David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
As of Saturday, with 10 shopping days left before the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline -- it's at 4 p.m., so no midnight drama -- 19 of the 30 teams either owned the division/wild-card lead or were within five games of a playoff spot.
That's a bunch. And with so many clubs still alive, sorting out the buyers and sellers isn't easy, even for GMs, who remain on the fence wondering what to do.
"Right now, it's a pretty limited number of teams that are really talking," said a front-office executive from a club still in contention. "I guess I take that to mean there's not a lot of teams that are willing to sell. There are only a couple of clear-cut sellers. But that can change pretty quickly as we get closer to the deadline."
It usually does. Complicating matters this year, however, is the additional wild card, which can affect deadline activity on a few fronts. By making the division title more critical than it's ever been since the playoffs expanded in 1995, the top teams may go to greater lengths to separate themselves and avoid that one-game, do-or-die playoff.
Also, with so many clubs in the running, that means less talent will be available on the market, which could drive the asking price up as well. And don't forget this new CBA nugget -- no compensatory picks for the team that trades for a player in-season and then loses him to free agency this winter. That should make some GMs think twice about two-month rental options.
Now that you know the ground rules, let's take a look at what we'll call this year's Deadline Dozen, the most talked about trade chips -- but not necessarily ones that will be playing somewhere else come August. (odds are to be traded by July 31 deadline).
1. Ryan Dempster (2-1): The rebuilding Cubs have no reason to cling to a pending free agent that could bring back a future star or two to the North Side and the perception is he could be gone by the end of this weekend. Dempster has a 1.86 ERA in 14 starts, and a strong playoff showing could always enhance the possibility of him staying with his next team.
2. Grant Balfour (7-1): With a stacked bullpen of their own, the resurgent A's can afford to trade Balfour, and they probably will given the demand for relievers. Balfour has roughly $2 million left in salary, and a minimal $350,000 buyout on next year's $4.5-million option, so he's one of the more cost-efficient arms.
3. Shane Victorino (8-1): With surgery scheduled for Brett Gardner, Victorino would be a nice replacement in leftfield, as well as being the threat on the base paths the Yankees have lacked -- but not really missed -- to this point. Victorino also has knocked heads with management, so they could be ready to part ways.
4. Matt Garza: (8-1): Any team would love to have Garza and Dempster in the same rotation, but first-year GM Theo Epstein has the pressure of trading them and his career with the Cubs could be defined by the return on these deals. Unlike Dempster, Garza won't be a free agent until after the 2013 season, which should be a plus for any big-money suitors.
5. Francisco Liriano (10-1): While not on the same level as the elite starters available, the lefthanded Liriano is an attractive complement to any playoff-thinking rotation. The Yankees have scouted him as a fill-in for the injured Andy Pettitte, but he's been on the radar of just about every contender looking for a Plan B if deals for the top arms fall through.
6. Francisco Rodriguez: (15-1): A Mets' reunion made a lot of sense when they lost their own closer, Frank Francisco, as K-Rod already has shown he can be comfortable in New York -- on the field anyway. If the Brewers go into full-on sell mode, they've got to dump Rodriguez, if only to pocket half his $8 million salary.
7. Zack Greinke (18-1): The question with Greinke centers on how the Brewers' view their current situation -- on the outer fringe of the playoff hunt. He's already made 20 starts in the first half, which could be a red flag for late September. And can a team gamble on Greinke's social-anxiety disorder if he's uprooted from his comfort zone midseason?
8. Cole Hamels (22-1): The top prize for any deep-pocketed contender that won't be satisfied with simply making the playoffs. The aging, bloated Phillies could use a reboot and Hamels, who is a free agent after this season, would bring back at least one elite prospect as a jumping off point. In looking beyond this season, Phillies might benefit more from trading Hamels than signing him long-term.
9. Justin Upton (25-1): What a strange place to be for the 24-year-old outfielder, now on the block just a year after finishing fourth in the NL MVP voting. Upton is signed through 2015 and still due a prorated $42.5 million, but that's a bargain if he can return to his MVP ways. Could be better for D-Backs to wait until winter.
10. Hanley Ramirez (30-1): With the Marlins' underachieving mix, and too many combustible personalities -- including manager Ozzie Guillen -- it's apparent that someone has to go to stabilize Miami's mess. Shortstops are in demand, and Ramirez could switch back to the position if dealt. He probably won't be the only Marlin traded.
11. James Shields (35-1): With the wild card still in reach, the Rays can't consider themselves sellers at this stage. But GM Andrew Friedman is among the best in the game at doing more with less, and that can mean reloading a roster when the time is right. Shields (4.39 ERA) has been a disappointment, but with only half of his $7 million salary left, and two more option years, there's plenty of pitching hungry teams that could step up. Will the Rays bite?
12. Cody Ross (50-1): Despite almost no chance of catching the Yankees atop the division, the Red Sox are likely to stay in the wild-card race, and it would appear they need Ross to do that. Still, might be worth getting a decent young player back as Boston must continue its on-the-fly transition phase.