TORONTO - Scott Rolen spotted a Philadelphia reporter in the Toronto Blue Jays' clubhouse yesterday, and an I-know-why-you're-here smile spread across his face.
"He's the best pitcher in baseball," Rolen said of teammate Roy Halladay, who tonight could be making his final start for the Blue Jays before joining a contender - possibly the Phillies.
"He's going to fit in anywhere. And he'll succeed."
With the non-waiver trade deadline a week away, the bidding for Halladay is heating up. Toronto general manager J.P. Ricciardi said he is having serious trade discussions with four teams that would like to land the 32-year-old righthander. Ricciardi said there was no front-runner, though there are indications that the Phillies are just that - if they're willing to pay a steep price that sources say begins with pitchers Kyle Drabek and J.A. Happ.
"All the teams we're talking to have the resources to get the player," Ricciardi told The Inquirer during the Blue Jays' 5-4 loss to the Indians yesterday at the Rogers Centre. "But like I said at the beginning, someone has to have the stomach for this, and I don't know if there's anyone out there that does. That doesn't mean they're wrong or we're right. It's just the way it is."
Ricciardi would not name the teams that are in the hunt for Halladay, but he did confirm that he has spoken with the Phillies.
"We haven't talked in specifics," he said. "But they have an idea what we're looking for."
Ricciardi would not name the Phillies players he wants, but several people with knowledge of the talks between the two teams said the Jays would require pitchers Drabek and Happ in the deal. And that's just a start. There are indications that the Jays also like minor-league outfielder Dominic Brown, who is considered the Phils' top position-player prospect by baseball people inside and outside the Phillies' organization.
Ricciardi sent his top scout, Tony LaCava, to Altoona, Pa., to scout Drabek's start for double-A Reading on Wednesday night. The 21-year-old righthander pitched eight innings, allowed two runs and struck out seven in a 7-2 victory.
The Jays had looked at Drabek previously. Scouting him again was "part of the process," Ricciardi said. "He was good."
Having taken one final look at Drabek, the Jays are now ready to talk specifics with the Phillies. Phils scout Charley Kerfeld is in Toronto to watch Halladay's start against Tampa Bay tonight. The Phils have plenty of information on Halladay, who is 11-3 with a 2.73 ERA in 18 starts. Kerfeld is probably here just to ensure that Halladay, who declined to speak with reporters yesterday, gets through the start healthy.
Ricciardi announced that he would take offers for Halladay on July 7. He considered the Phils such a viable trade partner that sources say he actually contacted Phillies officials the day before that.
Phils officials have refused to comment directly on their pursuit of Halladay, but they haven't hid from it either. Whenever the subject of pursuit of a big-name pitcher such as Halladay comes up, however, Phillies officials have made it clear that there are some players in their system whom they would not consider trading.
Drabek has been tops on that list.
However, as it has become clear that Toronto won't make the deal without Drabek, there have been indications that some Phillies officials are softening their stance and would be willing to part with Drabek.
Ultimately, the decision on whether to deal Drabek will be made by general manager Ruben Amaro Jr., but he would likely need the approval of club president David Montgomery if he decides to give up such a highly regarded prospect. Montgomery has had a hand in these matters before. Club sources say he frowned on the possibility of trading Ryan Howard when the slugger was tearing up the Eastern League in 2004. The decision to keep Howard has proven to be a good one.
The Phillies, however, are in a different place than they were in 2004. They are coming off a World Series title, and they believe they can win another this year and/or next, before their core talent gets too old and reaches free agency. Halladay, who is signed for next season at $15.75 million, would fit well into the Phillies' structure and give the team a shutdown arm to pair with Cole Hamels in the postseason.
Phillies officials have to weigh the merits of going for it now with a proven core and a proven pitcher like Halladay, or protecting their farm system and prospects.
Former Phils GM Pat Gillick, now an adviser to Amaro and Montgomery, favors going for it. He stated that in an interview with Toronto radio station 590 The Fan on Tuesday.
Gillick, who scouted Halladay's last start, a complete-game win over Boston on Sunday, said the Phils were in a "position to maybe go back-to-back."
"You don't get many chances to go to the dance," Gillick said. "You have to evaluate the position of your club and what kind of club you have and where the players are [in their careers].
"If you have a chance to get there - I think you have a responsibility to the players and the fan base." Gillick said acquiring top talent in July sends a message to the players "that these guys want to win and will do everything they can to put us over the top."
Ricciardi believes Halladay can put a contender over the top.
"Someone is going to get the best pitcher in baseball," Ricciardi said. "Any team that gets him is definitely putting themselves at a distinct advantage. He is the best and rarest commodity. How many aces are there in baseball? And he's the best."
Halladay, who made his big-league debut in 1998 at age 21, is 142-69 in his career. He won the 2003 American League Cy Young Award and finished in the top five of voting three other times, including second last year.
Why are the Jays primed to deal him? Because he will be a free agent after next season.
"He'll probably test the free-agent market," Ricciardi said. "Why not see what we can get? If we don't get what we want, we'll hang on to him."
A week before the trade deadline, it seems likely that Halladay will go somewhere. The Dodgers, Cardinals, Brewers, Red Sox, Rays and Yankees have all expressed interest, in some form.
Rolen, the former Phillie, isn't sure if Halladay is staying or going.
But that hasn't stopped him and his teammates from ribbing the man they call Doc.
"We joke about it," Rolen said. "We say, 'See you, Doc.' If he gets traded, someone is getting a great pitcher."