Four days away from the non-waiver trade deadline, general managers get little rest from the constant ringing of their Blackberry. Whether they are buying, or selling, going all in this year, or building for the future, it makes no difference. Any one of the twenty teams that lead their division or are within seven games of a wild card spot could receive a Christmas present in July; one that makes them a champion. But it is all fueled by placement in the standings, which is what this edition will be about. Next Wednesday, there will be a time to talk about trades that happened and did not. For now, the focus is on the pennant races, and what teams need to do to have a shot to win.
American League East
The Yankees, division leaders by 8 games in the loss column over Baltimore, have been the best team in the East since the calendar flipped to June. Their pitching has improved since the first two months, and their offense has mostly found its stride. It will be hard for Baltimore, or anyone else in the division to catch them, but as we saw last year with the Red Sox and to quote Kevin Garnett, anything is possible. Here’s why it is possible. The Yankees have struggled all season long in clutch hitting. The Yankees are hitting just .240 with runners in scoring position, and with two outs and RISP, that number drops even lower to .210 – bottom-third in the league for both categories. The importance of clutch hitting was felt this past weekend when the Bombers were swept in a four game series in Oakland, losing each game by a mere run. The Yankees have also had injuries – Andy Pettitte will not return to the rotation until September, Brett Gardner is likely out for the remainder of the season, and the Yankees lost Alex Rodriguez for six weeks with a broken hand. However, what the Yankees lack in fortune in the medical department, they make up for with the cunning mind of Brian Cashman, who pulled off a remarkable trade for Ichiro Suzuki on Monday by giving up basically nothing. It would not surprise me if the Yankees made one more move – perhaps for a pitcher to boost the rotation, or a back-up utility man to increase depth while A-Rod is out (think Jerry Hairston Jr. in 2009) – before 4 PM on Tuesday. Regardless, the Yankees have enough strength throughout the team to win the division. Any move the Yankees make will be to increase their chances of winning in October.
American League Central
The White Sox still sit atop this division. They have stiff competition between the Tigers and the Indians. Chicago’s rotation depth remains a concern. Chris Sale, Jake Peavy and Jose Quintana have all been great, but the rest of the rotation – consisting of Gavin Floyd, Philip Humber and a revolving door of spot starters – have struggles. While the top end of the rotation sports an ERA of 2.79, the entire starting pitching ERA for the team is 4.11. The White Sox will need pitching depth for a pennant race, especially if they wish to battle it out with the Tigers. More importantly they will need pitching to make any real threat to win the American League championship.
Most of Detroit’s troubles stem from issues with their starting rotation. Doug Fister has not been the same pitcher he was in the second half of last season, and although Max Scherzer’s record of 10-5 is impressive, his ERA of 4.49 is underwhelming. Like Chicago, Detroit is in need of a starter. Yes, they brought in Anibel Sanchez this past week in a trade with Miami, but I do not think that is the answer, nor do I think Detroit has turned off their phones and willing to sit still for the rest of the weekend. As we saw last year with the acquisition of Fister from Seattle, they are not afraid to go out and get pitching help. Matt Garza, who is a mid-rotation talent with experience of pitching (and winning) in the postseason will be a target for both of these AL Central teams. He will come cheaper than a top of the line guy such as Ryan Dempster or Zack Greinke, but in my mind he has a very high ceiling. Perhaps that’s my bias of his 2008 ALCS performance against the Red Sox talking.
Out of all the teams in the AL Central that need pitching, the one that needs it most desperately is Cleveland, who ranks 25th in the league in starting pitching ERA. None of their rotation – which currently consists of Ubaldo Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe, Josh Tomlin, and rookie Zach McAllister – have the presence or statistics of an ace. Last year, the Indians gave up much to trade for Jimenez at the deadline. Perhaps too much to make another blockbuster deal this season, when more teams are in contention and in the market for a starter. I don’t expect the Indians to have enough firepower to bring in a big name, but perhaps a Ted Lilly or a starter of that ilk would be a more realistic chance. Offensively, the Indians are better than most, but could use some help in left field, where currently Johnny Damon and Shelley Duncan are at. Neither of them are hitting above .235. A cheap but reliable corner outfielder might be a suitable option if the cost for pitching help is too high.
American League West
The Rangers still are the division leaders by five games over the Angels, and an additional half game better than the Athletics. Texas has steadily been pacing L.A. since the season began, although the Angels have been red hot since mid-May. Texas, which boasts the game’s best offense, also has top level pitching. Or rather, it had top level pitching, until Colby Lewis (6-6, 3.43 ERA) was lost for the rest of the season with a torn flexor tendon in his elbow. That means the Rangers also join in on the hunt for pitching this weekend. Injuries to their rotation have plagued them the entire year, but they have always had an answer for it. Consider them in the running for Zack Greinke or James Shields, both of which would be a good fit. The Rangers went for it all in 2010 by trading for Cliff Lee, a trade that worked very much in their favor – the package they sent to Seattle consisting of Mark Lowe and Justin Smoak have not developed into the stars they were thought to be. Can Texas pull off another brilliant move this season? I wouldn’t be surprised.
The Angels, another team that is offensively sound, needs help in the bullpen and in the rotation. Like the Rangers, the Angels are looking for a top of the rotation guy, such as Greinke or Shields. That would give the Angels a deadly top end of the rotation alongside Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson. Ernesto Frieri has done an outstanding job in closing games (11-11, 1.23 ERA) and Scott Downs and LaTroy Hawkins have been solid in front of him, but the rest of the bullpen is an issue. I don’t expect them to be in the running for an 8th or 9th inning reliever, but rather to look for a more reliable first-in guy, or to look to get rid of any one of the less than stellar relievers they currently have.
Interestingly enough, Oakland is still in contention for the AL West championship, thanks to an incredible, three loss month of July. They have pitching, and plenty of it. They come off a weekend where they held the Yankees, 5th best in the league in scoring runs, to just 10 runs in 4 games. What they need is offense, where they rank 25th in runs scored, and 26th in on base percentage, Billy Beane’s favorite statistic. While their outfield is very sound, their infield, as the saying goes, can not hit water if it fell off of the Bay Bridge. Chase Headley (that’s Headley!), Jimmy Rollins, Yunel Betancourt, and Marco Scutaro are all on the A’s list, and any one of those would be an improvement over, say, Brandon Inge or Cliff Pennington. Rollins might be a stretch for the money-savvy A’s, and will have to fight for the Yankees if they want Headley and the Giants if they want to bring back Mark Scutaro. But out of all of the GM’s in the game, I’d be willing to put my money on Billy Beane to bring in at least one of those four in before Tuesday.
American League Wild Card
Because of the added Wild Card team, there are still many teams in contention, including nearly all of the AL East.
The Orioles, just a game and a half out of the playoffs, need pitching help. One name they have been very interested in is Francisco Liriano, who would be a better fit in Baltimore than he would while wasting the rest of the season in Minnesota. Pitching has been an issue since May, and outside of Jason Hammel and Wei-Yin Chen, there has been no consistency. The problem is that to get help, they will need to give up talent, which they do not have much of that is major league ready. That’s why a deal with the Twins makes the most sense, a team that is building for the future at the expense of whatever they currently have.
Despite being just 2.5 games out of the playoffs, the Rays have shopped to ship of rather than to make a big move for a player that could help them make a pennant run. Their rotation of James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and Wade Davis are all being shopped around, but I would find it unlikely if the Rays traded more than one of them. In all likelihood, it will be Shields, a soon-to-be free agent, that will be packing his bags. If the Rays do make a move to contend, it will be for Marco Scutaro to help improve their infield. But I suspect that the Rays will ship off one of their pitchers and be content to wait for next season and hope Matt Moore develops into a better pitcher than he has been this season.
Toronto is four games out of the playoffs, but will either sell or stay put. Injuries have plagued them all year, the latest one being the loss of Jose Bautista for the past week and a half. Shortstop Yunel Escobar is likely to be traded, but I wouldn’t expect any fire sale. If they do try and make a move to win this year, the likely candidate is Jose Reyes, who would be easier to pick up now that everything (except Josh Johnson and Giancarlo Stanton) must go in South Beach.
Boston is the most interesting team out there. They are in contention for both starting pitching and help at shortstop. They tried to make a move to bring in Hanley Ramirez before he was traded to Los Angeles, and have also been in the running for Zack Greinke. A lot of what the Red Sox do may pend on this weekend’s series at Yankee Stadium. With a sweep, the Sox would be just 7.5 games back in the division, and reinforcements could make things dramatic in the AL. East. I think we will see the Red Sox bring in a pitcher before Tuesday, possibly Greinke. It would be the only thing they could do to remain alive in the playoff race.
National League East
The Nationals have a five game lead in the division, but just how secure are they if the plan for Stephen Strasburg is to limit him to 160 innings pitched? Surprisingly, they are pegged to be out of the running for a top pitcher, and are more worried about replacing shortstop Ian Desmond. Their ideal player would be Marco Scutaro, but would accept any average utility infielder until Desmond returns in the later half of August. They’re not going to do too much, which fits their plans. The Nationals aren’t trying to win it all this year, and whether or not you agree with them, they are holding true to that. Still, considering that the Nationals have a strong rotation even without Strasburg, they might not need that much help to make the playoffs. I think they’ll get a wild card spot, at least, without Strasburg and if they can replace Ian Desmond for the time being.
Atlanta is in a curious position. They thought that they had a deal for Ryan Dempster in place earlier this week, but Dempster then said that he did not want to be traded to the Braves. It now seems very unlikely that the Braves will bring him in, although they remain in the hunt for Greinke and Shields. Either one would help out Atlanta, who need help to bolster a decent 1-2 punch of Tim Hudson and Tommy Hanson. The deeper the rotation goes, the more question marks they have, and to compete with Washington they will need pitchers to match-up with the Nationals’ depth. If they can’t make a move, I still wouldn’t consider them out of the division because they will be helped out by the Nationals when Strasburg is shut down.
National League Central
Cincinnati and Pittsburgh continue to duke it out for the top spot in the central. Despite being without Joey Votto recently, the Reds continue to win and are on a seven game winning streak. They are looking for a leadoff hitter, perhaps Denard Span or, more likely for the short-term, Shane Victorino. The Reds rank last in baseball for leadoff hitter’s average, on base percentage, and stolen bases. Victorino or Span would help in all three categories. The Reds are mostly set otherwise, and don’t seem to be ready to make a move to improve anything else.
The other team in the mix is Pittsburgh, who added Wandy Rodriguez (7-9, 3.79 ERA) via a trade with Houston earlier this week. Yes, perhaps it is indeed a sign of the Mayan Apocalypse, but the Pirates actually sought to improve their team at the deadline rather than dismantling it. What’s more is that Pittsburgh is not yet done moving. Kevin Correia was sent to the bullpen when the Pirates acquired Rodriguez, and he may now be on his way out of town. They could add another bat, such as Cody Ross of the Red Sox, which would help with their offensive woes. This comes on the heels of talks for Victorino falling through. It would stun me if Pittsburgh did not make a move to improve their offense, given at how bad it has been. If they do improve their offense, expect a down to the wire race in the NL Central.
The Cardinals are just 5.5 games back of the division, but reports are that they will not make that much of a splash at the deadline. They have, however, had discussions with the Rays for James Shields, which would bolster the game’s third best rotation and give them a bona fide ace in the absence of Chris Carpenter and a struggling Adam Wainwright. Kyle Lohse and Lance Lynn have been fine, but for the Cardinals to make a strong push to leapfrog one of the two teams a head of them, they would need another starter, or more luck from last season.
National League West
San Francisco has jumped three games ahead of the Dodgers, and pitching has been the reason why. Matt Cain is having a Cy Young caliber season, while the bullpen has held everything solid despite being without Brian Wilson. Still bullpen help is one of the Giants needs, but that might not happen unless Colorado is willing to move Matt Belisle, which does not look promising. The Giants need a power bat too, and are looking for help in the outfield. If the Red Sox look to get rid of Cody Ross, could a return be in the works for the 2010 NLCS hero? Not likely, as the Red Sox want to keep as well as add right handed hitters. The answer could be Marco Scutaro, who I assume would move to 3rd base while Pablo Sandoval moves over to first. Considering that the Giants went all in for Carlos Beltran last season, and did not make the playoffs, they might be hesitant to make a huge move this year.
The Dodgers have already been on the move, acquiring Hanley Ramirez from the Miami
Firesale Marlins this past week, a solid move after recently losing Dee Gordon. They are far from done, still looking for pitching and offensive help. This is a team that has been crippled by injuries since May, and they need all the help they can get. The best looking case is Ryan Dempster, who has all but announced that he wants to play for the Dodgers. Dempster would pair up with Clayton Kershaw and form a formidable 1-2 punch at the top end of the rotation that would set the Dodgers up for a World Series run in October. They are also in the James Shields sweepstakes. In addition to that, Ned Colletti, says that he would like to make a move for a position player, perhaps Shane Victorino, which would make up for the speed from the top of the line-up that the team lost when Gordon went down. Los Angeles has to make a move in order to catch the Giants, I think, just because this is a team that needs a burst of energy. They have had bad news after bad news since May and they need the spark of a new face in the clubhouse to give them some hope that they still can win this division.
National League Wild Card
Arizona is nearly as close to its own division as they are to the Wild Card, but I’ll still throw them in here because I think its very unlikely they will leapfrog both teams in the division. They might also be done making any major moves, now that they traded Ryan Roberts to the Rays. Before that, they had looked to trade Stephen Drew, but have since backed off of considering that. They’re in a tough fix, because while they have the talent right now to make a run at the playoffs, as they did last year, they don’t have much to trade that they are not in dire need of keeping. Arizona might have to wait until next year, or hope that Jason Kubel’s red hot July keeps on belting home runs throughout August.
Finally, there are the Mets, who continue to struggle with their bullpen. That is their primary concern and in order to stay alive in a race that they continue to fall behind in, they must make a move. Perhaps the answer is Jonathan Broxton, or it might mean a return of K-Rod to New York. The Mets would be willing to part ways with Tim Byrdak. who pitched well for the first few months of the season. I would also not be surprised if they looked for a left-handed bat to make up for the decreased production of Ike Davis and Lucas Duda. The Mets still have time to stay alive in this race, but they need help before Tuesday’s deadline.
I’ll be back Wednesday to re-cap the trade deadline moves. Follow me on Twitter @JustinCirillo