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Big trades unlikely this early in baseball season

Associated PressIndians outfielder Austin Kearns could find himself on the trading block, but probably not in May. (File Associated Press)
Associated PressIndians outfielder Austin Kearns could find himself on the trading block, but probably not in May. (File Associated Press)
Larry Stone Seattle Times

If general manager Jack Zduriencik was burning up the phone lines last week in search of offensive help, one can only imagine the cellular conflagration that is taking place now.

The Mariners are in the midst of a staggering offensive malaise that is quickly derailing their season. They need help, and fast.

The reality, however, remains the same as it was last week, when Zduriencik noted that “no one is selling. Everyone wants to sit tight and see what their club looks like.”

He wasn’t the only GM to make that observation, either:

•Ken Williams of the White Sox in the Chicago Sun-Times: “There really isn’t much substance to anything at this stage of the season. Another 30 games, and you’ll start to see talk pick up.”

•Theo Epstein of the Red Sox in the Boston Herald: “You can’t make personnel changes this time of year that are anything more than symbolic. Maybe once in a decade you can find a trade that you can make this time of year, but they’re really just symbolic.”

•Frank Wren of the Braves in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “It’s unlikely any team would make a major move at this time with their roster.”

Starting to get the picture? Compounding matters is the fact that virtually every team sniffing around the market right now is looking for the same thing: hitting. This is shaping up as a down year for offense, at least for every club not named the Rays or Diamondbacks. Entering the weekend, 12 teams had cumulative averages under .250, and a dozen clubs were on pace to score 700 runs or fewer.

That doesn’t mean that Zduriencik won’t keep trying. He mentioned during his talk last week with regional sports editors that the phrase he keeps hearing from fellow GMs is, “Knock my socks off if you really want my player, blow me away.”

But he added, “Because it’s so early, I’m not sure we’re in a position to knock your socks off.”

One GM told me Friday that the issue is simple: Teams, even struggling teams, don’t want to send the message to their fans in May that they’re giving up on the season.

“That’s a tough message to send,” he said. “You can make a smaller deal right now, but a trade for a significant major league player? Not many markets are willing to send that message right now.”

He noted that even teams that deal in mid-June are often characterized as having made “white flag” trades, which is why the vast majority of dealing is done close to the July 31 non-waiver deadline.

Yet, despite all that, significant trades have happened in May. In fact, one of most famous Mariners trades in history took place on May 25, 1989, with ace Mark Langston going to Montreal in a package that brought Randy Johnson and Brian Holman to Seattle.

Last year, the White Sox’s Williams nearly pulled off a May deal to acquire Jake Peavy from the Padres in May, but Peavy invoked his no-trade clause (he later relented and went to Chicago on July 31).

Other examples:

•On May 14, 1998, the Dodgers sent All-Star catcher Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile to the salary-shedding Marlins for, among others, Bobby Bonilla, Charles Johnson, Gary Sheffield and Jim Eisenreich. On May 22, the Marlins shipped Piazza to the Mets for prospects.

•On May 11, 1990, the Yankees dealt future Hall of Famer Dave Winfield to the Angels for pitcher Mike Witt.

•On May 25, 1984, the Red Sox traded future Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley (along with current Mariners third-base coach Mike Brumley) to the Cubs for former batting champion Billy Buckner.

•On May 29, 1981, the Expos sent outfielder Ellis Valentine to the Mets for reliever Jeff Reardon.

But in modern times, impactful May trades are exceedingly rare. Last year, the trade season was kicked off on June 3, when the Pirates sent outfielder Nate McLouth to the Braves for two minor-leaguers and pitcher Charlie Morton.

“There will come a point in time when offers start to come for certain players, and clearly there will be players available,” Zduriencik said.

The teams that the Mariners are likely focusing on are the ones that have rapidly fallen out of contention (as the Mariners themselves would be in danger of doing in any other division besides the A.L. West). Falling into that category currently are the Royals, Indians, Astros and Orioles.

One name that jumps out as being both potentially available, and potentially helpful to the Mariners, is one of their former players, Kansas City’s Jose Guillen. Guillen reached the weekend with a .275 average, eight homers and 25 RBI – Ruthian numbers compared to anyone on the Seattle roster. The Mariners have shown “signs of interest” in Guillen, according to the Kansas City Star, but have made no formal inquiries, the newspaper said.

The Orioles could offer Luke Scott or Garrett Atkins, but both are struggling badly. Ty Wigginton (10 homers) and Miguel Tejada (.863 OPS), both in the final years of their deals, might be available eventually, but right now they provide the only offense to be found in Baltimore and would be tough to part with.

Outfielder Austin Kearns, who has a .980 OPS in 67 at-bats, is a possible Cleveland target. Forget about Grady Sizemore. He’s signed through 2011 at reasonable numbers, with a club option for 2012, and the Indians don’t want to risk another fan backlash after dealing CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez in recent years. Ex-Mariner Russ Branyan will be very much available, but he has yet to show the 31-homer form of last year after battling back problems all spring.

Astros first baseman Lance Berkman said last week he would waive his no-trade rights to go to a contender. That’s great, except the renowned switch-hitter, 34, is batting .185, missed the early part of the season recovering from knee surgery and is signed for $14.5 million this season. Nothing to see here.

One name to tuck away is former Rangers All-Star Hank Blalock, who is leading the International League with a .377 average and has an out-clause in his contract with Tampa Bay. But the Mariners already passed on Blalock this winter.

Obviously, there are no easy solutions for the Mariners. And if they keep struggling much longer, it will all be a moot point.

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