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Trade deadline could be less exciting this year

One of the more traditionally exciting days of the major-league baseball season has been the non-waiver trade deadline.

On July 31, baseball teams that believe they are contenders often show they are willing to mortgage a bit of the future by trading a promising prospect for a player or two who might enhance their chances of winning a championship in the current campaign.

On the flip side, July 31 is often a date that renews hope for fans of non- contending squads, too. It can provide the opportunity to kick-start a rebuilding process; a cellar-dwelling team can trade an aging star to a playoff-hopeful team in exchange for a young stud or two who might emerge as franchise players down the road.

One of the more memorable examples of such a trade deadline deal happened in 1987, when the Detroit Tigers, trying to get a pitcher who could lead them to a title, traded prospect John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves for Doyle Alexander.

During the rest of the 1987 season, Alexander went 9-0 with 1.53 ERA in 11 starts and helped the Tigers win the American League East but fall in the AL Championship Series against Minnesota (with Alexander going 0-2 with a 10.00 ERA in the series, by the way).

Smoltz? All he did was compile 210 wins and 154 saves in 20 seasons with the Braves. He's going to go to the Hall of Fame, and he was an integral part of an Atlanta squad that won 14 consecutive National League East Division titles and the 1995 World Series.

The reason we bring up this topic about eight weeks prior to the 2012 non- waiver trade deadline? Adding an extra wild-card berth to each league could have a profound effect on trade-deadline action. Most likely, the additional playoff spots will result in fewer trades than usual.

Fewer teams will be willing to surrender on July 31, now that five of 14 AL teams and five of 16 NL teams will qualify for the postseason. Had the second wild card in each league existed in 2011, the 89-win Braves and 90-win Red Sox would have made it to the playoffs.

As a result, a team hovering around the .500 mark at the trade deadline won't be as likely to throw in the towel as in previous years. With more playoff spots available, there will probably be more buyers and fewer sellers available than in the past. It will certainly be a seller's market in that case, as numerous teams that fashion themselves as contenders will probably be going after the same few available players.

Right now, 20 MLB teams are within five games of a playoff spot. If that remains the case into late July, not too many teams are going to want to raise the white flag. Certainly, the Twins, Cubs, Padres and Athletics will be willing to sell, but the decision is going to be far less clear-cut for other squads.

Let's take a look at some teams that could face difficult decisions at this year's trade deadline:

MILWAUKEE BREWERS

The defending NL Central champions swept a four-game series against the Dodgers last week, so maybe they can work their way back into contention after all. Still, it's doubtful, given the season-ending injuries to starting first baseman Mat Gamel and starting shortstop Alex Gonzalez. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who was on the verge of a career year, will now be sidelined until mid- July with a broken hand.

If the Brewers don't think they can overcome those injuries and challenge in a mediocre NL Central, they do possess some interesting trading chips. Leading the way are potential free agents Zack Greinke, Shawn Marcum and Randy Wolf - three of their four best starting pitchers.

Greinke is an ace who would bring back a huge haul, but the Brewers must decide if he will be in their long-term plans. If he gets dealt, teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Braves, among others, might be willing to get into a bidding war.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

Last year, the Pirates were the surprise buyers at the MLB trade deadline, swinging deals for Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick with an eye on landing their first playoff berth since 1992. Ultimately, it didn't work; Pittsburgh fell apart in August and tumbled to its 19th consecutive losing season.

Once again, despite having the worst offense in the majors, the Pirates are hanging in the NL Central race.

Will they be buyers again? Plenty will depend on the next seven weeks or so, but the guess is that if the Pirates have a chance to finish with a winning record, get the monkey off their backs and start to change the culture, they'll make some moves similar to the ones they did at the deadline last year.

PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

Even though Ryan Howard and Chase Utley have yet to play this season, and even though Roy Halladay won't be back until around the All-Star break, it's doubtful that the Phillies will be out of contention in a wide-open and well- balanced National League East come late July. So they probably won't be a seller.

They're on this list, though, because they have a couple of top-notch trading chips - Cole Hamels, Shane Victorino and maybe Hunter Pence. Lesser players like Placido Polanco and Joe Blanton could also generate mild interest at the deadline, especially if few teams deem themselves sellers and the trade pool is shallow.

Hamels, if available, would be the prize of this trade deadline. The aging Phillies would be able to replenish their farm system by dealing him, but then their greatest strength - deep and talented starting pitching - would be significantly diminished. While a Hamels trade is unlikely, perhaps someone will make an offer GM Ruben Amaro Jr. can't refuse.

NEW YORK METS

This was thought to be somewhat of a rebuilding year in Flushing, with Jose Reyes allowed to walk in free agency. Financial difficulties for owner Fred Wilpon were likely a big reason for the decreased spending, and it remains to be seen whether he'd be willing to pony up as a buyer at the trade deadline.

After the loss of Mike Pelfrey to injury, pitching would appear to be the Mets' biggest need. They could use a power bat, too. Although they rank fourth in the National League in runs scored, they're tied for 12th in the NL in home runs.

It looks like the Mets are going to hang around for a while in the NL East. The question is whether they'll be able to spend what it would take to fortify the roster for a legitimate playoff run.

BALTIMORE ORIOLES

The Orioles are the biggest surprise contender, since they've remained at or near the top of a division while having to contend with the pitching-rich Rays and the deep-pocketed Yankees and Red Sox.

When top prospects Manny Machado, Dylan Bundy and Jonathan Schoop are ready in a couple of years, the Orioles could have a core that's ready to win. Those three are going nowhere at the trade deadline, but there might be a chance that Baltimore parts with some mid-range prospects to improve their 2012 playoff hopes. After all, they haven't been to the postseason since 1997.

TORONTO BLUE JAYS

To paraphrase Dennis Green from a memorable rant while he was coaching the NFL's Arizona Cardinals, the Blue Jays are who we thought they were. They've got one of the top offensive teams in the American League, but their pitching has been inconsistent.

The sum of those parts is perhaps good enough to get to 85-89 wins, but the Jays probably need to do a little better than that if they want to keep up with the big boys - namely, the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays.

Adding a solid starting pitcher and/or a reliable closer would be a big step in the right direction. If they want to make a blockbuster acquisition, they have plenty of ammunition; Travis D'Arnaud, Jake Marisnick, Daniel Norris, Anthony Gose and Noah Syndergaard are all elite prospects. So the Jays are equipped to win bidding wars at the trade deadline. Would they be willing to part with one or two of those guys? We'll find out next month.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.