Baseball Expert Tony DeMarco has been covering the big leagues since 1987, and been casting Hall of Fame ballots for the last 14 years. He answers questions weekly here:
Q: We're now in the June-July trading period. Is there any chance of a team or teams making the kind of trade that can dramatically transform their post-season chances?
- Roy Long, Serra Mesa, Calif.
A: It happens quite often, Roy, so expect it again. Remember back just one season ago, when the St. Louis Cardinals added Rafael Furcal, Edwin Jackson, Marc Rzepczynski and Octavio Dotel in two deals before the July 31 trade deadline, and went onto win the World Series; as well as the big impact Doug Fister had on the Detroit Tigers' stretch run.
One team that immediately comes to mind in this trading period is the Los Angeles Dodgers. The combination of new ownership wanting to send a message, and a handful of needs on a somewhat unexpected contender sets up a high probability of action. It's not a stretch to say that Don Mattingly's roster could use a starting pitcher, a reliever, a first baseman (at least a platoon mate for chronic disappointment James Loney), a third baseman and a left fielder.
If the Dodgers want to aim real high - and don't mind waiting - potential free-agents Zack Greinke and Cole Hamels could become available after the All-Star break if their respective teams can't jump back into the postseason chase. Either could be a rent-a-player, but it stands to reason that a newly capitalized Dodgers franchise would have a good chance to sign either long-term.
The Brewers have been playing better lately, but stripped their farm system to acquire Greinke, Shawn Marcum and others to make their run last season, and lost Prince Fielder for nothing more than draft picks, so they could face a direction-changing decision in the next six weeks.
And the Phillies might just be the most-fascinating team to watch just after the All-Star break, as they teeter between sticking in the NL wild-card chase with Ryan Howard and Chase Utley on their way back into the lineup, and the increasing possibility that their six-year run of playoff appearances may be coming to an end. Shane Victorino is another potential free agent who could be dealt if the Phillies hit seller mode in late-July.
With more immediacy in mind, here is a list of seller teams, and likely-available targeted players:
Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster (currently on the DL), Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto, David DeJesus. (But I'm not buying the Starlin Castro speculation; it makes little sense to me).
Houston Astros: Wandy Rodriguez, Brett Myers, Carlos Lee, Jed Lowrie, Chris Snyder.
San Diego Padres: Carlos Quentin, Huston Street, Chase Headley, Edinson Volquez, Nick Hundley.
Colorado Rockies: Rafael Betancourt, Michael Cuddyer, Marco Scutaro, Matt Belisle, Jeremy Guthrie.
Oakland A's: Grant Balfour, Kurt Suzuki, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brian Fuentes, Coco Crisp, Jonny Gomes.
Minnesota Twins: Francisco Liriano, Josh Willingham, Ryan Doumit, Matt Capps, Glen Perkins, Carl Pavano.
Seattle Mariners: Kevin Millwood, Jason Vargas, Brandon League.
Boston's Kevin Youkilis also is available, and the Royals are another team that could shed veterans such as Jeff Francoeur and Jonathan Broxton. But it should be said that the Royals have climbed out of a 3-14 hole by playing above-.500 baseball since mid-April, and are on the fringes of AL Central contention.
The Tigers need a second baseman, a starting pitcher and relief help more than a third baseman who would push Miguel Cabrera into a DH role.
And virtually every contending team needs something, so I expect a busy trading period.
Q: Is there a legit first baseman out there the Giants can acquire prior to the trade deadline, or should they stick with what they have?
- Robert Pyper, Phoenix
A: Boston's Kevin Youkilis is one. Houston's Carlos Lee is another. And if the Twins decide to really pare salary, Justin Morneau could be available, but they haven't indicated that is the case yet.
But before the Giants go that route, my first thought is why not stick with Brandon Belt for awhile and see where that goes?
Belt's full-season numbers aren't all that impressive, but he has begun to hit with recent regular playing time.
In June, he is 13 for 38 (.342) with three homers, 10 RBI and nine walks - offering hope that he's about to establish himself as a productive big-league first baseman.
I'm sure the Giants will give him every opportunity to succeed, but that said, they are serious postseason contenders, so if Belt falters between now and July 31, you can bet Brian Sabean and Co. will pinpoint a first baseman who can take over, or at least share, the load.
The problem with a Youkilis or Lee deal is finding the right combination of prospect surrendered/salary absorbed. That's why seeing one of your own top prospects such as Belt succeed is almost always the preferable option.
Youkilis is 33, and should have something left in the tank, but his 2012 salary is $12 million, and his numbers are far below his career norm, dragged down further by a recent slump.
Lee has an enormous $18.5-million salary - but nothing beyond this season - and the Astros know they will have to pay most of it to move him.
Morneau's salary is at $14 million for both 2012 and 2013, the final year of a six-year, $80-million deal he signed in 2008.
Q: What umpire calls the most consistent strike zone?
- David Blum, Bel Air, Md.
A: Veteran Tim McClelland long has been acknowledged by players and coaching personnel to be at or very near the top of the game's umpires. And a recent Baseball Prospectus examination of umpire data available on the Brooks Baseball.net site put numbers behind that opinion.
Since the PITCHf/x system has been used by MLB to evaluate umpires' balls-and-strikes calls, McClelland ranked first with 89.1 percent correct calls. Now, if only McClelland - who's in his 31st big-league season - would make the calls a bit quicker, as he delays raising his right arm to indicate a strike for an annoyingly long time.
It also must be said that the percentages were so close - with the next 10 umpires between 87.8 and 88.9 percent correct calls - so it's almost splitting hairs considering the thousands of pitches called by each umpire over the years.
Jim Joyce -despite the infamous blown call that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game - is another very highly regarded umpire.