The Brewers and Cubs upgraded this past week by trading for CC Sabathia and Rich Harden. Both were strong contenders in the National League before the deals, and adding two ace-type starting pitchers only aids their chances. But what does it say about the teams that traded Sabathia and Harden?

That the Athletics dealt Harden was a bit of a surprise, since they’re still within hailing distance of the first-place Angels in the American League West, trailing by five games going into today’s finale of the team’s three-game series. As for the Indians, it seemed unfathomable when the season began that they would be trading Sabathia, the reigning AL Cy Young winner, on Independence Day weekend as the defending AL Central champs were expected to make another strong playoff push after coming within one game of the World Series last October.

Inside the Athletics clubhouse, the players admitted that losing a pitcher of Harden’s caliber was a big blow. “He’s the best I’ve ever seen, honestly, when he’s healthy, and I’ve played behind some pretty good pitchers, Rich is the most dominating around,” second baseman Mark Ellis told the San Francisco Chronicle.

While the Athletics have been a surprise in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year following the off-season trades of right-hander Dan Haren and first baseman/outfielder Nick Swisher, it is starting to look like they won’t have enough manpower to overtake the Angels. In recent days, third baseman Eric Chavez, shortstop Bobby Crosby and reliever Keith Foulke have all hit the disabled list. “It’s more an indication that we’ve got a lot of guys injured and we’re selling, not buying,” closer Huston Street said of the trade. “That said, since the beginning of the year, we’ve exceeded expectations, and for the guys remaining, we’re going to work to continue to do that.”

General Manager Billy Beane says that the Athletics haven’t punted on 2008 yet, but must also look to the future. Harden had been on the disabled list six times in the last four years, and a drop of five mph in velocity on his fastball added a sense of urgency to the deal. (Despite the issues of impending doom, Harden struck out 11 Giants in 5 2/3 scoreless innings in his Cubs debut Saturday.) “It’s a step forward for the next four or five years,” Beane said of the trade that also sent right-hander Chad Gaudin to the Cubs and netted right-hander Sean Gallagher, outfielder Matt Murton, second baseman/outfielder Eric Patterson, and catching prospect Josh Donaldson. “We’ve always viewed it as where we’re headed, not necessarily where we are.”

The Angels, meanwhile, aren’t about ready to say the Athletics have conceded.
“I really don’t see it that way at all,” Angels general manager Tony Reagins observed. “Their team is a competitive team. Who knows what else they might do. I definitely don’t see the move as raising a white flag. You can’t take anything for granted. You have to play the game on a nightly basis and that’s where our focus is going to be. A lot of people said they weren’t going to be in the position they’re in right now at the start of the spring and, lo and behold, here they are.”

The Indians admit that they’ve turned their focus to 2009 after falling to 40-53 and last place in the AL Central, 14 games behind the first-place White Sox. General manager Mark Shapiro has been taking heat in Cleveland for dealing Sabathia nearly a full month before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, the school of thought being that CC’s value would have increased had more teams been drawn into a bidding war. Shapiro, however, said that seven teams had shown interest in Sabathia before he traded him for four minor leaguers, the most notable being first base/outfielder prospect Matt LaPorta: “Of the teams that were the finalists, two clearly stated to us that the player was of greater value to them now, and that they may not be a player for him two weeks from now. We felt there was more risk than gain by waiting, but we still would have waited if the guy (LaPorta or an equally-valued top prospect) was not the one we wanted.”

It is only human nature for Indians fans everywhere to compare this in-season transaction to the one in 2002 in which Shapiro shipped right-hander Bartolo Colon to the disbanding Montreal Expos for a package of prospects that included left-hander Cliff Lee, second baseman Brandon Phillips, and center fielder Grady Sizemore. Lee and Sizemore will represent the Indians at the All-Star Game on Tuesday night at Yankee Stadium, while Phillips is now a key player with the Reds, but Shapiro believes it is unwise to equate the two deals. “This trade and the Colon trade were made under very different circumstances,” Shapiro said. “First of all, Colon at the time still had a year and a half left on his contract. That alone increased his value. Then, we had a trade partner in Montreal that was in the unique position of thinking it would be contracted within a year, so that made their young players less attractive to them. And the other thing is that today there is a greater value put on young talent than there was back then.”

Sabathia may have had an impact on the NL West that year instead of in the NL Central, as the Dodgers reportedly had made a strong pitch for him in a trade that would have also sent third baseman Casey Blake and utility infielder Jamey Carroll to Los Angeles. While it is unclear exactly who the Dodgers were offering, the Los Angeles Daily News claimed that the team had a deal in place before owner Frank McCourt overruled GM Ned Colletti. McCourt denies that report. “Trades are complicated and they weren’t just going to give us three players,” McCourt said. “They were asking for something in return. The point being that in this deal, the give and the get just didn’t match up. Ned and I were on the same page.”

After the Brewers and Cubs both acquired front-line starting pitchers, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa was left wondering when his team was going to make a deal. He doesn’t seem satisfied by GM John Mozeliak’s idea that the expected return of right-handers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter from the disabled list in early August will be as good as a trade. “That’s a big edge to have the help now,” La Russa said. “I don’t get comforted by the fact we may have guys coming back later. I think the goal and the urgency should be there to help us as long as a lot of games are left on the schedule. Your goal should be to improve your chance to win right now.”

The Cardinals are actually a touch closer to first place than the Brewers in the NL Central, trailing the Cubs by 5½ games while Milwaukee is six back. La Russa believes that his club, which leads the wild-card race, deserves some help as a reward for overachieving. “They’ve been busting it for three months,” he said. “They probably need the boost more than another club.”

Mozeliak, a first-year GM, is stressing patience. “I can appreciate where Tony is coming from, but I’m taking a broader view where we’re not going to do something that may hurt us in two, three, four years,” Mozeliak said.

Rays owner Stuart Sternberg realizes that there are skeptics who believe his team will fold in the heat of a pennant race. In fact, the Rays are already giving the doubters fuel as the stumble into the All-Star break with six straight losses. Their five-game lead over the Red Sox in the AL East has withered to a half-game.

However, Sternberg is confident that the Rays are for real and will be in the race until the end, despite competing with the big-market Red Sox and Yankees. He is also willing to add to the payroll to help his team’s chances. “As a fan, I would be waiting for us to fold,” Sternberg said. “As the owner, I’m doing everything possible within my small powers to give us the greatest opportunity to continue this. We’re always looking to improve our club and we are going to react and be as aggressive as we can be to give us the greatest chance to succeed.”

Sternberg said the Rays are trying not to look too far ahead, and to focus at this point on getting through July. He’s also optimistic that they can have a big second half. “I think things favor us,” he said. “We just have to continue to do what we’re doing, do everything we can to just continue to do what we’re doing. And then you hope for the best.”

The Blue Jays thought this would be the year that they could overtake the Red Sox and the Yankees in the AL East, but instead they are 46-48 and tied for last place with the Orioles, 9½ games behind the Rays. While the Jays say they aren’t ready to give up on this season, GM J.P. Ricciardi is realistic enough to realize that his club faces a huge uphill battle. “My job is to have expectations, and our expectation is that this team is not as bad as it has played, and hopefully we’ll play a little better,” Ricciardi said. “Does that mean we’re going to be a playoff team? No, chances are probably not good that way but that doesn’t mean we can’t hold out hope that we can play better.”

Manager Cito Gaston, who replaced John Gibbons last month, is preaching the same theme, while already casting an eye toward 2009 despite not having a contact beyond this season. “I think before the end of the season you’re going to see improvement. Hopefully,” Gaston said. “I think this is going to be a good, contending ballclub next year.”

AL Rumors and Rumblings: Gary Matthews Jr. has been the odd man out of the Angels in the outfield recently, but don’t expect him to waive the no-trade clause in his contract, as he is quite happy in Anaheim. … The Yankees have interest in first baseman Richie Sexson, who was designated for assignment by the Mariners this past week. … The Mariners have let it be known that they’re willing to trade anyone on the roster with the exceptions of right-handers Felix Hernandez and Brandon Morrow, and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki. … The Tigers want a left-handed reliever and are eying the PiratesDamaso Marte and John Grabow. … The Twins at least have some interest in Mariners third baseman Adrian Beltre.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mets are in desperate need of a corner outfielder with Moises Alou out for the season and Ryan Church in limbo because of his concussion. Among their trade targets are the RockiesMatt Holliday, the Pirates’ Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, the Mariners’ Raul Ibanez, the Royals‘ Jose Guillen, the Tigers’ Marcus Thames, and the Brewers’ Bill Hall. … The Cardinals, Diamondbacks, and Braves have also inquired about Bay and Nady. … The Rockies are trying to start a bidding war for left-handed closer Brian Fuentes. Among the teams interested are the Rays, Yankees, Mets, Cardinals and Marlins. Many of those clubs would also like to land Marte if they can’t acquire Fuentes. … The Phillies want to add a front-line starting pitcher, and are checking out Mariners left-hander Erik Bedard and Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt. The Cardinals also have interest in Bedard. … The Mets are willing to trade right-handed set-up man Aaron Heilman, who many scouts believe would be better as a starter, and the Diamondbacks, Red Sox, Athletics, and Cubs have interest. … Reds owner Bob Castellini likes to make a splash, as evidenced by his hiring of Dusty Baker as manager and Walt Jocketty as GM, and some insiders believe Cincinnati will be a dark-horse bidder for Sabathia when he becomes a free agent in November. … The Padres are shopping first baseman Tony Clark, but it seems he’s likely to wind up returning to the Diamondbacks. … The Cubs are willing to trade right-hander Jason Marquis. … The Astros aren’t ready to be sellers yet, but they’re getting many inquiries on a pair of bench players, infielder Mark Loretta and outfielder Darin Erstad.

Interesting facts as the 14th week of the regular season comes to a close:

  • Yankees outfielder Brett Gardner singled home the winning run in the 10th inning last Sunday against the Red Sox in his sixth career game. The last Yankees player to have a game-ending hit that early in his career was Alfonso Soriano, whose 11th-inning home run beat the Devil Rays 5-4 on Sept. 24, 1999-also in his sixth game.
  • Geovany Soto‘s 16 home runs are the most by a Cubs rookie since Mel Hall had 17 in 1983, and the most by a Cubs catcher since Randy Hundley had 19 in 1966.
  • Nationals right-hander Tim Redding‘s string of nine straight no-decisions ended Friday night when he beat the Astros. That was one short of the most consecutive no-decisions in major-league history, as the Padres’ John D’Acquisto and the Phillies’ Randy Lerch both had 10 in 1977.
  • The Mets’ current streak of giving up three hits or less in five straight games is a major league record. The Mets allowed three hits in each game of their three-game sweep against the Giants from Tuesday through Thursday, then gave up three hits on Friday, and one on Saturday to the Rockies.
  • Twins closer Joe Nathan has converted all 26 of his career save opportunities against the Tigers, the most saves without a blown save against a single team among active relievers.
  • The Rays’ Evan Longoria is only the third rookie third baseman to be on an AL squad for an All-Star Game, joining Rich Rollins of the 1962 Twins and Kevin Seitzer of the 1987 Royals. Longoria’s 16 home runs tie him with Bob Hamelin of the 1994 Royals for the second-most at the All-Star break by an AL rookie in the last 20 years, behind Tim Salmon‘s 17 for the 1993 Angels. Longoria and Rangers left fielder David Murphy each have 23 doubles, the third-highest total by an AL rookie in the last 20 years after Hideki Matsui‘s 30 for the 2003 Yankees, and Ben Grieve‘s 25 for the 1998 Athletics.
  • The Orioles have hit 108 doubles in their last 46 games, with at least one in 44 games during that span, including 22 of their last 23, and 21 straight from May 23-June 14.
  • The Angels are the only team assured of leading their division at the All-Star break this season after also being in first place at that point last year. Red Sox (trailing the Rays in the AL East) and Mets (trailing the Phillies in the NL East) have a chance to join the Angels in second place as both teams enter play today on the final day of the first half only a half-game back.
  • The Cubs’ 37 home wins are the most by a major league club before the All-Star break since the 1975 Reds went 39-9 at Riverfront Stadium in the first half.
  • If left-hander Joe Saunders beats the Athletics today, he will become the first Angels pitcher to win 13 games before the All-Star break since Nolan Ryan went 13-8 in the first half of 1977.
  • Angels closer Francisco Rodriguez gave up the first walk-off home run of his career, which has spanned seven seasons and 375 games, when Rangers center fielder Josh Hamilton connected in the ninth inning Wednesday.
  • Diamondbacks right-hander Brandon Webb has 23 wins since last year’s All-Star break, most in the major leagues in that span ahead of Yankees left-hander Andy Pettitte (21), Yankees right-hander Mike Mussina (18), Yankees right-hander Chien-Ming Wang (18) and Cubs right-hander Carlos Zambrano (18).

Three series to watch this week with rankings according to Jay Jaffe‘s Prospectus Hit List:

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