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Forget the Standings -- Watch Transactions

We used to call them pennant races, and some still do without any real confusion, but we’ve mostly adjusted to call them division races, which is technically accurate but not nearly as romantic sounding.

Divisional play keeps fans interested, owners rich and, some years, the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates involved until the end of May. Meantime, the real issue is what to do with the word “races” when half of the six division leaders aren’t playing .600 ball and the only end-to-end good team appears to be the St. Louis Cardinals.

The teams are crawling, not racing.

As a result, Barry Zito is still in Oakland, Roger Clemens is still in Houston, Kevin Millwood is still in Cleveland and Jason Schmidt is still in San Francisco. That, and the fact that each of them -- and every other healthy, reasonably qualified pitcher -- has the potential to be more valuable a month from now.

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Six weeks from the non-waiver trading deadline, and with already thin pitching staffs grabbing elbows and shoulders all over the game, general managers and their scouts have little idea where to turn for major league pitching help.

“There’s more demand than supply, that’s for sure,” an executive for a contending American League team said.

We’re still about three weeks from anything like separation, by then more than halfway through the season, allowing impact pitchers and hitters to shake loose from the non-contenders.

Even then the most connected baseball people differ on the outcome. For example, one general manager predicted last week that Oakland GM Billy Beane will not trade Zito, all that’s left of the former Big Three. Another chuckled and said Beane will run the game into the final days of July, then get creative and take a handful of top young prospects in return.

While many are awaiting Zito, the New York Yankees, Texas Rangers and Boston Red Sox appear to be the only possible landing places for Clemens, assuming he doesn’t insist on remaining in Houston. Clemens is perhaps the only sure thing out there, but Zito is younger and cheaper and doesn’t do the retirement dance every winter. There are legitimate questions about whether Zito will ever be the 23-5, 2.75 guy he was three years ago; he is 28-31 since and has not thrown a shutout or a complete game since 2003. It hasn’t helped, either, that his team has grown gradually worse around him.

Potential buyers are particularly interested in what the coming weeks will bring for Houston and Cincinnati, teams with some talent, but not near enough, and on budgets. They figure the Reds will part with at least one of Ken Griffey Jr., Sean Casey, Adam Dunn or Austin Kearns. They wonder if 10 or 15 more losses won’t put the Astros in a total rebuild, meaning Roy Oswalt or Brandon Backe, along with Clemens, could become available.

As of today, the list of obtainable starters isn’t inspiring. Few of them are going to make the Dodgers’ Paul DePodesta, for instance, forget about Scott Erickson.

For prospects, one could have just about any Colorado Rocky, including Jason Jennings and Joe Kennedy. Even while contending, the Toronto Blue Jays will consider offers for Ted Lilly. Mark Redman and/or Kip Wells can be had from Pittsburgh. So can Aaron Harang and Eric Milton, from Cincinnati. If one’s general manager is nostalgic for the 1990s, it appears Florida would part with Al Leiter and Tampa Bay would offer Hideo Nomo.

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All over baseball, disabled lists speak to the dearth of starting pitching: Tim Hudson, Mike Hampton and John Thomson in Atlanta, Erik Bedard in Baltimore, Curt Schilling in Boston, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior on Chicago’s north side, Shawn Chacon in Colorado, Kelvim Escobar in Anaheim, Odalis Perez in L.A., Jaret Wright in the Bronx, Rich Harden in Oakland, Randy Wolf in Philadelphia, Josh Beckett in Florida. Others are hurting, including the Cubs’ Carlos Zambrano.

The division between buyers and sellers will widen come July, when desperation in such places as New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago and, perhaps, Atlanta should fuel some interesting movement. Early speculation is on big names -- Todd Helton, Frank Thomas, Carl Everett, Eric Chavez, Mike Sweeney, Griffey -- but the bulk of the trades probably will involve such players as Colorado’s Preston Wilson, Tampa Bay’s Aubrey Huff, New York’s Mike Cameron, Pittsburgh’s Matt Lawton and all of those Reds.

Bats and Pieces

If Washington’s Jose Guillen sought redemption, or revenge, for being run out of Anaheim last September, what he did with his bat in a three-game series against the Angels should have been enough for him. If he hoped to validate the Angels’ decisions to suspend and trade him, then his post-series comments regarding Mike Scioscia proved that he is every bit as egotistical and selfish as suspected. Had Guillen not gotten himself suspended, he would have played more games and gotten more at-bats last year than in any previous season. Scioscia handed him left field and put him in the middle of the order and, as a result, Guillen had his finest big league season. Instead of thanking Scioscia and apologizing for his petulance, Guillen called Scioscia “garbage” while standing in the dumpster of his seventh organization in seven seasons. Privately, National players told several Angels last week that Guillen was at best a difficult teammate and at worst a divisive one, something the Angels already knew and the rest of us are finding out.

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When the Nationals traded Tomo Ohka to Milwaukee, Ohka’s agent, Jim Masteralexis, observed in the Washington Post that since the Nationals don’t yet have a true owner, they don’t spend “on the extras, like an interpreter.” After he shut out Tampa Bay in his first start for the Brewers, Ohka spoke to the press through a minor league trainer.... Former Angel and Dodger pitcher Mike Fetters has gone to work for Beverly Hills Sports Council.

After hitting .194 in April and .239 in May, Oakland’s Chavez batted .373 with six home runs and 15 RBIs in the first half of June.... When Randy Johnson became Randy Johnson again Thursday night against the Pirates, he threw 86 of 110 pitches for strikes.... Those who know Lou Piniella say they believe he wants both his sanity and his money, which means getting himself fired and taking $7 million with him. His anti-ownership rant was a wonderful first step toward

As of Friday, the Braves had made 32 roster moves in 34 days. John Smoltz is the only Brave starter not to miss a turn.... Keith Foulke to Boston reporters, regarding his reticence to address an allegedly sore knee: “I’ll talk about cars, motorcycles, the weather, certain politics, that’s about it. And music. Those are the things I’ll discuss in the next four months.” He’d apparently rather not do the regular media stuff, though he has a regular radio gig. “That’s more answering questions

about different things,” he said. “And I get a free truck. If you give me a free truck, I’ll talk to you more.”

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White Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen, who had umpires stop Brendan Donnelly from going to his mouth while on the mound two weeks ago, on Donnelly’s brush with pine tar in the Chicago Sun-Times: “When you get caught, you’re a cheater. But if you don’t get caught, you’re a smart man. There [are] a lot of people using it, but they don’t get caught.” ... The billion-dollar stadium the Yankees, and the city and state of New York, will build should save the organization hundreds of millions of dollars. For the purposes of revenue sharing and luxury tax -- the money they send to baseball’s have-nots -- the Yankees are allowed to deduct stadium debt from their gross revenues. Some estimates put the team’s annual savings at $30 million. So the Pirates won’t be able to get that starter they’ve had their eye on.

The Yankees also will sell the naming rights to the area around the ballpark. In order to reflect the trip from New Jersey to the Bronx, we suggest, “Yankee Stadium at Toll Plaza.” ... Through their first 64 games, the Yankees had 12 come-from-behind wins, including Wednesday night’s against Pittsburgh. Last year, they had 61. ... Jason Giambi has a .324 average and a .419 on-base percentage when batting eighth.


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