The second trade deadline for Ruben Amaro Jr. as Phillies general manager looks a lot like the first: he is the biggest player at the table. Last year he landed the biggest prize, pitcher Cliff Lee, after trying to hook an even bigger one, Roy Halladay. This year he is trying to land another pitcher, Roy Oswalt, while trying to get it done without trading outfielder Jayson Werth, one of the best hitters available.
This figures to be a busy week, with Oswalt likely to join Lee (Seattle to Texas) and Dan Haren (Arizona to the Los Angeles Angels) among starting pitchers traded before the deadline. It's become a July tradition. Aces are in demand this time of year, but oddly enough, rarely do teams acquire an impact player when trading one. Lee (Indians to Phillies, 2009), CC Sabathia (Indians to Brewers, 2008), Rich Harden (A's to Cubs, 2008), Denny Neagle (Reds to Yankees, 2000), Curt Schilling (Phillies to Diamondbacks, 2000), Kevin Appier (Royals to A's, 1999) and David Cone (Blue Jays to Yankees, 1995) all were traded in July with minimal return for their value.
The exception, not the rule, is the "haul" Seattle acquired when trading Randy Johnson to Houston in 1998: pitcher Freddy Garcia, infielder Carlos Guillen and pitcher John Halama. That was many Julys ago.
Actually, two of the best heists involved trades for second-tier pitchers, not aces: the Rays turned Victor Zambrano into Scott Kazmir in their trade with the Mets in 2004 and the Rangers turned Esteban Loiaza into Michael Young in their trade with Toronto in 2000.
Is Justin Smoak (the key return on Lee) a future star? Anybody buying futures in Matt LaPorta (the prime prospect in the Sabathia deal) or Carlos Carrasco (Lee) of the Indians?
That said, do the Astros really expect a stud prospect for Oswalt and the $38 million due the soon-to-be-33-year-old right-hander (assuming the 2012 option is part of the deal)? Seems they would have to kick in a small boatload of cash for that to happen.
If the Phillies do get Oswalt, that would make for four major trades for starting pitchers in the past 24 months for them (Joe Blanton, Lee, and Roy Halladay preceded the Oswalt bid). Amaro's task is to try to get Oswalt without scorching the farm system even more. How does he do that? The Phillies could kick in prospects who aren't close to being major league ready -- they do have quality in the low minors -- and big leaguer J.A. Happ.
Otherwise, Amaro will have to spin off Werth to a third team, such as the Rays, Yankees or Padres, to satisfy the Astros. But if he does that, and assuming he plugs outfield prospect Domonic Brown into Werth's spot, the Phillies' lineup becomes heavily left-handed. One team source said before the Angels obtained Haren that Amaro had been keeping an eye on the Yankees' bid for Haren because the Phillies discussed sending Werth to the Yankees in a deal for Haren.
In any case, the Phillies are starting to warm up. Werth has stopped swinging for the fences. ("He was trying too hard for the big payday," one scout said of the impending free agent.) Rollins on Saturday had his first opposite field hit left-handed, and only his second all year. Raul Ibanez has shed his mechanical problems and has crawled out of his three-month slump. Chase Utley could be back before Labor Day from his thumb injury. Cole Hamels has the best velocity and command of his fastball in his career.
But Amaro still isn't sure if he can hunt down the Braves with Blanton, Kyle Kendrick and Happ getting the majority of his team's starts. And so, for the second straight July, the pressure is on the Philadelphia GM. The biggest pitcher left on the market is Oswalt, who next gets the ball Friday. Amaro will try to find some way to acquire him before then without bankrupting his farm system or moving Werth. And that's why Philadelphia is the key player to trading deadline madness.
The intrigue isn't confined to Philadelphia. Here are other key teams to keep an eye on over the next five days:
They held an organizational conference call Monday afternoon to map out their plans for the week. Trouble is, at 7 1/2 games out in the NL East and 5 1/2 back in the wild card race they are in the worst possible position: neither solidly in or out of contention. Their trendline is ominous: they have played more than a month without winning back-to-back games, going 9-19 while hitting .235.
The Mets don't want to take on any contracts with 2011 money (that means no Oswalt) and their available money is described as "case by case;" GM Omar Minaya has no working budget. So their choice comes down to this: do they trade young players to plug Ted Lilly or Brett Myers into their rotation instead of Hisanori Takahashi? And is that upgrade enough to turn them into a playoff team?
They have the same record and the same amount of ground to make up to reach the playoffs as the Mets but they arrived in the same place, Pennant Race Limbo, via a different direction. One week from trading players such as Jorge Cantu and Cody Ross, the Marlins got hot enough to put everything on hold. They have won eight of their past 10 games, including six of them by one run.
"Things changed all of a sudden with them with a couple of comeback wins," said one GM who was in talks with Florida. "They pick up another game or two and are five or six out, they'll probably go for it."
But look at the big picture: after 98 games they were a .500 team, six games out in the loss column in the wild card race with one of the worst defenses in the league. That is not the profile of a playoff team.
Forget Corey Hart, Adam Dunn or Prince Fielder. Reports that the Giants need another bat are so 2009. San Francisco has the second best run differential in the league, trailing only San Diego. They already have added the big bats they needed: Aubrey Huff and the remarkable Buster Posey, whom scouts are comparing to Edgar Martinez for his ability to stay inside the ball and hit with power to all parts of the field. And his defense? "Better and better," one scout said. "He's the All-Star catcher next year."
San Francisco can stand pat this week, though it's strange that their postseason chances come down to two guys thought to be givens when the year started: Pablo Sandoval and Tim Lincecum. Sandoval has hit .196 with runners in scoring position. Lincecum is pitching like Pedro Martinez late in his career: his velocity begins to give out as he goes past 70 pitches, so he has to conserve bullets and live off a killer changeup.
The Yard Sale officially is on. Make an offer for Adam LaRoche, Chad Qualls, Edwin Jackson, Chris Snyder or Kelly Johnson. Arizona is using the San Diego road map: try to win with a $40 million payroll instead of $60 million by loading up on young pitching behind a core of position players just entering their prime. The Diamondbacks used their top eight picks in the draft last month on pitchers, then turned Haren into four young pitchers in the trade with the Angels.
Eight games behind Texas in the loss column in the AL West with a negative run differential should tell you they're not catching the Rangers. But the Haren trade was too good to pass up even if it turns out it was more about 2011 than 2010.
But beware: the Diamondbacks seem to have flipped this guy at the right time. Haren no longer is an ace. He is 12-14 with a 4.59 ERA since the 2009 All-Star break. His fastball doesn't hold his velocity the way he used to -- his fastball range is 88 to 93 instead of 91-93 -- and his splitter is inconsistent. "He's a solid two or three now, not a one," said one scout. "His velocity is up and down. It's not the same ace stuff, but he's such a great competitor."
And that's why people saw a great divide between his perceived trade value in the media, which generally accused Arizona of getting fleeced, and his actual trade value: the media largely reacted to his reputation while the clubs reacted to the quality of stuff over the past year.