CHICAGO (AP) — You can find everything from toys to designer clothes for your dog when you go shopping on the Magnificent Mile, a luxurious stretch of stores and boutiques in downtown Chicago.
Of course, that experience pales in comparison to the shopping taking place at the city’s two ballparks this summer.
Like tourists looking for the latest electronic gadget, an increasing number of scouts from baseball’s top teams have filled the seats behind home plate at Wrigley Field and U.S. Cellular Field ahead of the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
While the Cubs and White Sox are well off the pace in their respective divisions, Chicago remains a pivotal place in the pennant race because of the available players who could play a key role for a contender down the stretch.
“Our job is to be realistic about where we are and where we’re going and act accordingly,” said Theo Epstein, president of baseball operations for the Cubs.
Where the Cubs are at the All-Star break is fourth in the NL Central, 15 games behind division-leading St. Louis. They are a respectable 24-21 in their last 45 games, but the North Siders are coming off their first 100-loss season since 1966 and still ensconced in a rebuilding mode.
Fortunately for Epstein and Co., they may have the top pitcher on the trade market in Matt Garza. Alfonso Soriano also could be on the move, especially if an American League contender in a warm climate is interested, a situation that could be enough for the aging slugger to agree to the trade.
Garza, who missed the first part of the season after he strained a back muscle in spring training, is 5-0 with a 1.24 ERA in his last six starts. With a handful of scouts watching his every move, the right-hander limited high-scoring St. Louis to two runs in 6 2-3 innings during Chicago’s 6-4 victory on Saturday night.
“He’s one of the hardest working pitchers you’re going to be around,” Cubs manager Dale Sveum said. “Even the four days he doesn’t pitch he’s on the bench and he’s rooting his teammates on.”
The 29-year-old Garza pitched in five playoff games during his time with Tampa Bay, going 2-1 with a 3.48 ERA. While should make him even more attractive for a contender, he’s also eligible for free agency after this season, potentially limiting the type of haul the Cubs could get in return.
It’s a tricky situation for Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer to navigate in their second season in charge of the Cubs.
“He’s obviously throwing extremely well and he’s very healthy and there are teams out there looking for pitching who are going to call and try to acquire him,” Epstein said Friday. “For us, he’s helping us win games right now, there’s a chance to possibly retain him beyond this year, so we’ll just balance all that out and do what’s best for the organization.”
While Garza has generated much of the trade speculation, Soriano is batting .323 with nine homers and 19 RBIs in his last 16 games. The Cubs tried to move him last July, but he vetoed a trade to San Francisco.
With just 2014 left on his $136 million, eight-year contract, the veteran outfielder could be a more attractive commodity for a contender this year. An AL team that could provide time at designated hitter would be a particularly solid match.
While Garza and Soriano are surging at the right time for the Cubs, a couple of the biggest trade chips for the White Sox have been hampered by injuries of late. It’s just another unfortunate turn of events for the South Siders, who have lost 13 of 18 games to fall to 37-55 at the break, last in the AL Central.
All-Star reliever Jesse Crain was placed on the disabled list on July 3 with a strained shoulder. The right-hander, who is 2-3 with a 1.15 ERA in 38 appearances, could be back after the break. Starting pitcher Jake Peavy is coming back from a broken right rib.
“I think if there’s anything that could go wrong this year for the White Sox, it’s gone wrong,” Crain said after he was placed on the disabled list.
Reliever Matt Thornton was dealt to the Red Sox on Friday, and there’s likely more trades to come. Outfielder Alex Rios, left-hander John Danks and reliever Matt Lindstrom all could be on the move in Rick Hahn’s first season as general manager for the White Sox.
“Right now I’ve got these guys,” manager Robin Ventura said. “I haven’t been told to do anything different. You just manage like you would any other time. I think it’s harder for guys hearing rumors, just making sure they keep their focus and play hard. In the end, it’s their numbers and everything else so it still counts.”
AP freelance writers Aaron Bracy in Philadelphia and Jerry Bonkowski contributed to this report.
Jay Cohen can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/jcohenap