The All-Star break is here and while the festivities occupy the thoughts of fans and participants, major league executives are busy behind the scenes.
Busy, as in looking at their current rosters and deciding whether they might be buyers, or sellers, when the trade window opens on July 31, as it does every year.
For teams figuring that they will still be in the hunt during the dog days of August, raiding non-contenders for available talent will be a priority. Those non-contenders, of course, will expect prime prospects in return for whatever gold can be found on their rosters.
Last year, Toronto bolstered its pitching staff acquiring Francisco Liriano, while Cleveland improved their bullpen immensely getting Andrew Miller from the Yankees. In the NL, the eventual champion Cubs beefed up by getting Aroldis Chapman from the Yanks. Those were just a few of the deals pulled off in a fairly busy deadline.
This year should be no different. We believe there are about 15 teams with legitimate to outside shots of making the post-season (ranked from least to most likely). We have detailed their roster hole(s) and provide some likely candidates to fill them.
14. St. Louis Cardinals
The Cards have made the playoffs five years previous to the 2017 campaign, but without an injection of talent in a couple of areas, are the team we think least likely to be a participant. The 43-45 Cardinals are 5.5 games out of first in the NL Central, but 7.5 games out of the last wild card spot, owned by Colorado (52-39). The squad’s biggest need, as far as we can see, would be a power bat (or two) in the everyday line-up. They are just eighth in the NL in homers with 107 and Matt Carpenter owns 14 of them. One player who may be available to fill that power vacuum is the Mets’ Jay Bruce. St. Louis doesn’t have a masher in the outfield and Bruce has mashed 23 taters this season, along with 59 RBI. He has a modified no-trade clause, and the Cardinals aren’t on it.
13. Minnesota Twins
After a fairly hot start, the Twins have cooled off and now sit 2.5 games back of AL Central leading Cleveland and a game from the last wild card spot owned by Tampa. The big problem for Minnesota is that there could be as many as 10 teams in the American League who think they can still climb in to a wild card position. That means they will be in a dogfight to mine talent for the playoff push. Minnesota needs run producers at the plate, as well as another solid starting pitcher. There greatest need, in our opinion is at designated hitter, where Kennys Vargas hasn’t been all that prolific in that position. They could take a look down the standings at the Chicago White Sox and inquire about Melky Cabrera, who is still a good hitter, but a liability in the field. He has 10 HR and 51 RBI this season and could fill the DH role nicely.
12. Chicago Cubs
We could put the defending champs lower on this list, but to this point in the season, they haven’t shown an ability to get a streak going. And put it this way, they have a better chance of winning the division, where they are 5.5 games behind Milwaukee, than overtaking the two current wild card teams, Colorado and Arizona. The Cubs problem this year is pitching. Not so much in the bullpen, where they have plenty of live arms, but in the starting rotation, where they haven’t gotten much consistency. Jon Lester is 5-6 with a 4.25 ERA, followed by Jake Arrieta (8-7, 4.35) and John Lackey (5-9, 5.20), among hurlers with most starts. One name that pops up in a lot of trade bait chatter is Sonny Gray of the Oakland A’s. He’s 4-4 with a 4.00 ERA but has had three straight quality starts since June 25.
11. Kansas City Royals
The 2015 champs have climbed back into the playoff picture after an abysmal start, and with a couple of tweaks, could overtake the Cleveland Indians for first in the AL Central, or push for a wild card spot (they currently trail the wild card Tampa Bay Rays by 1.5 games). Like their foes in Minnesota, the Royals are in dire need of an upgrade at designated hitter, since Brandon Moss has struggled there (.193 average, 10 HR, 16 RBI). They also need a capable third starter in their rotation, as Ian Kennedy (3-6, 4.45 ERA) and Jason Hammel (4-8, 5.04) have been up-and-down. Philadelphia’s Daniel Nava is a good hitter (.299) who could fill the DH role and fill in at first or in the outfield. Veteran starter Jeff Samardzija could be had from the Giants, who are floundering. He is 4-10 with a 4.58 ERA, but has 127 strikeouts in 118 innings and might fluorish in new surroundings. Or, they could always get Johnny Cueto (Giants) back.
10. Tampa Bay Rays
We are going out on a limb calling the Rays provisional contenders, but at present they own the last wild card spot with a 47-43 record. The Rays have fashioned that mark by virtue of banging bats (133 homers, third in the AL) and decent pitching (4.17 ERA, fifth in the AL). The Rays could use a more complete starting catcher, as they have been platooning Derek Norris, Jesus Sucre and Wilson Ramos. Second base has also been a bit of a platooning nightmare. So, to shore things up, Tampa could look to Oakland to land Jed Lowrie to play second base. He can also spot Evan Longoria at third if need be and his bat has been reasonably hot (.279 average, 38 extra base hits). Rangers’ catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who was acquired by Texas last year for a playoff push, is a free agent this year and could be expendable, as Robinson Chirinos has played well and is the catcher of the future. Lucroy could still be starting material, for the right team.
9. Milwaukee Brewers
The second hottest team in baseball has been 8-2 in their past 10 and have a surprising 5.5 game lead in the NL Central over Chicago and St. Louis as of the All-Star break. Overall, their pitching has been decent, as the staff owns a 4.08 ERA (fourth in the NL) and offensively they have scored 451 runs (fourth in the NL) and have the most homers in the senior circuit too (138). There are scant few holes to fill on this squad, as they have gotten solid hitting and pitching. The Achilles heel is defence, though, since they have made the most errors in the National League with 69 (.980 fielding). Speedy 2B Jonathan Villar has struggled at the plate (.221) and in the field (10 errors) and their catchers, Manny Pina, Jett Bandy and Stephen Vogt have only thrown out 22.7 percent of baserunners. Jed Lowrie could be a good player to target to platoon with Villar at second, while Baltimore might be willing to part with catcher Welington Castillo (46 percent successful at throwing out runners).
8. New York Yankees
As of Monday, the Yanks, 3-7 in their last 10, have a tenuous hold on the first wild card spot in the American League. They will need to be awful good in the last half of the season to hold off as many as seven teams nipping at their heels. What they have going for them are games in hand on all of them. Offence has carried the day for the Bronx Bombers, who have scored the second most runs in the AL (477) and pounded out the fourth most homers (132), led by Aaron Judge’s MLB leading 30. Their pitching has been good with a staff ERA at 4.02, however, they could use an upgrade at closer, which has been done by committee. Aroldis Chapman (8 saves, 2 blown) and Dellin Betances (6 saves, two blown) are better as set-up men than firemen. One player they could target at the deadline, then, would be former Yankee closer David Robertson, now with the Chicago White Sox. He saved 39 for New York in 2014 and has 84 since with the White Sox.
7. Cleveland Indians
The American League only has one true runaway team, the Houston Astros, with everyone else literally just fighting for wild card spots. The Indians are one of those teams. They are in first in the AL Central by a slight 2.5 games and just 1.5 games ahead of the wild card owning Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays. Thus, even a mild second half slump could see them plunge right out of the playoffs entirely, that’s how tight things are. The Tribe are the best pitching team in the AL, owning a 3.78 ERA, but are only seventh in runs scored (421), tenth in homers (103) and fifth in average (.262). They have gotten next to nothing in offence from their catching tandem of Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez, thus targeting an offensive minded catcher might help. Teams in the AL would be loathe to deal with them and their are few catchers seemingly available. However, the Tigers may be willing to unload veteran C Alex Avila (.299, 11 HR, 29 RBI).
6. Boston Red Sox
Even after snagging ace Chris Sale in the off-season, the Red Sox aren’t running away with things in the AL East. They are 50-39 and hold a 3.5 game lead on the Yankees. Like many teams, the Red Sox might be in the market for a third baseman, which may be their weakest area. Deven Marrero hasn’t hit all that well for a corner infielder (.225, 3 HR, 20 RBI) and platoons with rookie Tzu-Wei Lin. Again, Jed Lowrie’s name pops up, as he’s a former Red Sox and utility guy with a decent bat who could man third and spell Dustin Pedroia off of he needs some rest at second. Todd Frazier of the White Sox doesn’t hit for average like Lowrie (just .213), but he has good power (16 homers this year and 56 in two seasons with Chicago). The race is on in the AL East and the Red Sox can’t sit on their laurels.
5. Colorado Rockies
The Rockies are one of the best hitting teams in all of baseball and as of the All-Star break one of the most surprising. With a 52-39 record, they could be second in the American League, but as it stands they hold the last wild card playoff spot, two games back of Arizona. There are few holes in their everyday batting line-up and they are the third best fielding team in all of baseball with just 41 errors so far. The soft spot is pitching and a lot might have to do with the thin air in Denver. They are 16th in team ERA overall at 4.45, with just one starter holding an ERA under 4.00 (Kyle Freeland, 3.77). Middle relief is a little bit more of a sore spot, too. The Rockies might go after well-travelled Phillies reliever Pat Neshek, who has owns a 1.27 ERA in 38 games and 36 strikeouts in 35.1 innings.
4. Arizona Diamondbacks
The D-Backs are fairly fortunate the All-Star break is here, since they have sputtered to a 3-7 record in their last 10, allowing teams like the Rockies to narrow the gap on them for the first wild card spot. The Rockies have a lot of strength in their rotation and few holes in their relief corps, so no need to dive into the deadline looking for arms. They could use an upgrade or two, defensively and a batter who can hit for average and drive in runs, as their offensive engine depends a lot on NL RBI leaders Paul Goldschmidt and Jake Lamb (67 each). Therefore, the trade target of choice could be Detroit’s J.D. Martinez, who has hit .299 this season, along with 14 homers and 32 RBI in just 53 games. He has a .610 slugging percentage and sterling .991 OPS. He has made just one error in right field for the Tigers and has two assists.
3. Washington Nationals
We can say with near certainty that the Nationals will be going to the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons. The Nats hold a 9.5 game lead on Atlanta in the NL East and won’t likely be pushed too hard by the Braves. Offensively, the Nationals are a machine. Daniel Murphy, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon area all hitting for great average (Murphy is tops at .342) and all have over 50 RBI this season (Harper leads the way with 65), so they really do have a “Murderer’s Row.” Their starting pitching is also top notch, with Max Scherzer making a strong case for the NL Cy Young (10-5 record, 173 Ks, 2.10 ERA). We think their weakness is at closer, where they have truly been save-by-committee. Koda Glover leads all Nats relievers in saves with eight and five other relievers have at least one save. The Nats like doing business with Detroit and the Tigers’ Justin Wilson has been lights out since being thrust in the stopper role (10 saves, one blown save, 2.36 ERA and 49 Ks in 34.1 innings pitched).
2. Houston Astros
The ‘Stros won their AL leading 60th game of the season on Sunday, blasting the Toronto Blue Jays 19-1 on 17 hits (five of them homers). They are a team to be reckoned with and barring a complete collapse should win the AL West easily. They are 60-29 overall (second best record in baseball) and have a 16.5 game lead on the Los Angeles Angels. At the plate, the Astros have been killing it, leading all of baseball in runs (527), home runs (148) and batting average (.289). Yet, despite hanging 37 runs on Blue Jays pitching, the team only achieved a split in Toronto (2-2). Pitching and defence, we think, have been (marginally) their weaknesses this season. By pitching, we mean tougher middle relievers and by defence better fielding at third (Alex Bregman has struggled there). If Houston is in win now mode — and they have a legitimate shot — they should consider asking the Blue Jays what it would cost to part with Josh Donaldson who rises to the occasion in big games. Just a thought.
1. Los Angeles Dodgers
No team in baseball has better pitching than the Los Angeles Dodgers, who also have the best record at 61-29. They own a major league leading 3.15 ERA (Arizona is a distant second at 3.41), nine shutouts (leaders) and 868 strikeouts (second in MLB). They have hit well and played good enough defence. So, where possibly could they improve? Chris Taylor is their worst everyday fielder, having made eight errors playing in a variety of positions (five at second base in 22 games). Logan Forsythe has taken over second base duties, but isn’t as good a hitter as Taylor. Thus, we believe they could use a veteraon utility man in the vein of Ben Zobrist. For that role, we like Asdrubal Cabrera, doing a decent job with the Mets in utility. He also has 17 games of playoff experience, which may also be useful.