There are a lot of teams in Major League Baseball that looked around at the All Star Break and were pleasantly surprised by where they were in the standings. In fact, this year might shape up to be one of the more competitive second halves in recent memory.
The problem there is that, for many teams, being "in" a competitive division race is fool's gold, with very little positive that could come from hanging on to expensive, older players for a stretch run.
One of those teams that is in a tough situation is the Chicago Cubs. They're currently within smelling distance of the division-leading St Louis Cardinals, and are competing despite their offense hybernating until the All Star Break.
The team that won 97 games last year is fighting for a breath of air like Leonardo did in "Titanic." And, if the bullpen continues to give more away than the Red Hot Chili Peppers, my heart might not go on through September.
As the Cubs look to make a second half push, they're looking up an awfully big hill to climb. If a safe assumption is that 90 victories will win the National League's Central race this year, that would mean the Cubs would have to finish the season 47-29.
Considering that they're just 43-43 at the break, that doesn't seem like a likely result to bet on happening.
But, considering the size of the payroll on Chicago's North Side, and the historical performances from the veterans on the roster, many naive daydream believers (and homecoming queens) are holding on to a big balloon filled with hope.
Or is it hot air?
The great irony of baseball is that it, more than any other sport, is neurotic about its dependance on numerical analysis and prediction of outcomes and yet the beauty of the game is that it's the outliers that are the real game changers.
If history always levels off, then why are there career years?
And, more importantly, when is a career effectively over?
This is the delicate dance played by every general manager in baseball between November 1 and the end of March every year. When do you roll the dice, and who's a good value? What is good value? And how much is too much?
It is in July that the real magic happens each year. The same group of front office brain trusts that knew they were right in March have now found out how wrong they were, and are now starting to scramble to find the right bandaid to keep the team in the mix.
There are other teams that desperately need to get over this season and start over in March, and are ready to hold open tryouts for two months. They just need to move the expensive players that have earned their playing time out of the way so the tryouts can begin.
And this is where marriages between ballclubs come together. It's all about give and take at this time of year.
This July is unique, though, because the economy is strangling the cash flow of so many organizations. Some annual buyers aren't ready to open their checkbooks to that sure fire quick fix, which is presenting a traffic jam on the trading highway.
This summer, the Cubs have grossly underperformed their $140 million payroll and $900 million franchise price. Should they buy or sell at the deadline?
To use a phrase that's become near to catcher Geovany Soto's heart this year, "Sell high!"
And who's playing better baseball in Chicago right now than first baseman Derrek Lee?
There's absolutely no way the Cubs are within 20 games of first place right now without Lee, who's continued to play defense at an elite level while his offensive production, once thought of as having left for good with the 2005 calendar year, has resurfaced to see him putting up great numbers at the break.
Lee, 33, is in a very marketable position right now, and could provide the Cubs with a nice windfall of talent in a trade. He's set to make the remainder of his $13 million salary this season and is due that amount again in 2010, the final season of his contract.
There is a team out there that's looking to add offense and is in a significantly stronger position to compete this year than the Cubs, and a deal could be arrived at pretty easily between the two teams if Cubs' General Manager Jim Hendry's cell phone works.
The San Francisco Giants are looking to add a bat, and have enough pitching to make the free world envious.
Just before the All Star Break, Jonathan Sanchez threw a no-hitter to capture the emotions of a couple people for a night. He's young (26), talented and, most importantly for Cubs' fans, he throws left handed.
The Cubs would probably be asked to pay a healthy portion of Lee's salary for the rest of this season, and would likely ask for a prospect with Sanchez in the deal, but the cap relief realized by Hendry would make this deal seem a logical as anything Hendry's done in five years.
San Francisco would receive a guy that's hitting around .300 and who, over the last six weeks, has recaptured his 30 homer-100 RBI form from a few years ago. With Lee in the mix, the Giants could very well make a push to solidify the wild card.
If the Giants can get their pitching staff into a five- or seven-game series, there's no question they could win it all. And Lee might provide just enough of an offensive punch in the middle of the order to get them there.
Meanwhile, the Cubs would be able to get $13 million off their books next year, and would be able to open up first base for newcomers Jake Fox and Micah Hoffpauir to see more regular playing time.
But, more importantly, it would add a left handed arm to the Cubs' rotation at an invisible salary that could make an impact for five to seven more years.
So here's my proposal to the Chicago Cubs and San Francisco Giants: Derrek Lee and cash for Jonathan Sanchez and a prospect. Do it.