There, in the distance, I see smoke and white flags being waved!
Such is my vision of the 2013 Major League Baseball season. There will be a point, right around the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, when some teams just plain give up and go into fire-sale mode.
Not a hard prophecy to conjure, really. It happens every year, and it will happen again this year. The only question is which teams are going to be the ones doing the giving up and the selling?
It's still early in the season, but we're past the "too early" point in regard to some teams. I went and crunched the numbers earlier this week and found that clubs that start the season off poorly rarely tend to recover. All too often a bad start heralds a bad season.
There's already a handful of teams out there that are off to a bad start, and these are the teams we could see holding "everything must go!" sales come July.
And they are...
Houston Astros and Miami Marlins
Since these two are such obvious fire-sale candidates, we might as well get them out of the way.
Entering Friday's action, the Astros and Marlins are the two worst teams in baseball, each with a record of 8-21. We all expected them to be horrid baseball teams and, well, they are.
Neither team is overloaded with trade bait. Particularly not the Marlins, who got rid of their best trade chips over the winter when they made their mega-deal with the Toronto Blue Jays. Nevertheless, both teams have some veterans who could be packing their bags in July (or earlier).
Seemingly nobody on Houston's active roster is committed to the organization for the long haul, but the guys most likely to find themselves playing for new teams in the latter half of the year are: Carlos Pena, Rick Ankiel and Ronny Cedeno. All three are playing on one-year contracts.
Pena will be an option for a contender looking for a lefty power bat to bring off the bench. Ankiel is another lefty hitter with power, and he's still a decent outfielder. Cedeno can play pretty much anywhere, and he's morphed into a decent hitter with a .754 OPS since the start of last season.
Among the younger Astros players, a guy who could be moved is Bud Norris, who was reported by Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com to be on the trading block during spring training. Norris is no ace, but he could be an option for a contender looking for a back-end starter, or just a healthy starter.
As for the Marlins, they'll be free of large salaries if they move Ricky Nolasco and what's left of his $11.5 million salary. They also have Placido Polanco, Greg Dobbs, Juan Pierre and Miguel Olivo at their disposal, veterans who could be decent role players on contending teams. Pierre, in particular, could draw interest as a pinch-runner.
Then there's Giancarlo Stanton. It's going to be hard for the Marlins to let him go, seeing as how he's their only player who has drawing power, but we all know he's going to be a goner sooner or later.
The best bet is on Stanton being moved during the winter, but the Marlins could move him at the deadline if he comes back strong from his hamstring injury. Holding on to him would mean risking another injury taking a big bite out of his trade value, so the Marlins could strike while the iron is hot.
Regardless of the exact names and destinations, it's all but a given that the Astros and Marlins are going to be among the sellers this summer. It's their lot in life; they signed up for this the very moment they pushed their respective "reset" buttons.
As for which clubs will be joining them, we now head to the North Side of Chicago...
The Cubs aren't bumping elbows with the Astros and Marlins at the bottom of the cellar, but they're another team that's about as bad as we expected. Through 28 games, the Cubs are 11-17.
The Cubs were among the big sellers at the trade deadline last year, shipping off veterans like Ryan Dempster, Paul Maholm, Reed Johnson and Geovany Soto to needy contenders. Matt Garza may have gone too had he not gotten hurt right before the deadline.
Garza could find himself on the move this season if he pitches well upon his return to the Cubs rotation. That's a big "if," seeing as how he hasn't pitched since last July, but the Cubs surely won't be ignoring offers for him if he's healthy and productive. Their choice is either going to be to dish him for prospects or let him walk as a free agent, perhaps without ties to draft-pick compensation.
Other prospective free agents the Cubs could dangle are Scott Feldman, the currently injured Scott Baker, Dioner Navarro and Shawn Camp. Feldman could bring back an impressive haul if he keeps pitching like he has through his first five starts, as he has a solid 3.34 ERA and a 119 ERA+.
Carlos Marmol might also be dealt, but I'm only saying that because I feel obligated to. He's a free agent at the end of the year, but he's long seemed determined to keep pounding away at his trade value until there's nothing left. Relievers are always in demand at the deadline, but not relievers who have trouble locating fastballs to specific area codes, let alone over the plate.
Aside from the pending free agents, the Cubs have a couple of one-and-a-half-year rentals they can offer, namely Alfonso Soriano and Scott Hairston. Both would be fits for teams looking for some offense from the right side of the plate.
Dealing for Soriano, however, is likely going to mean giving up a talented prospect or two, even if the Cubs eat most of the money he's owed. That is something the Cubs are willing to do, as Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported in December.
The Cubs need as many prospects as they can get, of course. Baseball America will vouch that their farm system is getting to be pretty good, but they still have work to do before the "foundation for sustained success" that Theo Epstein teased back in 2011 is completed.
From the North Side of Chicago, we go to San Diego...
San Diego Padres
The Padres are right there with the Cubs at 11-17, and they're right about where they deserve to be, with an offense that boasts a mere .680 OPS and a pitching staff that has a 4.48 ERA.
San Diego's top prospective free agent is Edinson Volquez, but "top" is putting it kindly. With a 6.39 ERA, a 56 ERA+ and a tendency for wildness, Volquez is going to have to really turn things around over the next couple months to draw any real interest on the trade market.
Beyond him, we could see the Padres admit their missteps with the contracts they have with Carlos Quentin and Huston Street, but they'd probably have to eat some money in order to move either one of them. It's hard to envision an organization like the Padres resorting to that.
I'm not even sure teams would be overly interested in these guys, even if the Padres were willing to swallow some cash. In fact, the only guy on the Padres who's likely to attract significant attention this July is third baseman Chase Headley.
Earlier this week, Padres executive chairman Ron Fowler came right out and told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the organization wants to make Headley the richest player in its history.
It was a surprise that Fowler was so direct, but it was an even bigger surprise that it took Headley, oh, about five minutes to tell MLB.com that he wasn't interested in talking turkey during the season.
This led Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com to reach a logical conclusion: As long as Headley still isn't talking by the trade deadline, teams are going to be thinking he could be had.
And they could be right. If Headley isn't willing to talk to the Padres now, he's probably not going to be much more receptive this winter, with free agency just 162 games around the corner. The Padres will be aware of this, and they could deal Headley as soon as the right basket of prospects is presented to them.
Granted, this would only be one trade, which in most cases doesn't constitute a fire sale.
But since Headley is a superstar on a team that doesn't even have that many stars, I'd say a special exception of the term is warranted in this case. Take Headley off the Padres, and you're left with a heaping pile of "meh."
From San Diego, we go back across the country to the City of Brotherly Love...
At 13-16, the Phillies could be doing a lot worse...
But it doesn't look so good for them.
The Phillies were going to need things to go right in order to contend this season, and things have gone wrong instead. Their offense has a .685 OPS that doesn't look like a fluke, and their best starting pitcher has not been Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee or Cole Hamels, but Kyle Kendrick.
The Phillies aren't bad enough to sink like a stone to the bottom of the NL East, but they could find themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place just like last season. They'll have to choose between either making a run at an unlikely playoff berth or selling off their veterans and saying, "maybe next year."
Among their prospective free agents are some big-name players: Halladay, Chase Utley, Michael Young, Delmon Young and Carlos Ruiz. These five could be Philly's ticket to some decent prospects, which the organization very much needs with its farm system as dry as it's been in years.
It also wouldn't be outside the realm of possibility for the Phillies to entertain offers for Jimmy Rollins, who is a free agent after 2014. Lee could also find his way to the block, as Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com (rightfully) thinks he would be a prime target for rich teams looking to gear up for a run to the World Series.
That list could include the endlessly rich Los Angeles Dodgers, who made a play to get Lee last August before they went and made a mega-deal with the Boston Red Sox instead.
Speaking of those Red Sox: They could also be interested in Lee. Salisbury noted that the Red Sox asked about him over the winter, and they could ask again this summer if they deem themselves one ace away from being a legit World Series contender.
A fire sale in Philadelphia would be quite the shocker, given how much the organization has accomplished since 2007, but not quite so shocking as a fire sale that could take place north of the border...
Toronto Blue Jays
During the winter, the Blue Jays were on the receiving end of a fire sale. Barely one month into the 2013 season, the odds are pretty good that they'll find themselves on the other end of one.
As I found in my research, it's extremely rare for teams that post sub-.400 winning percentages in April to make the playoffs in the Wild Card era. The Blue Jays were in that club this year, and they have the added difficulty of coming back in an AL East division that features three top contenders in the Red Sox, New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles.
Fellow MLB Lead Writer Jason Catania took an in-depth look at what a Blue Jays fire sale would look like. The bright side for you Blue Jays fans, such as it is, is that stars like Jose Bautista, Jose Reyes, R.A. Dickey, Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie and J.P. Arencibia wouldn't be going anywhere, meaning the Blue Jays wouldn't totally be destroying their long-term chances to contend.
But other stars would be on the chopping block, such as free-agent-to-be Josh Johnson, fellow starters Brandon Morrow and Mark Buehrle, and outfielders Melky Cabrera and Colby Rasmus.
If the Blue Jays find themselves selling, it will be because these guys didn't live up to their talent, in which case the team probably wouldn't get much in return for them. Given all the assets the Jays surrendered over the winter, getting little in return for these guys would qualify as a defeat in and of itself.
Rather than careening toward the World Series like they planned, the Blue Jays would be cutting their losses. Baseball can be cruel like that.
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