Baseball's trade deadline has always been its in-season hot stove, but this month there's been as much talk about plea deals as trade deals.
The sport begins an uneasy week in which its headlines have been consumed by the Biogenesis fallout rather than trade scenarios. The New York Post reported Sunday that 15 players or more, including the Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, are expected to be suspended this week.
The lack of deadline drama could change, of course, if the expected bans are announced with ample time before Wednesday's 4 p.m. (EST) deadline, as clubs try to react to key players' lost time. Among those players on contending teams who are publicly linked to Biogenesis and facing a possible suspension for alleged PED use are Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz, Athletics starter Bartolo Colon and Tigers shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
Introducing further uncertainty into the mix is the prospect of players appealing a possible suspension, leaving the matter unresolved indefinitely: a ban could be overturned or, if it's implemented, that could happen late in the season, during the playoffs or not until the offseason.
The Cubs have been active, trading frontline starter Matt Garza to the Rangers as well as starter Scott Feldman and catcher Steve Clevenger to the Orioles, but there have been few big moves. Other teams who are selling at this deadline appear inclined to wait to see what might happen with the Biogenesis bans. The White Sox, for instance, have trade candidates at each of the three aforementioned possible positions of need with outfielder Alexis Rios, starter Jake Peavy and shortstop Alexei Ramirez.
There are, however, other reasons this year's deadline has fizzled to date:
• The second wild card. There are fewer sellers with the expanded postseason. Ten teams qualify for the postseason, but as of Monday morning, seven more teams are within 7 1/2 games of a wild-card spot, with five others still within 10 games. Many of those clubs face long odds, but 2011 may have warped perspective. On this date two years ago, the Cardinals were 5 1/2 games back and the Rays were seven games out of the playoffs, and both still made it during the frenzy of everyone's 162nd game of the year.
• Early extensions. The rash of long-term contracts (detailed here last offseason) given to players before free agency has limited the pool of trade candidates. Fewer star-caliber players are even coming within a year of free agency, which is when they are most commonly traded midseason.
• CBA changes to draft-pick compensation. This is now the second season affected by the CBA rules change, in which no player traded during the last year of his contract will fetch draft picks for his former club when he leaves in free agency. As a result, buying teams at the deadline are getting less in return for their prospects. That's why the Rangers were smart to land Garza when they did -- he'll have made two starts for Texas before deadline day, which helps the club get a little more bang for their prospect buck.
• Derek Jeter has made three comebacks this year for the Yankees: his first spring training game after last October's fractured ankle; his first regular season game after re-breaking his ankle; and his second regular season game after a DL stint for a strained quad suffered in his first game. The common thread of those three games? He smacked a base hit on the first pitch of his first at bat each time, tallying a single, single and home run in order.
• The Dodgers didn't even need four turns of the rotation to ascend the NL West, going from last to first in just 17 games.
• Chris Davis may be slumping -- 8-for-39 (.205) with no homers since the All-Star break -- but it doesn't seem right to blame it on the Home Run Derby, as some have. (At least not yet.) For starters, a FanGraphs.com study found the second-impact of derby participation to be overstated, if not completely bogus; also, Davis entered the All-Star break with home runs in four straight games, so some regression should have been expected.
• The Braves have the largest division lead in baseball but here's one troubling note: they are just 26-30 on the road this year, and not since the 2006 Cardinals has a World Series champion finished the regular season with a losing record on the road.
• Kudos to the Mets for the way they've played the last six weeks. Since falling to 24-39 on June 15, they've had a winning record -- 22-17, in fact -- and won or tied all four series against their NL East rival Braves and Phillies (though the Mets lost both series to the Nationals). New York and Washington were briefly tied last week in the loss column, which says a lot about both clubs this year.
• Baseball's been getting increasingly shifty these days. According to research by Baseball Info Solutions (subscription site), the 2013 season is on pace for nearly 7,600 exaggerated infield shifts, a roughly 65 percent increase on the 2012 season's roughly 4,600 shifts. Interestingly, four of the five clubs who have employed the shift the most -- Orioles, Yankees, Rays and Red Sox -- are all AL East residents. (The other top practitioner is Pittsburgh.)
Three Up, Three Down: Projected year-over-year improvement
Every team played its 100th game of the season last week, meaning season-ending projections for win totals are starting to come into focus. I used each club's current winning percentage to project their victory total for the year and compared it to last year's number to find the three biggest expected climbers and fallers.
1. Red Sox, +27
Boston really couldn't have been worse than last year's 69-win debacle, but few expected this surge to a projected 96 wins -- then again, few expected the turnaround of John Lackey, who has been the staff's most dependable starter. The organization's stated annual goal has long been winning 95 games, a number that typically ensures a playoff berth (even before a second wild card).
2. Indians, +19
Cleveland was active in free agency -- signing outfielders Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher to multi-year deals and pitcher Bretty Myers and infielder Mark Reynolds to one-year contracts -- but the biggest reasons for the club's turnaround have been internal improvement (Jason Kipnis, Justin Masterson, Corey Kulber, et al.) and less heralded additions like starter Scott Kazmir and utility player Ryan Raburn.
3. Pirates, +17
Many Pittsburgh fans would be happy with a three-win improvement over last year's 79, just to finish above .500 for the first time since 1992. Instead, the front office has assembled a real contender -- one that has a 96.5 percent of reaching the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus.
1. Giants, -22
San Francisco didn't make the playoffs in between its two recent World Series titles but still won 86 games in 2012, whereas this year's club has been freefalling since Memorial Day weekend and is on pace to suffer the worst dropoff in baseball, with a projected finish of just 72 wins.
2. White Sox, -21
The decline on Chicago's South Side is far less surprising than the other two on this list, though the severity of it is still shocking. The offense ranked fourth in the AL in runs last year but is dead last this year.
3. Nationals, -18
Before the season, this writer (among others) thought Washington had a chance to be baseball's lone superpower. Instead, the Nationals have held sole possession of first place on only one day -- April 4, when they were 3-0 -- and are on pace to go from an MLB-best 98 wins last year to a sub-.500 record this year. The offense, which until Sunday's 14-run outburst had scored the third-fewest runs in the majors, is primarily to blame.
Trend to track: Decline of errors
Errors are being accrued at the lowest rate in baseball history, just 0.58 per team per game. That's only the second year the rate has ever been below 0.60, joining the 0.59 rate of 2009.
The scoring of errors has been on a generally steady decline throughout the modern era, from 2.40 in 1901 to this season's low water mark. The error rate was below 0.70 per team per game every year from 2001 through the present; it was between 0.70 and 0.80 or lower every season from 1987 through 2000; and with only two exceptions it was between 0.80 and 0.90 every season from 1962 through 1986.
The consistency of the decline suggests two clear implications: fielders are, in fact, getting better and official scorers are growing more lenient in awarding hits on questionable plays, rather than ruling an error has occurred. One other possibility is that better information from spray charts has led to better defensive positioning -- especially in the last few years -- which in turn has helped fielders make easier plays.
Another side of . . . Steve Clevenger, Orioles C
Steve Clevenger hasn't played a big league game since April 13 because of an oblique injury, and when he returns to the majors, it'll be more than just the end of a protracted rehab assignment -- it'll also be a dream come true.
The Cubs traded Clevenger earlier this month while he was in the minors working his way back, and his new employer happens to be his favorite team from childhood. The 27-year-old catcher and infielder -- who on Monday transferred from Baltimore's Gulf Coast League team to its short-season Single A team in Aberdeen for the next step of his rehab -- was born in Baltimore and says he remembers going to a few Orioles games at old Memorial Stadium, back when Joe Orsulak was his first favorite player.
Clevenger's fandom really took off when Camden Yards opened, as he grew up in the city's Pigtown section, just 10 blocks from the new ballpark.
"When I had summers off from school, my cousins and I would go down and go to all the games, basically, that they were home," he said. "We'd try to get [any] tickets just to get in. We'd walk around the stadium and pick a seat until the ushers kicked us out."
Like most baseball-crazed youth, they'd arrive early for batting practice, where they snagged a lot of balls. One particular highlight for Clevenger was attending Cal Ripken Jr.'s record-breaking 2,131st consecutive game. By then Ripken had surpassed Orsulak on his personal depth chart, and even now Clevenger refers to that moment by its colloquial nickname of "the 21-31 game."
"He was my favorite player growing up," Clevenger said, "and it was just an unbelievable moment for the city of Baltimore."
One hole in his Orioles collection -- which included team flags, t-shirts and other memorabilia -- was a Ripken autograph, which had eluded him until last year, when Clevenger signed some cards for a memorabilia store in Chicago and was given a Ripken ball as part of his compensation, proving that his inner fan had never died.
The final out
Not only has the days leading up to the trade deadline been lackluster, so too may be the final days of the season. BP's playoff odds indicate that nine of the 10 playoff teams have been identified with 85 percent certainty or better: Cardinals (98.7 percent), Braves (97.0), Pirates (95.9), Tigers (95.5), Red Sox (92.9), Rays (92.5), Athletics (91.0) and Dodgers (85.5). Only the AL's second wild card seems like a real competition -- and it could be a doozy, with the Rangers (40.1), Indians (39.6) and Orioles (32.0) appearing to be near-equal combatants.