A new level playing field

Given the number of big-name big-league ballplayers in the final year of their contracts, more than a few baseball insiders predicted that this would be a summer filled with blockbuster trades.

Yet with five days remaining until the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline, there hasn’t been anything remotely resembling a monster deal. The eight-player swap that sent Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez from the Cincinnatti Reds to the Washington Nationals was big in terms of numbers, but it wasn’t an “Aquaman”-type blockbuster by any means; it was more of a “Queens Boulevard,” indie-flick kind of thing.

There’s still time for triggers to be pulled, of course. Oakland’s Barry Zito, San Francisco’s Jason Schmidt, Washington’s Alfonso Soriano, Milwaukee’s Carlos Lee, Philly’s Bobby Abreu, Pittsburgh’s Sean Casey, Minnesota’s Torii Hunter and Greg Maddux of the Chicago Cubs are among the name players either in their ‘walk’ years or said to be on the block. But it’s looking increasingly unlikely that many of them will be on the move, and there’s a one-word explanation for the lack of action:

Parity.

Thanks to baseball’s grand plan, fans of the game’s have-nots have in recent years been able to harbor hopes of playing in the postseason far longer than they ever did during the days before revenue sharing and luxury tax penalties. The financial playing field has been leveled like never before, giving teams a better shot at not just retaining their own free agents, but also to sign some in the open market.

Teams such as the Reds and Brewers and Detroit Tigers, whose fans had long been resigned to watching meaningless games as early as June, have cobbled together competitive clubs that give their customers cause to muse, “Why not us?”

In fact, a quick look at the standings shows that close to two-thirds of the teams in the game today can claim to be contenders, or at least within one good winning streak of being one.

And that’s been a good thing, no question about it. Unless you look forward to the trading deadline and the excitement that comes with mega-trades.

This parity has changed the trade market dramatically, giving any non-contending team with an expendable star unprecedented leverage. The general managers of these teams, knowing how desperate so many other GMs are to add a piece to their postseason puzzle, can kick their feet up on their desks while bending their contending colleagues over a

barrel.

As such, the conversations Nationals GM Jim Bowden is having these days probably go a little something like this:

Rival GM: “Hey, we could really use Livan Hernandez to bolster our rotation down the stretch, and I’ve got a couple of nice young arms down at Double-A that we think could really help you in a year or two. Whaddya say?

Bowden: “Hmmmm. Double-A guys, huh? Well, I’ve got 11 other GMs on hold looking to make their pitch for Livan, so let’s say you give me those young pitchers, your Triple-A closer, that corner outfielder you just brought up to the big leagues who has 12 homers in 112 at-bats, 10 cases of Cristal and your first-born child?”

Rival GM: Click.

Buyers, beware. Swap-meet fans, don’t hold your breath.

Mychael Urban is the author of “Aces: The Last Season On The Mound With The Oakland A’s Big Three — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito” and a writer for MLB.com.Other Sportssports

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