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Baseball trade winds are freshening

The story about Lorenzo Cain’s meteoric rise to the big leagues has been around for years, but it never gets old. Maybe it’s because his voyage comes with so many messages. It’s about facing new challenges without fear of failure, maximizing potential and appreciating how quickly life can change.

Cain was 16 years old when he was cut from his high school basketball team. His mother refused to let him play football, so he gave baseball a whirl having never played an organized inning. Raw athleticism earned him a spot on junior varsity as a sophomore, and he rode the bench on varsity as a junior.

Tallahassee Community College was the only program interested after high school. Milwaukee liked him enough to select him in the 17th round of the 2004 amateur draft. In three years, he had gone from baseball novice to pro prospect. Eight years after borrowing a glove for JV tryouts, he made his big-league debut with the Brewers.

If there’s any player who understands the speedy shift in fortune, it’s Cain. Traded to the Royals in 2010, he took a career-best .316 batting average this year into his first All-Star Game. Last October, he was named MVP of the American League Championship Series. His salary, currently $2.7 million, is prepared for liftoff.

If there’s one team that comprehends the swift swing from failure to success, it’s the Royals. Kansas City missed the playoffs for 28 straight seasons, finishing fourth or worse in the division 17 times, before earning a wild card last year. They won 11 straight and lost the World Series to the Giants in seven games.

Kansas City confirmed last year was no fluke. It has a 52-34 record, best in the AL and second-best in baseball behind St. Louis, with the season resuming Friday night after the All-Star break. Certainly, the Royals remember being 48-46 on this date last season and playing 14 games over .500 over their final 68.

The American League is shaping into another Battle Royale going into the final 2½ months this season. The Royals, Yankees and Angels lead their respective divisions with the Twins and Astros currently owning the two wild-card spots. You might as well throw darts at the standings to figure which teams will survive.

Seven teams – Tampa Bay, Baltimore, Detroit, Toronto, Cleveland, Texas and Chicago – are within 5½ games of the last wild-card spot in the AL. Only three teams can say the same in the National League, where the Mets, Giants and Diamondbacks are five back.

Houston, with its youth and modest $73 million payroll, has become the new Kansas City. The Astros missed the postseason in nine straight seasons, including three straight with 106 losses or more, and finished 18 games under .500 last season. They were leading the AL West this year before losing six straight and seeing the Angels move ahead by a half-game.

Now, with the trade deadline July 31 and so many clubs jockeying for position, this is where it gets interesting. Several teams in the AL need to determine whether they’re serious about making a postseason run. It could mean selling away prospects to meet immediate needs and still coming up short.

The Yankees, Blue Jays, Tigers and Astros are among the teams in the AL alone that are expected to get involved in the arms race. All are desperate to improve pitching, and there are impact starters and closers who should be available. They can expect price hikes in the next two weeks.

Cincinnati has little choice but to dump star Johnny Cueto, the right-handed starter and prospective free agent. Closer Aroldis Chapman and his 100 mph heater also could be on the move. His one-year contract will expire after the season. Both are assets who can help the Reds regain their footing with youth.

The Yanks lead the AL East at the moment, but the top spot has changed a lot this season. If they can get Cueto in pinstripes, he satisfies their greatest need and increases their chances for returning to the postseason. The Blue Jays need at least one arm, two if they can land Chapman, to complement their bats.

Cole Hamels is waiting to hear where he lands after the Phillies, the worst team in baseball, are finished moving him and Jonathan Papelbon. Hamels would give any contender a left-hander at the top of their rotation with three full seasons and $69 million left on his deal with Philadelphia. Papelbon is set to become a free agent.

The teams that don’t land a dominant pitcher would likely settle for White Sox righty Jeff Samardzija. He’s fighting through a difficult season but can help most teams. Chicago could keep him with the hopes it will charge up the standings but it might not be worth the risk for a pending free agent.

Who goes where and makes the biggest impact could determine who winds up making the playoffs. It’s what makes July so much fun.

Remember, in 1978, the Yanks were 14½ games behind the Red Sox on July 20 and ended up beating them in a tiebreaker to win the AL East. The 1993 Braves were 10 games behind the Giants and won the NL West. The ’95 Mariners were 13 back of the Angels on Aug. 3 and won the AL West.

Much can change in very little time, as Cain and the Royals would attest.


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