The days of the late-spring/early-summer trade have all but disappeared since the advent of the wild card, with every team potentially able to entertain the idea that it’s in contention until at least the All-Star break. The Braves and Pirates brought back the early-season dealing this past Wednesday, however, and there is a feeling throughout baseball that more will be coming before the end of the month.

The general feeling is that Braves general manager Frank Wren set an aggressive tone by striking quickly in an attempt to stay within range of the Phillies and Mets in the National League by acquiring center fielder Nate McLouth for three minor leaguers. “I have to give Frank a lot of credit,” Pirates GM Neal Huntington said. “He was very proactive in an attempt to improve his team early in the season, and he was willing to give up three very good young players to get a very talented player in Nate McLouth.”

Atlanta acquired McLouth to take over in center field for rookie Jordan Schafer, who was overmatched in his first taste of the major leagues with a .219 EqA. McLouth, meanwhile, has a .289 EqA, easily the best in a Braves’ outfield that includes left fielder Garret Anderson (.233) and right fielder Jeff Francoeur (.219).

The Braves gave up right-hander Charlie Morton (4.14 DERA at Triple-A Gwinnett), center fielder Gorkys Hernandez (.207 EqA at Double-A Mississippi), and left-hander Jeff Locke (5.48 DERA at High-A Myrtle Beach). Hernandez was ranked as the Braves’ fourth-best prospect by BP’s Kevin Goldstein coming into the season, and 78th overall. “A week ago I didn’t expect to be able to make a deal for a bat this early,” said Wren. “I thought it would be later in June or July at the very earliest.”

What made McLouth particularly attractive to the Braves is that he signed a three-year, $15.75 million contract in February that includes a club option for 2012. “This happening this early is opportune for us, because it gives us a lot more of the season to put our team together, and gives us a chance to win games,” Wren said. “This is not to rent a guy for a year. This is not to get a guy who’s going to be a free agent. This is a guy that’s going to be here for four years. That makes all the difference in the world.”

The Pirates don’t figure to be done dealing; after 16 consecutive losing seasons, and even after last year’s deals and now this one, they’re still looking to restock a farm system shy on talent. The Pirates are willing to trade such veterans as first baseman Andy LaRoche, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, and shortstop Jack Wilson, and they would consider moving left-handers Paul Maholm and Zach Duke and closer Matt Capps if they could get a return similar to what they did for McLouth. “This was probably the toughest decision I’ve had to make during my time with the Pirates,” said Huntington, who was hired late in the 2007 season. “Nate is everything you could ask for, a quality person and a quality player. It was not easy to trade someone like him. However, these are the tough decisions you have to make if you want to build not only a championship-level organization but one that can consistently compete at that level. When you look at the good teams, they have many above-average players, and that’s what we are trying to bring into our organization. This trade gives us a chance to bring in three players who have a chance to be very good at the major league level.”

Athletics left fielder Matt Holliday is most likely to be next big name traded. GM Billy Beane acquired Holliday from the Rockies in an off-season trade in hopes of making a run at the American League West title with the option to let the slugger walk as a free agent at season’s end, but the Athletics are 24-30 and in last place in the division, 7½ games behind the Rangers.

Keep in mind that Beane traded right-hander Rich Harden to the Cubs last year on July 8 when the Athletics were six games out. “I’m not going to be mad either way, let’s just say that,” Holliday said this week when asked about the possibility of being traded. “I’ll be OK to stay and play it out and see what happens, or if Billy thinks he can get a couple of good players for me and give me a chance to play in the postseason, I’ll be OK with that, too.”

While the last-place Indians stop short of saying they’re out of contention, they are 24-34 and seven games out in the AL Central, and there are indications that GM Mark Shapiro is about to become a seller. While he would have to be overwhelmed to trade left-hander Cliff Lee, Mark DeRosa could be available because of his impending free agency, and he would likely draw plenty of interest because of his ability to play multiple positions.

The Nationals and Orioles also could make some early trades. Nationals first baseman Nick Johnson and outfielder Josh Willingham are both available, and Orioles first baseman Aubrey Huff would be an attractive option for a contender looking for a power bat at either infield corner. The Orioles would also trade right-hander Jeremy Guthrie for the right price.

The GiantsRandy Johnson became the 24th pitcher to win 300 games this past Thursday, and many observers believe he’ll be the last to reach that milestone because of the development of five-man rotations, pitch counts, and bullpen specialists. Rangers president Nolan Ryan, a member of the 300-win club, is among that group. “With the way pitching is being used nowadays, I think it probably lessens the chance of it,” said Ryan. “I think there’s some validity to that sentiment, because every time you go to the pen, it increases the chances of losing the game. There’s a chance one of those guys won’t be on that day, and it takes the decision out of that particular starter’s hands.”

No active pitcher is close to 300; only three have as many as 200 victories: the Phillies’ Jamie Moyer (250), the YankeesAndy Pettitte (220), and John Smoltz of the Red Sox (210). Moyer is 46, Smoltz is 42, and Pettitte is 36.

Ryan feels that if other organizations follow what he is doing with the Rangers, then there could be more 300-game winners. The Rangers are allowing their minor league starters to work with higher pitch counts, and Ryan is also open to the idea of a four-man rotation. “Whether they start using starters differently because pitching is at such a premium, I don’t know,” Ryan said. “If baseball changes its attitude about how they’re using starting pitching, there’s probably a better chance that it might happen.”

Meanwhile, Moyer got his 250th win last Sunday by beating the Nationals, and it was truly a testament to his determination, since 216 of those victories have come since he turned 30, and that was after having already been released three times. “I’ve always felt a burning desire to play,” said Moyer. “In those years, I really looked at is as, ‘You’re going to have to strip the uniform off my back.’ I’ve been released a couple of times. Well, you know what? That just fueled the fire for me a little bit more.”

Even Moyer’s father-in-law, ESPN basketball analyst and former Notre Dame coach Digger Phelps, suggested he should find a new line of work. “As usual, I didn’t listen to him,” Moyer kidded. “I’m glad I’m not a basketball player. And I’m assuming a lot of his basketball players didn’t, either.”

Astros owner Drayton McLane has often said that the word “rebuilding” isn’t in his vocabulary, and he continues to hold to the hope that his team can make it to the postseason this year even though it is 24-30 and last in the NL Central at eight games out. “I’d be real disappointed if we didn’t make the playoffs,” McLane said. “I was convinced when [GM] Ed Wade put the team together that it would be a very competitive team with the Cubs and Cardinals. But I haven’t given up yet.”

McLane said that the Astros won’t trade right-hander Roy Oswalt and first baseman Lance Berkman, two players who could bring back a considerable return, but for the first time he is admitting that the Astros may have no choice but to retrench at some point, even saying he’s excited about the potential of Triple-A Round Rock pitchers Bud Norris and Yorman Bazardo and what his organization might do in the draft this upcoming week. “We have to make a stronger investment and smarter picks in the draft,” McLane said. “You’ve got to invest in young talent. To do that, you need patience, and that’s hard for me. From my business training, you want results very quickly. That doesn’t always happen in baseball. We spend $4 million to $6 million in the draft every year, but we haven’t always made good decisions.”

McLane’s hesitancy to rebuild stems from watching other franchises that seem to be perpetually in that situation. “I’ve always understood that we need to get younger at some point, but look at teams that rebuild,” McLane said. “Look at Pittsburgh. They haven’t had a winning season in [16] years. Look at Cincinnati and Kansas City.”

It was one month ago today that Dodgers left fielder Manny Ramirez was suspended for 50 games by Major League Baseball after having tested positive for steroids, yet the Dodgers are still in control of the NL West with a 39-19 record, the best in the major leagues. Dodgers manager Joe Torre says that he should be blamed if the Dodgers aren’t still on top of the division when Ramirez returns on July 3. “I don’t know how many we’ll be ahead, but if anything goes back, I screwed up, no question,” Torre said.

The Dodgers have not been quite as good without Ramirez. They were 21-8 and hitting .283/.376/.426 with Ramirez on the roster, but they’ve gone 18-10 and hit .279/.348/.388 since he was suspended, though they have increased their lead by 2½ games since the suspension took effect, as they were 6½ games up on May 7. “We’re doing little stuff, which is good,” said Torre. “That’s what we talked about all spring. The lineup we put out there, to me, is still deep. When you have a Matt Kemp hitting seventh in the lineup, that’s a pretty good lineup.”

Major League Rumors and Rumblings:
The Tigers are interested in trading for Mets catcher Brian Schneider and having him share time behind the plate with Gerald Laird. … The Giants have interest in the Pirates’ Adam LaRoche. … Left-hander Tom Glavine is undecided about continuing his career after being released by the Braves this past week. … Rays closer Troy Percival is now leaning toward trying to return this season from his shoulder injury rather than retiring, while Phillies left-handed reliever Scott Eyre expects this to be his last season.

Some interesting facts:

  • Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez‘s 20 home runs through the end of the May were the most in franchise history, surpassing the 17 hit by Nate Colbert in 1970 and by Greg Vaughn in 1998.

  • Mariners right fielder Ichiro Suzuki led the major leagues with 49 hits in May. Suzuki has led a calendar month in hits 12 times during his nine-year career, while no other active player has accomplished the feat more than twice.

  • Terry Francona became just the third manager to win 500 games with the Red Sox on Tuesday, joining Joe Cronin (1,071) and Pinky Higgins (560).

  • Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter scored his 1,500th career run in his 2,035th game on Tuesday. Just four players have reached that milestone faster since the expansion era began in 1961: Rickey Henderson (1,891), Alex Rodriguez (1,903), Mickey Mantle (1,949), and Willie Mays (2,009). Jeter also became the fourth player in history to play 1,500 games at shortstop and score 1,500 runs, joining Bill Dahlen, Honus Wagner, and Cal Ripken Jr.

  • Giants right-hander Tim Lincecum recorded his 500th career strikeout in his 69th start on Tuesday. Just five pitchers since 1900 have reached that mark in fewer starts: Dwight Gooden (61), Hideo Nomo (66), Kerry Wood (66), Mark Prior (67), and Herb Score (68).

  • Schafer had started each of the Braves’ first 48 games before being optioned to Gwinnett on Tuesday. That was the longest streak to begin a season in a player’s debut year since Shea Hillenbrand started 51 in a row for the 2001 Red Sox. It was the longest NL streak since 1969, when Coco Laboy started 79 straight for the Expos and Ted Sizemore started 60 consecutive games for the Dodgers.

  • Phillies left fielder Raul Ibanez had 51 RBI in the team’s 50 games. That is the most RBI in the first 50 games of a season by a Phillies player since Don Hurst also had 51 in 1932.

Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups: