BY: Richard W. Humphrey

With more than a third of the season in the books and the First Year Player Draft in the rear view mirror, general managers are turning their attention to improving their teams through trades. Trades will be the focus for almost six weeks as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches. To some degree, the baseball world is in uncharted territory this year in regard to trades. First, with the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA), the top prospects are signing more quickly. Texas has all players drafted in the first 10 rounds in the fold and playing professional baseball. The days of prospects such as Mark Teixeira and Justin Smoak losing the first year of professional experience to bleed the system for the last few dollars are gone. Most teams are experiencing the same success in signing their drafted players.

The CBA also altered the compensation to teams losing players next year in free agency. Last winter when high profile players Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder signed with new teams, they netted the Cardinals and Brewers a pair of top draft picks among the top 50 selections in this year’s draft. Under the new rules, players eligible to become free agents this winter do not bring draft choice compensation if they are traded during the season. The perfect example is Cliff Lee. The Rangers traded for him during the 2010 season and received two high picks in the 2011 draft when he signed with Philadelphia. If these new rules had been in effect, Texas would not have received those draft picks as compensation.

Third, the Cardinals. A year ago, St. Louis appeared to be sellers at the trade deadline, with rampant speculation of Lance Berkman going to teams looking for a bat. We all know they held on to Berkman and won the World Series. The message hasn’t been lost on GM’s – don’t pull the plug too quickly. Lastly, and probably most importantly, the playoffs have expanded from eight to ten teams. There is even less incentive to pull the plug early and trade veterans, as more teams will be reaching the playoffs.

At this point in the season, the teams that look hopelessly out of the playoff picture (the for sure sellers at the trade deadline) are the Padres (18 games), Rockies (15 games), Cubs (14.5 games), Mariners (13.5 games) and Astros (10.5 games). Minnesota is close to joining the group nine games out of first place, but Oakland,and Philadelphia also at nine games out, are not. Oakland has won eight of 10, and Philadelphia is still hoping to get Ryan Howard and Chase Utley back to spark their offense. Toronto trails by 6.5, but the Jays have five teams to pass and are fading, so they could join the sellers soon.

The bottom line is fewer sellers, at least at this point, which should mean higher prices. On the other hand, free agents to be don’t bring draft choice compensation, so theoretically, the price should be lower. It will be fun to watch the market place determine values.

National writers are saying that there is a noticeable pickup in trade conversations over the last week. Pitchers are always in demand. The Cubs’ Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster and the Astros Wandy Rodriguez are three of the more talked about arms supposedly available. The Phillies are interesting. They have free agent to be Cole Hamels who is looking for BIG bucks. Philadelphia already has the third highest payroll in baseball and their hands are further tied with committments to Howard, Lee and Jimmy Rollins that aren’t going away soon. Hamels would be the prize in the in-season trade market, if Philly makes him available.

Ranger fans can expect the team to make some deals, but it isn’t clear if they’ll be minor additions or major impact additions. The starting pitching looks solid. Roy Oswalt joins the rotation this weekend. Derek Holland should be back in 10 days to two weeks. There is no need to trade for starting pitching unless they get a top of the line starter like they did in 2010 with Lee. With Scott Feldman back in the bullpen as the long man and with the return of Alexi Ogando and Koji Uehara in July, the bullpen is top notch.

Offensively, they could use a right handed bat. Two years ago, they needed a right handed bat and found Jeff Francoer, who was very good. He is rumored to perhaps be available again this year, though the Royals have scratched their way back into the race for the Central. Last year, Texas needed a right handed bat again and couldn’t find one. The Rangers appear, despite playing slightly under .500 for seven weeks, to have a playoff spot if not the division well in hand. They will be looking at the trade deadline for players that can help win playoff games, not help win games to get into the playoffs.

It should be an interesting five weeks. The trades should start happening soon. Hi ho the dairy-O.

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