Thanks to the Astros' longtime pitching star Roy Oswalt and his unusually early trade request, trade speculation has already begun -- though the majority of trade-deadline deals won't happen for two months.
It's no surprise that much of the public discourse to this point involves Oswalt, who told the Astros that he would like to be traded if Houston can find an acceptable spot for him. Oswalt is far from the only star who could get dealt this summer, but he has certainly garnered the most attention and speculation so far.
While it's logical that Oswalt should go (possibly along with longtime teammate Lance Berkman), there's no guarantee that he will, and there are two very good reasons for this: 1) There's no guarantee that Astros owner Drayton McLane wants to trade Oswalt, despite Oswalt's wishes; and 2) there's no guarantee that the Astros can find the right trading partner, considering the $31 million remaining on Oswalt's contract through next season, teams' general unwillingness to spend big bucks while also surrendering top prospects, and frankly, no obvious matches.
The first hurdle is McLane, who seems more interested in selling his whole team than any of his prized stars. "In the past he's had no appetite to trade the big stars or any interest in rebuilding,'' said one person familiar with the Astros' situation. "It's going to be a matter of how effective [his executives] are at educating him on where the club is."
Houston, which currently holds a 16-31 record, has made some miracle comebacks before. The Astros began the 2005 season at 15-30 before turning it around and making it to the World Series. It is the ball club's recent history of comebacks that discourages McLane from starting a rebuilding process that would obviously be painful to him. Of course, back in '05, the Astros had Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte on their pitching staff, along with Oswalt.
Here's a list of possible trade candidates ...
1. Cliff Lee, Mariners SP: Unless the Mariners start living up to their preseason hype, Lee will hit the market. He has been traded twice in the past year already, and while the acquiring teams unloaded a total of seven decent or better prospects, even Lee couldn't bring an upper-echelon prospect such as Clay Buchholz last year, a straight-up request that was flat rejected. "Teams are placing significant value on their young players,'' one AL GM said.
2. Oswalt, Berkman: Good for Oswalt that he's finally trying to force Houston's hand. He's a great second-half pitcher with his 70-22 career record after the break. But who'll pay the $31 million? With the starter-rich Yankees ("We have five starters we like,'' one Yankees person said) and Red Sox likely out of the mix, it's hard to find a team that fits Oswalt's desire to go to a contender. In the past he's said to prefer the National League, or oddly enough, whatever team Jake Peavy is pitching for (White Sox now), so he may narrow the field further. The Dodgers are interested but never liked to make any midseason expenditures even before the marriage of the team-owning McCourts blew up and the payroll was cut from $120 million to $83 million. The Braves haven't been huge in-season spenders, either. And the bankrupted Rangers can't possibly fit $31 mil into their budget. The Twins already have run their payroll to an unprecedented $95 million, and it's hard to imagine the Tigers have a lot more money lying around either. Then there's a question as to whether Oswalt would consider the Mets or Nationals strong enough contenders. (Both teams are within striking distance and the Mets have been especially impressive lately.) The Cardinals could be an early guess, but as one competing GM said, "They have to save their money for Albert [Pujols].'' The Astros have no chance to pick up Berkman's $15 million option despite public pleas by the longtime star, and it would make sense to find a suitor for him, as well.
3. Prince Fielder, Brewers 1B: Though little has been mentioned publicly about a potential trade for Prince, competing executives see a deal for him as a real possibility now. Milwaukee started negotiations early enough to gauge its chances to retain Fielder, which appear slim with him seeking about as much money as aggressive owner Mark Attanasio paid for the franchise. No disrespect was meant when one NL GM remarked, "Milwaukee can't afford the Prince Fielders of the world.'' The Giants, who have been interested in the past, are one team that could make some sense.
4. Ben Sheets, A's SP: It seemed almost a setup for a July trade when the A's outbid others to win the former ace. He's pitching better lately, but one AL GM said, "He needs to exhibit more consistency.''
5. Paul Konerko, White Sox 1B:Ken Williams, one of the game's most aggressive GMs, won't give up easily. Konerko would be a prize, but he has veto power as a 10-and-5 player. Struggling catcher A.J. Pierzynski is one the White Sox might not mind moving, but they'd better hurry -- he gains 10-and-5 veto rights in mid-June. Opposing GMs would love to see White Sox pitchers become available, though there's no evidence they will.
6. Adam Dunn, Nationals 1B: There's a split as to whether the Nats will move Dunn, but one GM said if they're still in striking distance of .500, they'll probably keep him. That GM also pointed out that the one-dimensional Dunn didn't prove very marketable last time.
7. Kevin Millwood, Orioles SP and Jake Westbrook, Indians SP: Both pitchers make $11 million, will be free agents and are made to be rent-a-pitchers. Both are performing decently, better than their records indicate.
8. Gil Meche, Jose Guillen, Scott Podsednik and David DeJesus, Royals quartet: Now that GM Drayton Moore has admitted that it's an "eight to 10 year'' plan, maybe he will commence rebuilding.
9. Dan Haren, Diamondbacks SP: One GM said he could see the Diamondbacks trying to do a reverse of the deal they made to get Haren. But other GMs point out the Diamondbacks have an impressive young nucleus and a continuing hope to contend soon. Plus, Haren has a long and reasonable contract. Long shot to leave.
10. Adrian Gonzalez and Heath Bell, Padres headliners: One GM said, "The Padres are playing over their head, and there's a long way to July.'' But most others see the Padres keeping their marquee men. As another GM said, "Nobody in that division is running away with it.''
• Stephen Strasburg's current target date for his debut is June 8, but things could change. The buildup has been enormous, and the Nats said on their Web site that they will provide the public about six days notice. It's too late for some who thought June 4 was going to be the date, though.
• Agent Dan Lozano's decision to leave the Beverly Hills Sports Council means he will take Pujols with him, and probably also Jimmy Rollins and Michael Young, among others. Lozano, a longtime partner as BHSC, has been responsible for Pujols in a system whereby each of the four partners concentrated on different clients. "We wish him well in his future endeavors,'' partner Jeff Borris said. It's a financial hit for BHSC, as Pujols is due to become a free agent after the 2011 season and will be in line for a salary at least comparable to Alex Rodriguez's $30.5 million per year. But BHSC still has several huge clients, and at one recent All-Star Game had as many as 11 players. Tim Lincecum and Jayson Werth are among their other clients.
• The Red Sox look like a threat again. And David Ortiz's resurgence is no small reason. Ortiz has nine homers and 23 RBIs this month, and is hitting .361. Meanwhile, Kevin Youkilis (7, 17, .355 in May), Adrian Beltre (5, 25, .340), J.D. Drew (2, 18, .356) and Jon Lester (4-0, 1.95 ERA) also have played big roles.
• One scout also said Daisuke Matsuzaka "looked the best he's looked since going to the Red Sox'' in one-hitting the Phillies.
• The unstated reason why Jacoby Ellsbury is reclaiming his center field job once his ribs heal is that he will be an everyday player while free-agent pickup Mike Cameron might be sharing time with Jeremy Hermida in left field.
• Despite the White Sox's unexpected early struggles and some small rumor of change in the manager's office, one person familiar with that team's setup said, "Ozzie [Guillen] isn't going anywhere.''
• Ozzie probably deserves a fine from MLB, though, after going quite a bit too far in his expletive-laced tirade against umpire Cowboy Joe West, who himself could be in hot water after again talking about his position regarding the slow play of the Yankees and Red Sox after being warned about exactly that. West's balk calls on Mark Buehrle seemed highly questionable, and so was the quick decision to eject Buehrle (Guillen, though, got what he deserved). But what gets MLB is that West can't stop talking about the Yankees-Red Sox issue after he was told to pipe down. MLB is especially annoyed West has hired a publicist who's finding interviews for West to promote his new country CD and tells interviewers he'll answer all questions.
• The Reds have homered in 16 straight games through Thursday, the longest such streak in the majors.
• While it's a bit of an embarrassment, the Rangers had no choice but to file for bankruptcy. It was the only result that made sense with no end in sight in the negotiations and the lending company (Monarch Alternative Capital) unwilling to forgive any of Hicks' extraordinary debt. Now a bankruptcy court judge will decide. MLB seems hopeful there could be a resolution that will move the team to prospective buyer Chuck Greenberg in about two months. But someone else familiar with the case said it could drag on all season.