Although this year's trade season might lack excitement, many clubs are looking to deal before the July 31 deadline.


THE TIME has arrived.

The official non-waiver trade deadline isn't until July 31, but the speculation season is upon us.

What will the next six weeks bring? Who will get that extra piece to put them into the postseason? Which big names will be dealt? What will the Orioles do?

One general manager speculates that there will be some movement, and some recognizable names will switch uniforms, but it won't be as exciting as last summer when Nomar Garciaparra, Carlos Beltran and Orlando Cabrera, among others, were traded.

There are three reasons this market could lack in star appeal.

First, teams with the biggest bargaining chips are saying - at least for now - that they are keeping their stars. That includes Roger Clemens, Todd Helton, Mike Sweeney and Barry Zito - although several baseball sources think Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane is playing coy until someone overpays for Zito.

Second, this past offseason was particularly noteworthy. Eleven former All-Stars were dealt this winter, including all-but-certain Hall of Famers Randy Johnson and Sammy Sosa. So players who might have been top names this July already have switched addresses.

Then there's the wild-card factor. More and more each year, teams think they're still in the race in late June and early July. The Houston Astros proved it in 2004, going from fifth place in June to the playoffs in October.

So with fewer teams willing to be sellers and fewer players available, this summer may not sizzle as it once did. But don't be disappointed, Orioles fans, there are options for improvement out there. And the Orioles look to be one of the most intent buyers.

They've had conversations with the Colorado Rockies about Preston Wilson and the New York Mets about Mike Cameron. The Kansas City Royals know if Sweeney is available, the Orioles are interested. The same can be said of Aubrey Huff and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

But the Orioles' top priority, according to several sources, is starting pitching: one legitimate starter to stabilize a young rotation. That's easier said than done.

"Everybody wants pitching," one scout said. "And the Orioles may not have enough for what they are willing to give up."

Pitcher Jorge Julio and first baseman Jay Gibbons are considered their most established bargaining chips. But the initial buzz is that the Orioles are reluctant to deal Julio. And Gibbons is looked at primarily as an American League player, limiting his market value. Outfielder Larry Bigbie's stock has dropped, a scout said, making him no longer the keystone of any potential deal.

The farm system, which has improved over the years, still lacks some depth. And that, according to one GM, is problematic because the team overvalues the legitimate prospects it has. Therefore, in any big deal, the club likely would have to surrender at least one pitcher from this group: Hayden Penn, Chris Ray, Daniel Cabrera or injured starter Erik Bedard.

And, understandably, the Orioles' front office wouldn't do that unless it's convinced the new player can put the team over the top this season. There are few available pitchers with that type of ability. Clemens is one, but the complications surrounding him run deep.

Zito is another, but he won't come cheaply and has stepped backward since winning the 2002 Cy Young Award. A third is Jason Schmidt, but recent injuries have sapped some of his effectiveness, making him a risky buy.

Perhaps the most intriguing starter potentially available on the market is right-hander Kip Wells, who has been pitching in obscurity in Pittsburgh for the past four seasons. He is 52-56 lifetime with a 4.16 ERA and is 5-5 this season with a 3.83 ERA.

He impressed the Orioles earlier this month when he allowed just one run in seven innings against them. There are those who believe, next to Clemens, Wells could be the best pitching addition at the non-waiver deadline.

But this is 2005. The baseball climate has changed. For now the Pirates, with a double-digit deficit in the National League Central, aren't ready to give up. They could be buyers and not sellers in this mixed-up world.

That'll become clearer in the next six weeks. When speculation becomes reality.


Say what?

"Mike Scioscia, to me, is like a piece of garbage. I don't care if I get in trouble. ... I've got no respect for him."

Washington Nationals right fielder Jose Guillen on his former manager, the Los Angeles Angels' Scioscia. The comments were made after Tuesday's benches-clearing argument in Anaheim in which Angels pitcher Brendan Donnelly was ejected for having pine tar in his glove, nasty words between Scioscia and Nationals manager Frank Robinson were exchanged and an incensed Guillen had to be removed from the field by teammates. Whoever had June 14 in the "When Jose Blows a Gasket" pool wins.

Numbing number


That's the winning percentage of the Nationals (24-9) in their new home, RFK Stadium. According to Stats Inc., the 1994 Cleveland Indians have the best mark in a new home since divisional play began in 1969. Those Indians were 35-16 (.686 winning percentage) in the inaugural, strike-shortened season at Jacobs Field.

Who's he?

Exavier Prente "Nook" Logan, a 25-year-old center fielder for the Detroit Tigers. The club's third-round draft pick in 2000 out of a Mississippi junior college, he might be baseball's fastest player. But after four minor league seasons in which he didn't hit above .269, his bat was a big question mark. Logan has been above .300 most of the year for the Tigers, and he was successful in 14 of his first 17 stolen base attempts.

What's up?

There are some rather uninspiring matchups this week, highlighted by the scouts' special: the Kansas City Royals at the Colorado Rockies starting Friday. They are two of the worst teams in the major leagues, but they do have useful parts up for auction. Speaking of bad teams, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays head to Yankee Stadium for four games starting tomorrow. The lowly Rays are 4-2 against New York this season.

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