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Tight pennant races, Street prices slowing trade movement

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With just ten days until the trade deadline, few teams are willing to sell players, yet.

Jamie Squire

Major league baseball’s trading season has begun, and surely there will be more activity before the month of July is over. More deals, and bigger deals, may have already gone down if it weren't for the fact that so many teams remain within striking distance of at least a wild card playoff spot, and some of the most sought after players are playing for teams in the weak American league’s eastern division.

Tampa Bay Rays’ pitcher, former Cy Young winner David Price has been the most talked about trade candidate this season, and there is no way that the Rays are going to pay the price of $ 20 million or so for their star pitcher’s final season before free agency next year, let alone the megabucks that he will command as a free agent. Two time all star, Ben Zobrist, is another player coveted by many teams who may be available, for the right package of talent. Yet the Rays, who were buried and thought to be out of the race a month ago, have been as hot as any team in the game over the past several weeks, so they’re in no hurry to sell off their prized assets.

Likewise, the Boston Red Sox, who have had the most disappointing season of any team, were given up for dead, but a rash of injuries to their chief rivals, the New York Yankees, has left the Eastern division wide open for any team that can get hot down the stretch. The Yankees themselves might do the unthinkable and become sellers at the trade deadline if it weren't for Toronto, and then Baltimore sputtering when they took the lead in the division. In the unlikely event that they decide to sell, the Tigers would be interested in closer David Robertson, who is a free agent after this season.

The Red Sox were known to be interested in moving starting pitcher Jake Peavy, whom they acquired at last year’s trade deadline, in a three-way trade with Detroit and Chicago, and is set to become a free agent at season’s end. There has been speculation that Boston could also move premier closer Koji Uehara, starting pitcher Jon Lester, shortstop Steven Drew, or other relief pitchers, such as former Tigers Andrew Miller or Burke Badenhop.

The East division isn't the only place where teams find themselves on the bubble, not knowing whether they will buy or sell at the deadline. The fact that the Tigers have just lost three of four to the Cleveland Indians doesn’t do much to convince the Tribe to wait until next year. After a strong finish to the 2013 season which landed them in the wild card game, Cleveland fans got a taste of meaningful baseball in October, and are hungry for more.

There certainly are teams who are sure sellers. The San Diego Padres, who are without a general manager at this time, dealt closer Huston Street to the Angels in a six player trade. The Angels also swapped closers with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the Chicago Cubs traded their two best starting pitchers to Oakland for a couple of premium prospects. The Mets, Phillies, and Marlins are three teams in the National League east who are believed to be willing to sell off players for the right price.

So, what impact does this have on the Tigers’ in their desire to find some help for their beleaguered bullpen?  For one thing, there is now a price range for relief pitching. On the high end, the Angels gave up four decent prospects for Huston Street and another prospect. Street earns a reasonable $ 7 million this season, with a team option for 2015. On the low end, the Royals were able to land Texas relief pitcher, Jason Frasor, for a low level prospect. Frasor is a pure rental, since he is a free agent after the current season.

The fact that the Padres have traded their closer could break either way in terms of their willingness to trade former Tiger closer, Joaquin Benoit. On the one hand, Benoit now becomes the San Diego closer, who is under contract for 2015 with an option for 2016. Surely, this was part of the Padres’ plan when they signed Benoit over the winter. But then, the Padres could not reasonably expect to be in contention for a playoff spot this season, so they have no reason not to sell if there’s a package of prospects that they like. Added up, Benoit should be available, but probably expensive.

The pitcher that the Tigers have been linked to the strongest is Rangers’ closer, Joakim Soria. Dave Dombrowski has said that he’s not necessarily looking for a closer, since Joe Nathan holds that job, but of course he is going to say that. Crying SOS at this point would only show potential partners a sign of desperation, and signal a lack of confidence in the pitcher who has just been given a $ 20 million contract for two years.

The Tigers would be foolish to head down the stretch with so much uncertainty in the bullpen, whether or not Nathan can regain his form. They have, after all, one of the worst bullpens in the American League, in just about every category with the exception of actual blown saves. Even there, Nathan’s five blown saves are second highest in the league, and are a loud, bright warning for anyone paying attention.

The price for Soria could be higher because of what the Angels gave up for Street, but that is only the case if another buyer is willing to pay that much for a closer with a very similar contract situation. Soria earns $ 5.5 million this season with a team option for 2015. If there are no such buyers, the price tag will drop as the deadline approaches.

In addition to Detroit, the Dodgers are believed to be looking for bullpen help, and have been linked to the Phillies’ over priced closer, Jonathan Papelbon. The Pirates have traded their closer, Jason Grilli, to the Angels for former closer Ernesto Frieri, but are still shopping. The Giants, Blue Jays, and Orioles may also be in the market for a late inning reliever. Whether they’d pay the price that the Angels paid for Street is another matter.

On the list of sellers, the Miami Marlins never pass up an opportunity to be cheap, and could make their closer, Steve Cishek available.  Cishek has a salary of just $ 3.8 million, with three more years of arbitration remaining, but he is the third highest paid Marlin. While they’re at it, the Marlins won’t admit that they have no intention of signing Giancarlo Stanton, but that’s another conversation.

This time last year, the Tigers went to the Houston Astros and acquired their closer, Jose Veras, for a couple of prospects. Veras had a reasonable salary and a team option for $ 4.25 million, but the Tigers declined the option and signed Joba Chamberlain to fill essentially the same role. This year, Veras is back in Houston, but their closer is Josh Fields, either of whom could be available. Fields would be interesting, but the Tigers are not interested in Veras this time. 

So, the market for reliable late inning relief pitchers has slowed, since some of the few available players have been dealt, and they’ve established an uncertain price level for others. But the deadline will arrive on July 31st, ready or not, and there will be a number of teams who want to sell. The team that makes the best offer will bolster their bullpen, and the Tigers can’t afford to miss the opportunity.