With the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaching, the National League slate contains no middle ground between the eight teams above .500 and in the playoff hunt and the seven clearly out of the running. The American League, on the other hand, offers plenty of ambiguity. Between two strata of obvious contenders and one of pretenders is the dangerous middle ground, where teams might fool themselves (or their followers) into believing they still have a shot at a playoff spot, thus approaching the deadline as buyers when they really should be selling.
The Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds — which use a Monte Carlo simulation to account for run differential, strength of schedule, expected distribution of playing time and performance (PECOTA projections) — illustrate the clustering. Five teams have at least a 47.7 percent chance, three more are above 20 percent, with three between the 5-10 percent range — not far off from suckers' bet territory — and four below that.
What follows here is a quick rundown of where each team stands at the moment, identifying their top areas of need and/or candidates to be dealt. Within each group, teams are ranked by their BP odds.
Athletics (61-37, 61.9 percent division/41.4 percent wild card/99.6 percent total)
Having traded their two top prospects for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel earlier this month, the A's aren't likely to do anything nearly so big before the deadline, but they could certainly use an upgrade or two in the middle infield. At second base, Eric Sogard, Nick Punto, Alberto Callaspo and Andy Parrino have combined to hit an abysmal .224/.285/.280, while shortstop Jed Lowrie has hit just .237/.317/.344. Meanwhile, demoted starter Tommy Milone (3.55 ERA, 63 percent quality start rate) has requested a trade; it's possible he could be dealt to fill one of those infield needs, and the team is known to have shopped struggling reliever Jim Johnson (6.25 ERA, 5.1 BB/9), though they’d have to eat salary to move him.
Angels (59-39, 37.2/62.0/99.3)
After trading for Jason Grilli, Joe Thatcher and Huston Street in recent weeks, Angels general manager Jerry Dipoto can move his focus beyond the bullpen. Set enough on the position player side to have demoted C.J. Cron to Triple-A amid a roster crunch, their top target is a rotation piece. They didn't match up with the Padres regarding Ian Kennedy and aren't in on David Price, but they were among the teams that scouted Cliff Lee's return from the disabled list on Monday night; bet on them to find someone for an upgrade, though not necessarily a big name. Just spitballing: A reunion with John Lackey (3.66 ERA, 3.47 FIP) would make sense if the Red Sox will part with him. Due to Lackey missing a year due to Tommy John surgery, he's got a $500,000 club option for next year, one that could be reworked into a multi-year extension with the team for whom he pitched from 2002-2009.
Tigers (55-41, 87.9/3.9/91.8)
Yet again, the Tigers' bullpen is smoldering like a tire fire, with Joe Nathan carrying a 5.89 ERA; he's converted his last five save opportunities but allowed five runs in nine innings over that span, so his ongoing problems aren't solved. Meanwhile, Joel Hanrahan continues to rehab from May 2013 Tommy John surgery and flexor tendon repair, but still has no set timetable for return, so acquiring a late-inning arm or two is top priority. Elsewhere, rookie Eugenio Suarez has played well enough to remove shortstop from the shopping list.
Baltimore (54-44, 51.9/9.3/61.1)
General manager Dan Duquette isn't one to sit idly while a deadline passes, so even while currently trying to fit six starters into five slots, the AL East leaders are said to be in search of rotation help, having been connected to both Lee and fellow Phillie A.J. Burnett as well as the Rockies' Jorge De La Rosa. As with most contenders, they're also in the hunt for bullpen help, though with Zach Britton taking to the closer's role, they don’t necessarily need a big name. On the position player side, the O’s could use an upgrade on the Nick Hundley/Caleb Joseph/Steve Clevenger hydra toiling in the wake of Matt Wieters' Tommy John surgery, but improving upon struggling second basemen Jonathan Schoop (.216/.253/.325) and Ryan Flaherty (.220/.291/.340) may take precedence.
Mariners (53-46, 0.8/46.9/47.7)
With a chance at their first playoff berth since 2001, you can expect the Mariners to be aggressive as the deadline approaches. They're a top contender for the services of David Price, and have prospects to deal, particularly on the pitching side; given their concurrent interest in Ben Zobrist, this may be the best chance the deadline has at a true blockbuster. The M's are also in search of a corner bat despite their glut of such types, as Justin Smoak is batting just .208/.279/.352 and their designated hitters have combined to "hit" .197/.275/.295. Meanwhile, struggling leftfielder Dustin Ackley (.239/.291/.352) and displaced infielder Nick Franklin (currently at Triple-A) are drawing significant interest from other clubs due to their remaining club control; they could help fill less glaring needs.
Blue Jays (51-49, 19.1/6.5/25.6)
Absent from the playoff picture for the entirety of the three-division era, the Jays had a commanding six-game lead in the underwhelming AL East as recently as June 6, but they're 13-25 since, now four games behind the Orioles and 2 1/2 back in the Wild Card race. Worse, they've lost Edwin Encarnacion, Brett Lawrie and Adam Lind to injuries. All could be back by the end of the month, but you can expect GM Alex Anthopoulos to seek reinforcements; he was known to be interested in the recently traded Chase Headley, and given Lawrie's flexibility could still pursue either a second or third baseman to upgrade the infield. Rotation help is in order, particularly given the recent struggles of Drew Hutchison (6.37 ERA over his last eight starts), and it's worth noting that they're promoting prospect Aaron Sanchez to work out of the bullpen.
Yankees (50-48, 18.9/5.8/24.6)
Anyone questioning whether Brian Cashman would wave the white flag in the wake of Masahiro Tanaka's elbow injury got a definitive answer on Tuesday when the team dealt for Headley; he'll take over third base, relegating Kelly Johnson to backing up at first and second unless a better alternative comes along. There exists no shortage of positions where the team could use help, but a rotation that's down four of the original starting five and relying upon rookies Shane Greene and Chase Whitley remains the top priority, eclipsing glaring needs at rightfield (primarily the domain of Ichiro Suzuki, .281/.329/.318) and second base (Brian Roberts, .242/.304/.369).
Indians (50-49, 7.8/14.9/22.7)
Winners of 11 out of their past 17 games, the Indians now have their noses above .500, though another slump could knock them out of the buyers category. They've also got several areas of need, none bigger than a rotation where only Justin Masterson has completed a full season as starter and where only Corey Kluber is preventing runs at a better-than-average clip. Don't bank on revisiting offseason talks for Price; the team is said to be unlikely to add "any high-priced talent.” Help in rightfield, where David Murphy (.241/.305/.360) has struggled, is more likely, though the recently acquired Chris Dickerson could see time there once Michael Bourn returns from the DL. It's possible the team could deal pending free agent Asdrubal Cabrera and promote phenom Francisco Lindor, though Cabrera hasn't done much at the plate (.247/.308/.392) and left Monday's game with back spasms, while the 20-year-old Lindor was just promoted to Triple-A.
On The Fence
Rays (47-53, 5.6/2.6/8.2)
No team occupies the no man's land between buyer and seller the way the Rays currently do, particularly with regards to Price. The 28-year-old lefty is pitching as well as ever, which is saying something. While he has one more year of club control, the Rays have no chance of retaining him beyond 2015, and his salary could occupy more than 25 percent of next year's payroll. Trading him now would be the obvious move for a team that's six games below .500, but the Rays are 16-5 since June 24; though still eight games out in the division race and 6 1/2 out in the Wild Card hunt, they might just convince themselves this is 2011 again. Peter Gammons recently reported that the team might not decide their direction until 48 hours before the deadline.
If the Rays are dealing, the versatile and inexpensive Zobrist is another top target; currently hitting .264/.353/.404, he carries a $7.5 million club option for next year. Also affordable from a salary perspective and of interest to potential suitors are shortstop Yunel Escobar and outfielder Matt Joyce. Deposed closer Grant Balfour (5.40 ERA, 7.1 BB/9 11 saves) is a change-of-scenery candidate, particularly if he can stop tipping his pitches.
Royals (48-50, 2.8/4.7/7.4)
Just over a month ago, the Royals took three straight from the Tigers to snatch first place in the AL Central, but they're 9-18 since June 18, having fallen 9 1/2 games in the division standings. Selling would be the obvious move, with pending free agent James Shields (3.70 ERA) certain to appeal to contenders, but general manager Dayton Moore isn't exactly known for his connection to reality, and he recently told Fox Sports' Jon Morosi, "I'm not going to give up on this team.” Moore is said to be focused on adding a corner bat given the struggles of Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Billy Butler. The Royals are also known to have recently scouted starters Lee and Kennedy, so a rotation upgrade might be in the works. If they do deal, Butler (.267/.319/.346 with just three homers) has drawn interest; his $12.5 million club option for 2015 increases to $14.5 million if traded, though it would take some kind of rebound for him to draw that.
Red Sox (47-52, 4.5/2.8/7.3)
Just under two weeks ago, the Sox DFA'd A.J. Pierzynski, which appeared to herald the breakup of the underperforming defending champions. Since then, the team has gone 8-1, though they're still 7 1/2 back in the division race and six back in the wild card. This disciplined front office is still likely to go through with trading veterans to open up playing time for youngsters, with pending free agents Jake Peavy, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew the most likely to move and Koji Uehara drawing strong interest as well.
White Sox (48-52, 0.9/2.2/3.1)
The ChiSox have no shortage of trade candidates, though many of them are amid subpar seasons. That group includes the perennially disappointing Gordon Beckham (.230/.280/.365) as well as outfielders Alejandro De Aza (.237/.310/.364) and Dayan Viciedo (.239/.290/.404 with 12 homers). Adam Dunn is on the upswing, relatively speaking (.223/.362/.432 with 14 homers), and with less than $6 million remaining on his $56 million deal, it's easy to imagine the Sox kicking in cash to bring his dismal South Side tenure to a close. On the pitching side, John Danks (4.35 ERA, 4.70 FIP) is most often mentioned, but he hasn't been the same since 2012 shoulder capsule surgery and is guaranteed $28.5 million beyond this year.
Twins (45-53, 0.5/0.7/1.3)
The most likely trade target is 35-year-old pending free agent Josh Willingham, but a five-week slump has lowered the slugging leftfielder/DH's slash line to .217/.365/.422. Also available as a DH candidate is Kendrys Morales, though he's hit just .240/.266/.336 through 154 PA since belatedly signing with the Twins. Kurt Suzuki, traded in each of the last two Augusts, is generating interest amid an All-Star season (.311/.368/.398); his low price and pending free agency – not to mention Josmil Pinto waiting in the wings — make him an attractive target, if not necessarily one likely to be dealt. Among their starters, somebody allegedly asked after Kevin Correia (4.76 ERA, 4.3 K/9), which is about the best that can be said for him.
Astros (41-58, 0.0/0.0/0.0)
Active dealers around the deadline in recent years, the Astros have less to trade now, mainly because most of their current regulars are key figures of their rebuilding process, even veterans under club control such as Dexter Fowler and Jason Castro. Most likely to depart is closer Chad Qualls, whose stock is riding high at the moment (1.83 ERA, 7.5 K/BB, 10 saves). Lefty reliever Tony Sipp is drawing interest as well, and 2013 deadline mover Jose Veras is back, though his current struggles (6.86 ERA, 6.4 BB/9) make him a less likely target. Brad Peacock (4.39 ERA, 4.51 FIP) is conceivably a back-rotation option, and Chris Carter (.205/.282/.463 with 19 homers) could offer somebody pop, but the team hasn't given any indication that even those less central non-relievers are available.
Rangers (40-59, 0.0/0.0/0.0)
The Rangers hung around .500 for the first 70 games of the season, but amid a torrent of injuries, they've lost 24 of 30 to plummet into contention for the first pick of the draft, and their recent attempt to pass J.P Arencibia off as a first baseman is best understood in that light rather than some kind of PTLD (Post-Traumatic Lineup Disorder). Obviously, injuries have cut into their inventory; they don't have anything but replacement level fodder to offer among the starters behind Yu Darvish, though closer Joakim Soria (2.51 ERA, 1.01 FIP, 10.5 K/BB) is sure to be a popular target. Lefty Neal Cotts (3.43 ERA, 10.7 K/9) would fit the bill for many teams as well.
On the offensive side, it remains to be seen whether they have the urge to trade Adrian Beltre (.328/.375/.525 with 14 homers); he's signed through 2015 ($18 million) with a vesting option for 2016 ($16 million), and as of a month ago, the team had little intention of moving him. Meanwhile, rightfielder Alex Rios (.302/.330/.435) is a pending free agent making $12.5 million this year with a $14 million club option and $2 million buyout for next year, and Geovany Soto is an affordable (making $3.05 million this year) but fragile catcher; he's played just three games since returning from meniscus surgery and is now dealing with a groin issue.