THAT DEEP, persistent rumbling you might have heard two Sundays ago, as Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang hobbled off the field in Houston? That was the sound of the C.C. Sabathia trade machine kicking into gear. Wang's injury was as serious as it appeared—he partially tore a tendon in his right foot and won't play for at least two more months—so thoughts among New York's chattering classes immediately turned to Sabathia, the Indians' 27-year-old reigning American League Cy Young winner.
Mark Shapiro, Cleveland's general manager, told SI during spring training that he didn't expect to deal the soon-to-be free agent, but that was before the Indians' biggest bats, DH Travis Hafner and catcher Victor Martinez, fizzled ( Martinez has zero home runs, Hafner just four). Both eventually ended up on the DL, where they joined key starters Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook. The Indians are in fourth place in the AL Central and sinking fast, and that has Shapiro thinking back to 2002, when he traded Bartolo Colon to the Expos in return for future stars Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips and Grady Sizemore.
Although the Yankees' recent modus operandi has been to maintain a white-knuckled grip on their top prospects—as they did when they declined to deal for Johan Santana last winter—each of the four front office men SI contacted last week believes that New York will vigorously pursue Sabathia, even though he'll likely be just a three-month rental. Says one NL G.M., "I think Hank Steinbrenner's going to be a player in everything, and I think Brian [Cashman] is going to shift gears and go for it." But a dark horse candidate for Sabathia's services emerged in several of SI's conversations with baseball execs, a candidate that has never before been a buyer at the deadline but that, through Sunday, sat 4 1/2 games ahead of New York in the AL East standings. "I think a real wild card could be Tampa Bay," says an AL personnel man. "They have the richest farm system."
For Shapiro to deal Sabathia, he'll have to be offered a package of prospects that exceeds the value of the two first-round draft picks he'd receive as compensation for the loss of Sabathia to free agency. The value of those picks can be high; the Red Sox, for instance, turned the 2004 free-agent departures of Orlando Cabrera and Pedro Martinez into Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz, respectively. But the Rays' farm system is so deep that they could sacrifice three or four top prospects (including, perhaps, righthanded pitcher Jeff Niemann and shortstop Reid Brignac) for three months of Sabathia's services and still have the majors' best system, headed by the first overall picks in the last two drafts, pitcher David Price and shortstop Tim Beckham. Keep in mind, too, that the Rays would receive the two compensatory draft picks if they lost Sabathia to free agency.
Rays G.M. Andrew Friedman declined to comment on Sabathia and may be more interested in pursuing a veteran, back-end starter for a playoff run ( Freddy Garcia, for example), but adding Sabathia to the top of the rotation would make Scott Kazmir the best No. 2 starter in the big leagues, James Shields the best No. 3 starter and on down. "Pitchers of [Sabathia's] caliber not only help you win the wild card," says the NL G.M., "those guys change October."