive his no-trade clause. He had said he wouldn't.

Hoo boy.

Meanwhile, back East, the Mets began the day three games under .500 and six games out of the NL East lead. They went out and landed the best pitcher who was sure to move, trading for Pirates righty Kris Benson. They bolstered that move later by dealing for Devil Rays righty Victor Zambrano. The price was steep: For Zambrano, the Mets had to give up their best pitching prospect, Scott Kazmir. And for Benson, the Mets had to give up another highly thought-of minor-league arm, Matt Peterson, in addition to third baseman Ty Wigginton.

It was a bold play clearly designed to make some headway in the East this year. And with a rotation that now looks like this -- Tom Glavine, Al Leiter, Steve Trachsel, Benson and Zambrano -- some progress can be made.

Barring any further trades -- and that's like saying barring the sun will rise in the East -- Benson will start Saturday against the Braves in Atlanta. It will be the third straight start for Benson against his hometown team.

"It's kind of a relief just to get it over with," Benson told reporters Friday. "It's been a tough day."

The Phillies, who have struggled mightily this season and recently went through another of their semi-annual team meetings/manager bashings/psychological lettings, tried to get into the game later Friday by trading for the Giants' Felix Rodriguez. He'll help a bullpen currently savaged by injuries to rookie sensation Ryan Madson and closer Billy Wagner.

It should make for an interesting August and September in the NL East.

Most baseball executives had expected August to be busier for trades than July, even though players have to clear waivers next month (they don't have to if the trade is made before Saturday's trade deadline). And August may still be hot.

But with Arizona's Johnson still out there -- he went seven innings Friday and gave up six hits and four runs, losing another pathetic Arizona offensive performance, 4-1 -- and several other players reportedly on the block (including Johnson's for-now teammate, Steve Finley), July's not done yet.

We have a few choice hours until this game is over.

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.