Many top baseball stars -- not to mention avid fans and collectors -- will be holding their collective breaths over the next week to wait to see if their teams pull the string and go ahead with much-rumored trades before the major league trading deadline.
There is a growing belief that several big name players, including Seattle ace Randy Johnson, will be wearing different uniforms after July 31. Part of the reason is simple: teams are faced with losing players to free agency after the end of the season and don't want to be left holding an empty bag. By trading a star player before the deadline, they can at least get something in return -- most likely a couple of low-paid prospects. If they do nothing and lose their players to free agency after the season, all they will receive is a couple of draft picks that are sometimes worth about as much as the bubblegum they used to package in with baseball trading cards.
But the reason observers believe it will be a bonus time for long distance carriers serving certain major league general managers is the pennant races themselves. In reality, there aren't a whole lot of them this year and that may cause some of the have-nots to be willing to deal with the haves who will be looking to shore up pitching staffs, gain a power hitter or add bench strength for the league championship series and World Series.
The Yankees and Indians seemingly had their divisions locked up by Memorial Day; only the American League West is up for grabs between Texas and Anaheim. In the National League, the Braves have their usual cakewalk toward a berth in the playoffs and the San Diego Padres have broken loose to open what appears to be an insurmountable advantage in the National League West. Only in the NL Central, where the defending champion Astros have a less than comfortable lead over the Cubs does there appear to be a potential September race.
Even the wild card hunt, originally designed to add fan interest for those times when division races don't exist, aren't stirring up much passion yet. The Boston Red Sox have held the edge for the final playoff spot since April while in the National League, the Giants and Cubs seem to be waging a two-team battle for the wild card until one of the other potential suitors, the Mets, Dodgers, Phillies or Brewers, makes a run at it.
Johnson is the most coveted among the players on the block. The flame-throwing southpaw has made it clear he doesn't want to stay in Seattle any more and has shaken off a terrible start to become the Johnson of old in recent starts. The team most actively pursuing Johnson is the Dodgers, who are in desperate need of pitching help due to the injury to Ramon Martinez and ineffectiveness by their non-American born starters. Johnson is willing to go to LA, but the Dodgers will have to part with some significant prospects in order for Seattle to make the deal. Cleveland is also interested but the Mariners may not want to trade Johnson to a team that could come back and use Johnson against them. If Cleveland moves ahead of LA in the Johnson derby, even the streaking Yankees may be a contender for the southpaw's services.
Baltimore appeared ready to make some major deals before the all-star break, but a winning streak in mid-July has some optimistic Oriole backers believing they can still catch Boston in the wild card hunt. The next week will be critical. If Baltimore reverts to playing like they did before the break, perennial all-stars Roberto Alomar and Rafael Palmeiro could be leaving. Alomar's most likely destination is the Indians where he would be re-united with brother Sandy Alomar. The Tribe needs a second baseman and might be willing to part with Brian Giles and a couple of prospects.
Palmeiro might be headed back to Texas to give the Rangers some added left-handed hitting punch. Both players might be too expensive to keep by the Orioles who already have one of baseball's largest payrolls.
A similar situation exists in the National League where Cincinnati was in the NL Central basement and headed nowhere before a 10-game winning streak moved them up a couple of notches. The cost-conscious Reds still aren't going anywhere and if management is smart, they will listen and make deals involving sought-after pitcher Pete Harnisch and catcher Eddie Taubensee. Even long-time Red Barry Larkin is possible trade bait.
St. Louis, the most disappointing team in the league, has dangled outfielder Brian Jordan to other clubs, including the Giants. But the Cardinals have a dilemma. Jordan, a former NFL star with Atlanta, is a free agent after this season and St. Louis has already spent considerable bucks to sign draft choice J.D. Drew, making Jordan expendable and possibly a part of a deal to get more pitching. But Jordan bats behind Mark McGwire, who is packing Busch Stadium (and road parks as well) with his pursuit of Roger Maris' 61 home run record. Trading Jordan -- who bats fourth after McGwire -- would give McGwire little protection in the order and allow teams to walk McGwire several times a game. That would lessen his chances of being in the Maris hunt in September when the Cardinals will be even deeper out of the race.
So collectors take note: better wait until after July 31 for making any serious investments in cards, uniforms or autographs of some superstars until the dust clears on some possible blockbuster deals.