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July 27, 2008

Every Given Sunday

All Busy-ness 'Round the Major League Table

by John Perrotto

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The idea of sending a baseball Dream Team to the Olympics has been dead a while now. Major League Baseball would never consider shutting down its season for two weeks to send an All-Star team to an Olympiad, and furthermore, baseball will be discontinued as an Olympic sport after next month's games in Beijing. The opening ceremonies are August 8, and the baseball competition will be held from August 13-23. Thus, baseball will be taking a back seat to a lot of other sports in the Olympics. You have to search to find the games on television, and strain even further to find much coverage online or in print.

But to a guy like Jeremy Cummings, one of 24 minor leaguers who will be representing the United States, the Olympics mean everything. The right-hander is pitching for the Rays' Triple-A Durham farm club in the International League, and at age 31, is not considered a prospect in an organization stocked with many talented young players. "What a joy it is to be on this team, and what an honor it is to be with these guys," Cummings said. "For me, I've never been to the big leagues. So this, right here, is my big leagues. To get the opportunity to play for my country is above and beyond the big leagues for me. I'm really excited to go out and play for my country. It is an honor in itself."

That's the way everyone on the US team feels, whether they are someone like Cummings, or a top prospect such as Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler. "When you're growing up playing baseball, you dream of making it to the major leagues and getting to a World Series, but this is going to be very special in its own right," said the 22-year-old Fowler, normally found playing for Double-A Tulsa in the Texas League this year. "To be able to walk into that stadium during the opening ceremonies wearing USA across my chest... I can't imagine I'm ever going to have too many bigger thrills in my life."

The United States team will be guided by former major league manager Davey Johnson, and has an interesting mix of prospects and older players. Among the prospects are Fowler, Athletics left-hander Brett Anderson and right-hander Brett Cahill, Orioles right-hander Jake Arrieta, Phillies infielder Jason Donald and catcher Lou Marson, Indians outfielder Matt LaPorta, Rangers catcher Taylor Teagarden, and Rockies right-hander Casey Weathers. All played for the US team in the All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium two weeks ago. "I'd take my chances with the talent in this clubhouse," Teagarden said after the Futures Game. "I think we'd obviously be a pretty strong team in any tournament."

"You don't know what you're going to face in the Olympics, though I would expect teams like Cuba and Japan to be very tough," added Anderson. "We do have a lot of good young talent, though. I think we would match up well."

USA Baseball has complemented the youngsters with a number of veterans with major league experience, including Cardinals infielder Brian Barden, Angels infielder Matt Brown, Marlins outfielder John Gall, Tigers pitcher Blaine Neal and infielder Mike Hessman, Mets right-hander Brandon Knight, and Dodgers pitcher Mike Koplove and infielder Terry Tiffee. "We're proud of the ballclub we have assembled," USA Baseball executive director/CEO Paul Seiler said. "The team is strong from top to bottom and we're confident it can succeed in Beijing."

The United States laid the ground work for making a run at Olympic gold as Johnson led them to the World Cup title in Taiwan last November, breaking Cuba's stranglehold on that event. Rockies second baseman Jayson Nix was the Most Valuable Player of that tournament, and will play in Beijing. "International play was very new to me, but something I enjoyed a whole lot and I took a lot from it," Nix said. "I got to play for Davey, and it's a lot different to play in a format we were not used to. I feel a lot more comfortable now as we prepare to go to China. I feel like I know what to expect, and how to approach the game."

The US will play seven games in pool play. If they finish in the top two, they advance to the single-elimination medal round for the semifinals and then the final. That makes for a different kind of mindset for professional players. "In the major leagues, in the course of a 162-game season, it's a 'we'll get them tomorrow' approach if you lose. Well, tomorrow in an international venue takes on a whole different meaning," Seiler said. "We have a manager and a coaching staff who have been through this process, and I think are going to be very adept to communicating very quickly to our athletes that this is different than what you know. I think that is the biggest challenge."

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The Yankees made the first big pre-deadline strike in the tight American League East race, beating the Rays and Red Sox to the punch by acquiring outfielder Xavier Nady and left-handed reliever Damaso Marte from the Pirates for a package of four minor leaguers that included Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre right-handers Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen, and Ross Ohlendorf, and Double-A Trenton outfielder Jose Tabata. Marte paid an immediate dividend on Saturday, striking out Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz in a key situation during a 10-3 victory that stretched the Yankees' winning streak to eight games, and kept them three games behind the first-place Rays and only one game behind second-place Boston in the AL East.

It's Nady who should have the greater impact, as the addition of his right-handed bat means that Yankees catcher Jorge Posada might be able to have season-ending surgery on his shoulder now, instead of waiting until the offseason. "If we feel we have enough pieces, he might not have to delay the surgery," Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said. "That's something we'll internally talk about. It's certainly something that's on the table because every day we wait in '08 could affect '09."

Nady figures to play regularly in left field, which would enable Johnny Damon and his achy legs to become the full-time designated hitter. "I love being a DH," Damon said. "I could do it another 10 years."

The Pirates, meanwhile, insist this was not a salary dump, unlike so many of their other in-season trades of recent years. Instead, it was a chance to bolster the almost non-existent pitching depth in the upper levels of the farm system, and the Pirates have high hopes for Tabata, even though the 19-year-old's stock has fallen this season. Tabata is hitting .248/.320/.310 with a sickly .212 EqA in 79 games and 294 at-bats at Trenton, having missed the past six weeks with a strained hamstring. He was also suspended three games for leaving the team in the middle of a game in May, because he said he was struggling with trying to meet the great expectations of the Yankees and their fans.

"If we could have made a trade like this last winter to get a player the caliber of Jose Tabata, then we would have done it," Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. "The one thing I've found in the last few weeks is that prospects have more value than ever. We've asked a lot of teams about a lot of prospects, and been told many times that various prospects are off limits. We were pleased to land a high-end prospect like Tabata. We investigated the situation and did our homework on Jose, and we believe his makeup is not a problem. He's a young kid who struggled to adjust to a higher level of competition, and that's not all that unusual. What we've learned is he is a player who has a great desire to be an outstanding player, is remorseful for what happened earlier this season and is someone we want in our organization."

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The White Sox, who hold a 3-game lead over the Twins and a 7-game edge over the Tigers in the AL West, don't seem inclined to make a major deal before the non-waiver trading deadline on Thursday. That became clear this past week when they reached down to their farm system for Triple-A Charlotte left-hander Clayton Richard when they needed to replace injured right-hander Jose Contreras in the rotation. Contreras, who has a strained elbow, is eligible to come off the disabled list on Wednesday.

Except for possibly adding an extra reliever, the White Sox plan to stick with what is already on the roster. "I'm not having the variety of conversations I have had in the past," White Sox GM Ken Williams told the Chicago Tribune. "Every idea you can come up with, you have to take something away."

The White Sox don't have a lot of top prospects to trade, especially after Josh Fields was called up from Charlotte when third baseman Joe Crede went on the disabled list Friday with back problems. Double-A Birmingham left-hander Aaron Poreda is the White Sox's top bargaining chip, but Williams doesn't seem willing to cash him in for a player who might only be in Chicago for two months. "I've learned some hard lessons in the past, and those lessons are just throwing additional talent, as much talent against the wall as you could possibly throw, doesn't always work because it doesn't always fit," Williams said. "I don't think there's anything major that's out there to be had. I don't think that there's anything more than a healthy Jose Contreras can provide us."

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The Marlins continue to hang on in the NL East race-tied for second place with the Phillies and just one game behind the Mets-despite having the lowest payroll in the major leagues at $22 million.

The Marlins are currently involved in a lawsuit filed by Miami-area auto magnate and former Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, and that has delayed the beginning of construction of their new ballpark, set to open in 2011. Though the Marlins may now have to wait an extra year to leave Dolphin Stadium, club president David Samson told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel that the possible delay will have no impact on making a potential deal before the non-waiver trading deadline. "We're always going to do what we can with revenues and match payroll to revenue in a current year," Samson said.

The Marlins' revenues are lower than most franchises in part because they are last in the major leagues in attendance. However, they have been looking for bullpen help and a catcher. Samson has faith that baseball operations president Larry Beinfest can keep the Marlins in contention while on a budget. "We will not make a trade that is not good, because we value our players," Samson said. "What we value is the way Larry does business, which is making good trades. I think his track record speaks for itself, so we're not going to do something that we don't think makes sense. "What we don't do is go to Larry and say, 'hey, you've got X million, go find a player.' That's never how it's happened."

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NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mets are pushing hard to bolster their roster before the trade deadline, and have made pitches for Athletics closer Huston Street and Rockies left-handed reliever Brian Fuentes, while also looking at lefty relievers Arthur Rhodes of the Mariners and Eddie Guardado of the Rangers. The Mets also would like to add another outfielder, and are making a late push for the Pirates' Jason Bay, while also eyeing the Mariners' Raul Ibanez and the Giants' Randy Winn. Fuentes is still drawing heavy interest, as the Cardinals, Rays, Phillies, Red Sox, Tigers, and Diamondbacks are all after him. The Rockies, only six games behind the Diamondbacks in the NL West, are becoming more hesitant to deal him unless they get a good return. The Rockies were rebuffed by the Angels in their request for top pitching prospect Nick Adenhart. While the Marlins are in a pennant race, they would consider trading first baseman Mike Jacobs or center fielder Cody Ross for a reliever. The Cardinals are pursuing Orioles left-handed closer George Sherrill, and also considering dealing for Blue Jays right-hander A.J. Burnett, which might allow them to move right-hander Adam Wainwright back to the bullpen when he comes off of the disabled list next month. This past week's trade in which the Nationals sent closer Jon Rauch to the Diamondbacks for Triple-A Tucson second baseman Emilio Bonifacio will have ramifications in 2009. Rauch will likely become the Diamondbacks' closer next season, as they aren't expected to re-sign Brandon Lyon as a free agent, and with Bonifacio no longer the heir apparent to second baseman Orlando Hudson (who is also expected to leave via free agency), the Athletics' Mark Ellis or the Royals' Mark Grudzielanek might be signed as free agents. Meanwhile, the Nationals will use right-hander Joel Hanrahan as their closer, and are saying that Bonifacio will be their starting second baseman next season. The Dodgers are close to benching center fielder Andruw Jones in favor of Juan Pierre. Left-hander Steve Kline, released by the Phillies at Triple-A Lehigh Valley earlier this season, says he is retired.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Rays are in the market for help at multiple positions, and are eyeing Fuentes, Street, and Giants right-handed reliever Tyler Walker, along with Dodgers second baseman Jeff Kent, Rockies infielder Clint Barmes, and Athletics outfielder Matt Murton. Among the other clubs showing interest in Street are the Dodgers, White Sox, and Reds. The Athletics are also open to trading right-hander Justin Duchscherer, Ellis, shortstop Bobby Crosby, and left-handed reliever Alan Embree. Conversely, the Athletics have some interest in Bay, who is signed through next season. The Yankees want to add another starting pitcher, and Mariners left-hander Jarrod Washburn is their main target, with Reds right-hander Bronson Arroyo as their fall-back plan and Burnett as a long shot. They also want to find a strong backup catcher behind Jose Molina now that Posada is limited to first base and designated hitter duty by his shoulder injury, and among those they are eyeing are the Rangers' Gerald Laird, the Nationals' Paul Lo Duca, the Royals' Miguel Olivo, and the Blue Jays' Rod Barajas The Orioles are reluctant to deal Sherrill, although in addition to the Cardinals, the Tigers, Marlins, Dodgers and Phillies also have interest. However, the Orioles would be more willing to deal right-handed reliever Chad Bradford. The Blue Jays want to keep Burnett, who can opt out of the final two years of his five-year, $55 million contract in November, and may increase his 2009 and 2010 salaries by $2 million to entice him to stay. The Twins are considering calling up right-hander Francisco Liriano from Triple-A Rochester to work out of the bullpen, and also trading for Rangers third baseman Hank Blalock, who is expendable in Texas, as is outfielder Frank Catalanotto. ... The Rangers are expected to be among the top bidders for Brewers left-hander CC Sabathia when he becomes a free agent at the end of the season. The Mariners have given up on the idea of trading left-hander Erik Bedard before the deadline and will try hard to move him during the offseason.

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Interesting facts as the 17th week of the regular season comes to a close:

  • The Orioles have lost 15 straight Sunday games, the longest losing streak by a team on a particular day since the Diamondbacks lost on 15 consecutive Saturdays in 2004.
  • Left-hander Cliff Lee's 11-hitter against the Mariners last Sunday was the most hits allowed by an Indians starter in a complete game since Charles Nagy threw a 13-hitter against the Orioles on June 17, 1992.
  • The Tigers are the first team to score 19 runs three times in a season since the 1950 Red Sox, who did it four times.
  • Athletics right-hander Brad Ziegler has not allowed a run in his first 25 major league innings, tying the record to start a career set by the Phillies' George McQuillan in 1907.
  • Francisco Rodriguez became the fastest closer to get to 40 saves with his save in the Angels' 98th game of the season. The previous best was 108 games by the Braves' John Smoltz in 2003.
  • The Angels had three players with at least four hits in a game for the first time in their history in a 14-11 win over the Indians on Wednesday, as first baseman Casey Kotchman had five and catcher Jeff Mathis and second baseman Howie Kendrick had four each.
  • When the Brewers capped a four-game sweep of the Cardinals on Thursday, it marked their first series sweep in St. Louis since 1999.
  • Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte is 110-44 with a 3.51 ERA in 193 career games (191 starts) after the All-Star break.
  • Padres closer Trevor Hoffman is the first pitcher with 14 seasons of at least 20 saves, breaking a tie for the major league record with Lee Smith.
  • Left fielder Skip Schumaker went 6-for-7 in a 10-8 win over the Mets in 14 innings on Saturday to become the first Cardinals player with six hits in a game since Terry Moore on September 5, 1935.

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Key series to watch this week, with rankings according to Jay Jaffe's Prospectus Hit List:

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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