With just under 10 days left until the trade deadline, there are 13 bona fide contenders and buyers, and four fringe teams who better fit a buyer’s than a seller’s mold. Here’s what each of them are best advised to go after:
Arizona Diamondbacks – Matt Garza, Cliff Lee or Chris Sale
The Arizona offense has actually been the biggest bugaboo for the team thus far, but they’re getting healthy for the first time positionally, and anyway, they’re heavily committed to most of their current lineup.
Have you ever noticed that starting pitching is absolutely always in wide demand at the trade deadline? Furthermore, have you noticed that pitchers who slide in even at the back end of the rotations of bad teams have a market value that surprises people, every summer?
That’s because the most stable, important and immutable aspect of a winning MLB team is a deep and talented lineup. It’s hard to turn a bad lineup into a good one with in-season roster adjustments. It takes a true impact addition, and even then, needing a position player especially badly is a sign of weakness that belies contender status nine times out of 10. Remember the Carlos Beltran deal? It turned out the Giants were pretenders in 2011, due to the weakness of their offense, and adding even a very good hitter to that offense couldn’t change their fortunes enough.
Starting pitching is much easier to improve for many teams. Even good teams can have a black hole at the back of the rotation. On average, that rotation slot is setting you back 10 percent from a win once every five days. Even a league-average pitcher goes a long way in situations like those.
Notice, though, that I didn’t mark Arizona as needing any old starter. They’re an unusual team in this regard. They really don’t have that scar of a fifth slot. They’ve had some injury issues, but they’ve still largely trotted out usable, salient hurlers on a daily basis. Bud Norris does not move the needle at all for the Diamondbacks. If they want to measurably improve their run prevention, they need to get an impact arm, a guy capable of delivering 35-plus percent of a win when he takes the ball.
Atlanta Braves – Bench OF bat, relief help
Not only have the Uptons been prone to long slumps early in their Braves tenures, but now B.J. is on the DL, and Jason Heyward remains almost perpetually banged-up.
Last year, the Braves neatly fortified their bench by getting Reed Johnson as a toss-in to the Paul Maholm deal with the Cubs. They could do the same thing this year, if they want, but their primary focus should be on deepening a bullpen whose left-handed core, especially, has been thinned by injury and ineffectiveness.
It could be the same one-stop shop in 2013 that Atlanta used in 2012. The Cubs have outfield help like David DeJesus and Nate Schierholtz to offer, and James Russell as a team-controlled lefty reliever. It’s not the only option, but it is an option.
Baltimore Orioles – A DH worthy of the name
With Wei-Yin Chen back from the DL and newcomer (another erstwhile Cub) Scott Feldman hanging in there, starting pitching is no longer a high-priority problem. The Orioles have the worst rotation in the AL East. That’s neither new, nor fatal to their playoff aspirations. They pitch okay, they have a phenomenal defense and they hit plenty. They just need a final piece, someone who can prop up the sagging middle of the order. Second base would be one place to get it, but Chase Utley isn’t likely to become available. The designated hitter spot, where the O’s have been using Chris Dickerson, Nolan Reimold and Danny Valencia more than a contender has any business using them.
Monetarily, it’s tough to imagine how the Orioles would make Alfonso Soriano fit. Raul Ibanez, Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse are more feasible candidates, and that’s just the Seattle contingent. Carlos Quentin would be the big catch, if San Diego made him available.
Boston Red Sox – A starter and a right-handed reliever
Noe that the Sox have sunk all the remaining 2013 costs of Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, they can turn their attention to building a bullpen. Ha!
But seriously, Boston needs a bit of bullpen help. More pressingly, though, they need a starter, particularly if the news on both Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester remains as murky as it is right now. Allen Webster has been a nightmare when given looks in the rotation. The Sox are still at least partially in on Matt Garza, but it’s not clear whether they have the leverage to get the right deal done there. The lack of good alternatives is a problem. Neither Bud Norris nor Jason Vargas is much of a prospective fit for Fenway Park.
Cincinnati Reds – A new manager
I really don’t know what else to recommend. The Reds have been a stunningly, alarmingly average offensive team, once you correct for their run environment. Dusty Baker is holding back a talented group of hitters by batting them in a brutally bad order; ordering a league-high number of sacrifice bunts; and hitting the ‘steal’ button at all the wrong times.
Now, they do miss Ryan Ludwick in left field, but they should simply be better than they have been on that side of the ledger. They’ve felt it, too, because the offense isn’t providing many insurance runs, nor much margin for error, and the bullpen has struggled to meet the challenge due to injury and ineffectiveness.
Despite their better record, the Reds are underachieving in a lot of the same ways the Nationals are, and of the two, even baking in the gap in current record, I like Washington’s chances better going forward.
Cleveland Indians – A STARTING PITCHER
Really, two wouldn’t hurt. I don’t know if this stat has held, what with the rash of shutouts over the weekend, but trough the All-Star break, the Indians had shut out opponents more times (12) than any other AL team. Alas, they had also given up double-digit runs in eight different games.
This goes back to how the rotation is built. Unlike the Diamondbacks, the Indians have a clear path to improvement. If, tomorrow, they dealt for Erik Bedard and Bud Norris, it would improve their rest-of-year win projection by two or three. That’s how bad some of their starting pitching performances have been this year.
Detroit Tigers – A catcher and a closer
Alex Avila is an interesting case study in the violent variance that seems to have engulfed non-superstars over the past few years. He’s having a truly miserable season, including (and this tracks to a league-wide trend that I’m still researching, but it’s alarming in any event) one hit and two walks in 38 plate appearances against left-handed pitching.
Replacing Avila would be tough for Detroit. For one thing, Avila’s dad Al works in the front office. For another, he’s still a 26-year-old left-hitting catcher. For a third, it’s hard to find upgrades at the premium defensive spots mid-season.
One possible move could be to send Avila away in the process of getting back a better backstop on a shorter term. In fact, an Avila-for-Dioner Navarro and Kevin Gregg swap with the Cubs could be a real impact change for Detroit. Their bullpen is, as ever, a wreck.
Kansas City Royals – a Wade Davis replacement and a corner outfield bat
Putting the Royals on this list is almost just a mean joke. Yes, this is a team loaded with young-to-prime positional talent, and yes, they pushed their chips into the pot when they made the James Shields trade, but the reality of the moment is that the Royals are under .500 and trail two genuinely superior teams in the AL Central, with no shot at the Wild Card.
If they WERE to seek out something to fix what ails them, though, they would be wise to start by looking to replace Wade Davis. Davis has been the worst regular starting pitcher in baseball this year, and is killing the club when he takes the mound. A package deal that also landed a right fielder with something in his bat would be ideal.
Los Angeles Dodgers – A center fielder and a third baseman
Matt Kemp’s inexhaustible fragility aside, the Dodgers simply don’t have an outfielder who can actually acquit themselves in center field. It’s a nightmare out there, and with Ricky Nolasco now on board, there are going to be more fly balls for Andre Ethier to not catch going forward.
The bats of each of the Dodger outfielders have value, but at this point, given what the team is getting from its shortstop and catcher, the offense that Ethier provides vanishingly diminishing return. They should be shooting for a player who can solve their defensive problems in the outfield, and let the big bats at the corners and at shortstop power the run-scoring machine.
It’ll be hard for them to shuffle the money and personnel such that they can really make that fix, though, and the same goes for third base. Sheer volume hurts here. Nick Punto, Juan Uribe and Jerry Hairston are all around, and while none is a very good option as a regular on a contending team (anymore), they’re all there.
New York Yankees – Offensive upgrades at catcher, first base, third base, shortstop, left field, right field and DH
It’s laughable that the Yankees are viewed as contenders, let alone buyers. They’re over .500, but further from the playoffs than the Kansas City Royals. They’re the Yankees. That’s the only reason they’re considered to be genuine competitors for 2013.
There’s been a surprising amount of back-and-forth about whether what New York needs most is a left- or a right-handed bat. It’s surprising, I say, because there is no record of any twitter wars or town-hall debates among passengers on the Titanic over whether they should be ordering more blue or red deck chairs.
The Yankees offense is miserable. Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner are the only guys who belong on a contender’s roster, let alone in its lineup. Their run prevention, some good luck and a willingness to keep the revolving doors spinning have kept their heads above water, but that inability to drown is only going to make being eaten by sharks more painful. If you insist that they need to make an addition or two, though, some names to keep in mind are Alfonso Soriano, Kendrys Morales and Raul Ibanez.
Oakland Athletics – Starting pitching and infield defense
The A’s, to their credit, are a team without glaring weaknesses, and since they’re already in first place, they don’t face overwhelming pressure to make the big splash. That’s a good situation for a team without a ton of resources to be in.
That said, incremental pitching improvements are possible. As always, it’s important to contextualize the raw numbers, which would tell you that Oakland is already above-average there. Like Arizona, Oakland has no gaping hole in their corps, so only an impact starter would make more than a marginal difference. On the other hand, Billy Beane has never been averse to working the margins.
The defense on the dirt, though, is dreadful, and almost any decent fielder could improve it. Jed Lowrie is the starting shortstop for this team. Josh Donaldson is a very good offensive third baseman, but as defensive third basemen go, he’s a very good offensive third baseman. Adding a glove-first (even glove-only!) shortstop and sliding Lowrie to second would be the optimal solution.
Pittsburgh Pirates – A starter and a reliever
I didn’t think Clint Hurdle had it in him, so I’ll give him a nod here: He has managed this pitching staff to perfection. The team defense has been sparkling, which helps paper over the weaknesses, but Hurdle has also used the group he was given exactly the way they need to be used.
The starting pitchers are averaging fewer pitches per start than any other team in baseball, and fewer than any but a dozen or so teams in the last 15 years. That puts a lot of pressure on the relief corps, but Hurdle seems to have realized that the latter is the stronger group, and he’s riding his best horses.
Now he needs help from upstairs. Neal Huntington can set this team up to reach October, and even to make a run, if he can add two strong arms who can alleviate the stress accumulating on the incumbents. Pittsburgh is reportedly in on Matt Garza, which is great news. They should also ask for James Russell or Kevin Gregg.
San Francisco Giants – A starting pitcher
Again, context is king. After the fences were moved in in San Diego and Seattle this season, San Francisco (and perhaps Miami; the jury is necessarily still out on that one) became the least friendly park for home-run hitters in all of baseball, and thanks to low elevation and generally cooler-than-average weather, it depresses offense pretty powerfully across the board. The pitchers always look a bit better than they have been, and the offense usually looks worse.
What the Giants need is an excuse not to trot Barry Zito or Mike Kickham or Ryan Vogelsong out there any more often than is absolutely necessary. The best fit, for my money, is allegedly available Phil Hughes, whose problems as a Yankee have been almost exclusively home-run related. He could turn in a 2.50 ERA over 12 starts in the NL West, and help San Francisco charge back and take the division.
St. Louis Cardinals – A shortstop and a starting pitcher
Chris Carpenter could, theoretically, fill the second of those voids. He’s a marvelous story, and good on him if he makes it back from thoracic outlet syndrome, which seemed to have ended his career just months ago.
The Cardinals shouldn’t wait to see whether he does, though. They need to act. I’m still not sure Cincinnati doesn’t straighten themselves out and run over St. Louis down the stretch. There just isn’t a zero anywhere on the Reds’ roster comparable to what the Cardinals have gotten, and should expect to keep getting, from shortstop.
It’s not like it’s easy to add a shortstop. Teams who have good ones usually don’t want to part with them, even if the club in question falls from contention. I don’t think, for instance, that the Blue Jays are taking calls on Jose Reyes just because they won’t be able to reap utility from his value until at least next season. But the front office should at least be shopping around. Stephen Drew strikes me as a potential solution, if the Red Sox are confident enough in Jose Iglesias and can figure out Will Middlebrooks’s many issues.
Tampa Bay Rays – Sheesh. Nothing? Is nothing an option?
Okay, in truth, the Rays could still use an everyday DH. Their platoons and mix-and-match act are great, but not ideal. You want to find the guy who doesn’t need to be platooned. Nor is my confidence in James Loney’s resurgence so strong that, were I in Andrew Friedman’s position, I would be checking first base off the list in pen.
Still, the lack of a weakness on this team is remarkable. David Price turned out not to be broken so much as in need of a tune-up, which is a relief, frankly, because you’d hate to see a pitcher still so young and talented turn into a pumpkin so early. An addition to the bullpen wouldn’t hurt, but the Rays (cash-poor and upper-minors pitching depth-rich) are neither likely nor compelled to make one.
Texas Rangers – A starting pitcher and a bat
Over the weekend, the Orioles swept the Rangers. In the series, Texas’s bullpen pitched 10.2 innings and didn’t allow a run. In 16.1 frames, though, the starting hurlers allowed 14 runs, even including eight innings of three-run ball from Derek Holland.
That set of stats is revealing in two ways. First of all, obviously, the Rangers are among the teams who can benefit most—and most easily—from the addition of a credible starter or two. Secondly, though, 14 runs was enough to sweep them in a three-run series in Arlington. That’s a red flag. The Rangers have plenty of positional talent, but it doesn’t line up very well right now. One of Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus and Jurcikson Profar probably should move along in order to settle the unsettled middle infield, although I don’t anticipate that actually taking place.
Washington Nationals – The courage to stand pat
I might be putting too much faith in some limited track records here. Heaven knows that’s the trap the Nationals fell into over the winter, when they made no strides to improve their bench and stopped short of really reinforcing their rotation thanks to breakout seasons from Roger Bernadina and Ross Detwiler.
But I think you have to just wait it out at this point. The problem is the offense, and the offense has too many players with histories of success for me not to believe they will rebound big-time. Now, will their reversal of fortune be enough to overcome this bad start? It’s not clear. But if any team could reel off 43 wins in 60 games and jump right back into the post-season picture, this is that team.Next post: Microcosm Monday: The Cubs’ Rebuilding Philosophy, Baseball’s War on Drugs (and Itself), and Bud Selig
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