As the trade deadline approaches, these unheralded players may prove to be the difference makers in the pennant races
THE HEADLINES this trading season will be dominated by marquee names (Dontrelle Willis, Mark Teixeira and Ken Griffey Jr.) and some talented but flawed stars (Adam Dunn, Jermaine Dye, Eric Gagné, Mike Piazza and Jose Contreras). Keep an eye out, though, for players with smaller contracts who could change teams and alter the course of this year's pennant races and playoffs. Last year a number of unheralded players were acquired at the trade deadline and went on to have a surprising impact down the stretch, including Marlon Anderson (Dodgers), Guillermo Mota and Oliver Perez (Mets), and Jeff Weaver (Cardinals). Here are a few under-the-radar players to watch:
Octavio Dotel, Royals, relief pitcher. Kansas City's closer, who underwent reconstructive elbow surgery in 2005, is back throwing 93 mph, and through Sunday he had nine saves and 23 strikeouts in 19 innings. According to one scout, however, the 33-year-old reliever is "better off in nonpressure situations" and would better serve a contender in a setup role.
Ty Wigginton, Devil Rays, infielder. The hard-nosed Wigginton, 29, keeps producing (.273 with 13 home runs) and is a versatile infielder, having played first, second and third for Tampa Bay. But with Akinori Iwamura at third and Carlos Pe√±a at first, Wigginton is expendable.
Jeff Conine, Reds, first baseman--outfielder. A consummate pro who's most likely in the final season of his 17-year career, Conine, 41, has won two championship rings (with the Marlins in 1997 and 2003) while shuttling between small and midsized markets. After the Orioles traded Conine to Florida in late August of 2003, he hit five home runs in 84 at bats to help the Marlins get in the playoffs. A good clutch hitter, he was batting .314 with runners in scoring position at week's end.
Damaso Marte, Pirates, relief pitcher. A member of the World Series champion White Sox in 2005, the lefthander had fallen out of favor with Chicago and was traded to Pittsburgh after that season ended. Now 32, he had a 1.65 ERA at week's end and had struck out 31 batters in 27 1/3 innings. But the southpaw has been especially dominant against lefthanded batters: They've hit .093 against him.
Chad Bradford, Orioles, relief pitcher. Just about every contender could use a middle reliever like the 32-year-old Bradford. The submariner keeps the ball down, doesn't allow many home runs (one since the start of '06) and can pitch in the clutch (0.00 postseason ERA in 15 1/3 innings)
Kenny Lofton, Rangers, centerfielder. Lofton, 40, has appeared in the playoffs for six teams but has yet to win a ring. He can still hit (.309) and run (20 steals), and could help a team making a playoff push, such as the Brewers, Cubs or Indians. Interest in trading with Texas won't end with Lofton, though. Even if the Rangers keep Teixeira, they could put Sammy Sosa and Brad Wilkerson on the market for teams seeking power, and Akinori Otsuka and Gagné would be welcome additions for any contender's bullpen.
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Touching 'Em All
Mark Cuban is a viable candidate to buy the Cubs, but John Canning, the head of a private-equity firm in Chicago and a Brewers limited partner, is probably the early favorite.... So far the White Sox have a high asking price for struggling outfielder Jermaine Dye, a free agent after this season. Says one competitor, "They're going off the name, not the performance this year." ... Best guess for Alex Rodriguez: eight years, $256 million.
GREG FIUME/GETTY IMAGES (BRADFORD)
SUB-IN Contenders may want to nab Bradford (left), who has an 0.00 postseason ERA.
PETER G. AIKEN/CAL SPORT MEDIA (DOTEL)
BOB LEVEY/ICON SMI (CONINE)
CHARLES LECLAIRE/WIREIMAGE.COM (MARTE)
PHILLIP ELLSWORTH/WIREIMAGE.COM (LOFTON)