Fast forward to July ...
Astros general manager Ed Wade walks into owner Drayton McLane's office, armed with a trade proposal from the Nationals for right-hander Roy Oswalt.
"Who are we getting?" McLane asks excitedly. "Strasburg?"
"No, sir. The Nationals are offering lesser prospects, but three guys we think can play and maybe make an impact."
McLane sits in silence, puzzled.
"Oh, and sir..."
"Yes?" McLane asks.
"The Nats want us to include $8 million in the deal."
McLane stares at Wade, the veins in his neck bulging.
"Remember what I told you, sir -- that is how these deals work. To get better players, you have to include cash. The Blue Jays gave the Phillies $6 million last winter, and they traded a better Roy -- Halladay -- with less money remaining on his contract."
McLane jumps out of his chair, pointing at Wade.
"Wait just one second, Ed -- I know how these things work! The Padres traded Jake Peavy to the White Sox for four pitchers without contributing a single cent -- and Peavy had a lot more money left on his contract than Oswalt!"
"That was Ken Williams, sir," Wade says, stammering. He gets cra . . . I mean, creative, from time to time.
"Then find me another Ken Williams! In fact, get Ken Williams on the line!"
"Uh, he's actually trying to trade half of his team, sir."
McLane sits down, slumping in his chair.
"Roy Oswalt is our best pitcher. I don't want to trade him. I still think we can get back in this thing . . ."
"Sir, I must remind you -- with regret -- that we are 22½ games out of first place," Wade says.
McLane sits up straight, as if shaken back to reality.
"So, what you're telling me, Ed, is this: I'm trading my best pitcher. I'm including millions of dollars in the deal. And I'm still not getting anyone back who is certain to help my team."
"Yes, sir, and don't forget that one other thing."
"What one other thing?"
"Roy still could reject the trade."
McLane stands back up, frowning and shaking his head.
"The hell with it, Ed! He stays right here with me!"
OK, now back to reality . . .
Quite obviously, I made this whole thing up. But McLane has never conceded a season, never made this kind of trade.
Wade will need to educate him -- and convince him of a potential deal's merits -- before the Astros move Oswalt.
All I'm saying is, it won't be easy.
ROY THE RED? DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH
The Reds are "intrigued" by Oswalt, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer , but it's difficult to imagine them being a serious player even with right-handers Aaron Harang and Bronson Arroyo in the final years of their contracts.
True, the Reds splurged on their $30.25 million signing of Cuban left-hander Aroldis Chapman, but one of their other offseason transactions was more telling.
After the Reds signed free-agent shortstop Orlando Cabrera for $3.02 million on Jan. 30, they sent infielder Adam Rosales and outfielder Willy Taveras to the A's for infielder Aaron Miles and a player to be named.
The team, at that point, was over budget, and needed the $1.3 million in savings.
Oswalt, armed with his no-trade clause, might not want to gamble on the Reds reaching the postseason for the first time since 1995. He almost certainly would not want to pitch in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark.
The Mets figure to be an even less serious contender for Oswalt, even though the ESPN broadcasters on "Sunday Night Baseball" trumpeted such a move as a realistic possibility.
Oswalt, Johan Santana and Mike Pelfrey would form a terrific top three, but the Mets basically stopped spending after signing Jason Bay last offseason. Their ownership wouldn't even authorize the addition of an inexpensive lefty reliever such as Joe Beimel or Ron Mahay late in spring training.
Now they're going to add Oswalt?
CUBS IN A CORNER ... THANKS TO BIG Z
If your team already had five quality starting pitchers, why would you bump one from the rotation to make room for a guy with a 4.83 ERA in 242 innings since Aug. 9, 2008?
Ask the Cubs, because that's exactly what they're doing to accommodate right-hander Carlos Zambrano.
There's an old saying in baseball -- things have a way of working themselves out. Maybe that will happen in this case, and Zambrano will end up replacing an injured or ineffective starter.
But right now, he deserves to replace no one.
Every Cubs starter but left-hander Ted Lilly owns a sub-4.00 ERA, and Lilly, coming off shoulder surgery, is rounding into form.
Perhaps manager Lou Piniella should take a harder line with Zambrano and force him to stay in the bullpen. But Zambrano never embraced the setup role, perhaps because he thought he could lobby his way back into the rotation.
How interesting that Big Z revived almost immediately after Piniella gave him the good news, raising his velocity to 92 to 94 mph in his first outing and throwing a total of 2 2/3 scoreless innings over three appearances.
Right-hander Carlos Silva is 6-0. Lefty Tom Gorzelanny shut out the Phillies for 6 2/3 innings in his most recent start -- at hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park.
Both Lilly and righty Randy Wells have produced three straight quality starts. Righty Ryan Dempster has pitched six or more innings in all 10 of his outings.
Removing any of the five -- either through a trade, demotion or move to the bullpen -- would be counter-productive.
Big Z should remain the odd man out.
YANKEES' TIME UP?
The enduring question with the Yankees is whether age finally will catch up to them. It certainly didn't last season, but consider the current state of the Core Four:
- Derek Jeter. His three hits Sunday night could mean that he is snapping out of it. But Jeter is batting just .224/.290/.276 in May.
- Mariano Rivera. His ERA in five May appearances is 6.23. He already has missed time with a sore left oblique muscle, and his fastball velocity has diminished from 92.6 mph in 2008 to 90.6 this season, according to PitchFx data at fangraphs.com.
- Jorge Posada. The broken bone in his right foot was a fluky injury caused by a foul tip. But Posada turns 39 on Aug. 17, and the Yankees announced he would be out 3 to 4 weeks rather than 2 to 3, largely as a concession to his age.
- Andy Pettitte. Difficult to find fault in his performance -- Pettitte is 5-1 with a 2.68 ERA -- but he already has missed one start with an inflamed elbow.
Yet, for all the talk about age, the Yankees' most disappointing veteran by far is first baseman Mark Teixeira, a player who is 30, still in his prime.
Part of Teixeira's problem is that he is hitting into poor luck -- he is batting only .227 on balls in play, the ninth-lowest average in the majors.
Still, as noted Sunday by Kevin Kernan of the New York Post , both of the Mets' heavily scrutinized sluggers -- David Wright and Jason Bay -- are outperforming Teixeira.
The OPS envelope, please:
YANKEES' CERVELLI: WHAT A CONVERT
Yankees catcher Francisco Cervelli tells an amazing story about how he signed with the club out of Venezuela at age 17.
Cervelli had been a pitcher and infielder, but a former Yankees scout named Carlos Rios saw potential in him as a catcher.
Rios asked Cervelli to make two throws to second base, wanting to see his transfer and release. The Yankees often take such an approach with infielders who do not run especially well, figuring that they already possess good hands and a good arm, two tools necessary to catch.
As it turned out, those two throws were all it took for Cervelli to make an impression. Just like that, he became a catcher ... and a Yankee.
Cervelli, 24, still must prove he can hit. If he does, the Yankees believe he could become their version of Yadier Molina. If he does not, he almost certainly will be passed by Jesus Montero and Austin Romine, which could happen anyway.
Cervelli says he's a great admirer of all three Molinas and loves watching Yadier play, noting that he has a ton of energy, but is quiet behind the plate. His idea of the perfect catcher -- Yadier's style, Jason Varitek's brain.
SLUGGERS FOR SALE!
All three of the majors' current home-run leaders -- the Jays' Jose Bautista, White Sox's Paul Konerko and Orioles' Ty Wigginton -- could be available before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
Bautista, who is tied with Konerko for the major-league lead with 14 homers, will be an especially interesting case. He is earning $2.4 million, with one more year of arbitration remaining. In other words, any team that acquired him could control him for another season.
Another interesting thing about Bautista, 29: When he is not hitting homers, he is hitting into poor luck. His .234 batting average on balls in play is the 13th lowest in the majors. Home runs are not included in the BABIP statistic.
Bautista's overall line: .242/.345/.570.
IKE VS. HAROLD
Mets manager Jerry Manuel looks at first baseman Ike Davis -- the way he holds his hands back, the hitch in his swing, the way he cocks his leg -- and sees Harold Baines.
Now, Manuel is not saying that Davis is the next Baines. But he does believe that Davis has more natural power.
"All of a sudden (his hands) are flying through the zone, and I mean flying," Manuel says. "He hits balls in batting practice as far as anybody I've ever seen."
AROUND THE HORN
- Indians left fielder Austin Kearns, 30, will be an attractive piece at the deadline.
Kearns would be perfect for a team such as the Giants -- he not only has revived offensively, but also is a plus defender with a strong arm. Plus, he's earning only $750,000 this season.
- The Nationals' negotiations with first baseman Adam Dunn remain on hold, but the two sides figure to agree on a new deal before Dunn hits free agency in November.
The Nats have a good thing going with their 3-4-5 hitters -- Ryan Zimmerman, Dunn and Josh Willingham. Each is over .900 in OPS, and each is a team leader.
- Center fielder Angel Pagan has been one of the Mets' better players, and club officials already are discussing what they will do with him when Carlos Beltran returns from knee surgery.
Manuel says that Beltran will return to center, but might not be strong enough to play every day initially. Pagan can spell him on those days -- or permanently replace right fielder Jeff Francouer, who is batting .127 in May.
"It's a very, very good problem for us to have," Manuel says. "(Pagan) makes us have to make some tough decisions."
- The Mets' Rod Barajas leads all catchers with 10 homers, and the Rangers might have landed him in free agency if they had known they could not count on Jarrod Saltalamacchia.
"If 'Salty' was healthy, he was going to be (the Rangers') guy," Barajas says. "I wasn't going to leave it in somebody else's hands.
"Coming here (to the Mets), there wasn't a guarantee. But they said if you come out of camp healthy and ready to go, you'll be the guy.
"It wasn't based on how anyone else was feeling. It was on me."
- Twins right-hander Jon Rauch blew only his second save in 12 chances Sunday against the Brewers, but a scout describes him as "Kevin Gregg-ish" as a closer.
"Do you really want him pitching the ninth inning for a contender? No," the scout asks. "I think they can win a division with him there, but they certainly wouldn't go far in the playoffs -- teams like Boston, Tampa Bay and New York would wear him out."
Padres closer Heath Bell still makes an awful lot of sense for the Twins -- but the Padres own the exact same record as Minnesota, 26-18, and lead the NL West.
- Finally, some hard throwers for the Brewers: Righty John Axford hit 97 mph Sunday and lefty Zach Braddock touched 95. Too bad both are relievers.
- A's right-hander Ben Sheets had two bad starts -- against the Rays and Jays -- when he was tipping pitches. His ERA in his other eight starts: 2.62.
- Cole Hamels' performance against the Red Sox on Friday night was a great sign for the Phillies. Hamels touched 94 mph, threw his changeup to both sides of the plate and showed enough of his curveball to make the Sox hitters think about it.