With less than 48 hours to go before the non-waiver trading deadline and teams making moves left and right to add whatever pieces they can for the stretch run, here is a quick look at the biggest needs of each of the seven remaining National League contenders, along with the players they could most effectively target to fill their roster holes.
Teams are listed by winning percentage. All stats are current as of Tuesday, July 29. Playoff odds are from Baseball Prospectus' Playoff Odds Report.
St. Louis Cardinals (64–36, .640 winning percentage, 99.8% playoff odds)
Top need: First baseman
With the best record in baseball and a 5 1/2-game lead in their division, the Cardinals don’t need much fixing. Jaime Garcia, who returned from a groin strain on Wednesday, has turned in eight straight quality starts as the team’s fifth starter, and the team added former Marlins closer Steve Cishek to the bullpen on Friday. Still, the team does have a hole at first base, where Mark Reynolds has been filling in for the injured Matt Adams, who isn’t expected to return from surgery to repair a strained right quadriceps until the very end of the regular season.
Reynolds has hit .230/.321/.395 this season, while St. Louis’ first basemen as a group have hit .236/.304/.374. That translates to an sOPS+ of 74, a performance has been 26% worse than that of a league-average first baseman, even after adjusting for pitcher-friendly Busch Stadium. The righthanded Reynolds isn’t hitting lefties any better than righties, so the Cardinals need not worry about the handedness of whoever they acquire to replace him, though they likely do want to limit themselves to a short-term solution given that Adams has three team-controlled seasons remaining. Counting on Adams to contribute in October, however, seems optimistic. He slumped badly in May, and with the minor-league season over at the end of August, he won’t have the option of a rehab assignment to get his timing back.
The Brewers’ Adam Lind seems like the ideal target here. He has hit .296/.365/.493 (135 OPS+) over the last three seasons, has been healthy and productive this season and is owed only a $500,000 buyout on his club option beyond this year. Lind can’t hit lefties, but Reynolds was originally brought in to help Adams with the same problem and might find his groove if he's once again limited to at-bats in which he has the platoon advantage.
Pittsburgh Pirates (58–41, .586, 84.9)
Top need: Corner bat
The Pirates own the league’s second-best record but trail the Cardinals by 5 1/2 games, giving them impetus to make some moves before the deadline so as to try to catch St. Louis and avoid their third straight Wild Card Game. They’ve already added third baseman Aramis Ramirez to try to paper over the simultaneous injuries of Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer on the left side of the infield. Once those two return, which is expected to happen in early September, Ramirez could move across the diamond into a platoon with lefty-hitting first baseman Pedro Alvarez. Ramirez has never fielded a ball at position other than third base in a professional game, however, and he hasn’t hit lefties much this season. With Alvarez and rightfielder Gregory Polanco both struggling mightily against southpaws this season, albeit in tiny samples (Alvarez: .212/.257/.242 in 35 PA; Polanco: .179/.246/.214 in 61 PA), the Pirates would be best served by adding a righthanded bat that can spot at both positions.
There aren’t a lot of those players to go around, however. Michael Morse, whom the Dodgers picked up in the deal for Mat Latos but is likely to released, is one. But he’s been alternately hurt and awful this year, is a terrible outfielder, is 2-for-22 against lefties this season and may not become available until after the deadline. There’s even less chance the Dodgers would trade Scott Van Slyke rather than drop Morse. The Phillies' Darin Ruf is another option, but he has four years of team control left and won’t be arbitration eligible until after 2016, so Philadelphia has little motivation to trade him. Cleveland’s Ryan Raburn is a more compelling option: He's a career .257/.330/.474 hitter against lefties who has experience in the infield and outfield, albeit more at second base than first, and comes with a $3 million option for next year.
The ideal target for the Pirates, however, might actually be the player they acquired to fill rightfield at the 2013 deadline: Marlon Byrd. The righthanded Byrd has hit .277/.356/.523 in 73 plate appearances against lefties this year, is having half of his $8 million salary for this season paid by the Phillies (who traded him to the Reds in December) and was a key part of the Pirates' late-season surge and postseason run two years ago. Byrd, who will turn 38 at the end of August, has never played first base and has a vesting option in his contract that would guarantee him $8 million for next year if he reaches 550 plate appearances this season. However, because of a fractured right wrist earlier in the season, he has just 309 PA thus far through Tuesday’s action and would not be able to reach that mark if forced to share right with Polanco over the remainder of the season. Byrd has hit .283/.306/.475 since returning from his injury and could once again be exactly what the Pirates need at the deadline.
Los Angeles Dodgers (56–45, .554, 90.3)
Top need: Relief pitcher
The Dodgers solved their most pressing need earlier Wednesday, finding a fifth starter by acquiring Latos from the Marlins, but they’re still interested in further improving their rotation. They have a more desperate need for an upgrade at shortstop, where Jimmy Rollins has sunk to replacement level due to his lack of production at the plate (.210/.269/.352, 72 OPS+), but there’s just not much out there at that position for a team that doesn’t want to block its blue-chip shortstop prospect. Calling up Corey Seager ahead of schedule would be a better solution to that issue than Los Angeles is likely to find on the trade market, even though Seager’s Triple A line (.273/.325/.455 compared to his minor-league career numbers of .309/.370/.532) suggests he needs more time at that level.
Still, with Latos in the fold, the Dodgers would seem to need more help in the bullpen than the rotation, at least for the moment. Los Angeles' relievers have combined for a 3.80 ERA, fourth-worst in the NL, and blown 13 saves, tied for fourth-most in the league with the Rockies and Marlins. The team is expecting Chris Hatcher back from the disabled list soon, but the Dodgers could really use an impact arm in the pen, such as the Reds' Aroldis Chapman or the Red Sox’s Koji Uehara, neither of whom would hit free agency until after 2016. Other potential targets include pending free agents Joakim Soria and Jim Johnson. Just don’t expect the Padres to trade Craig Kimbrel inside their division with three years of control remaining on his contract.
Of course, this is the Dodgers we’re talking about, so don’t count them out as players for the top pitchers on the market. Cole Hamels cannot block a trade to L.A., David Price is on the block with the Tigers reportedly "rebooting" and James Shields is also available, as the Padres are said to be shopping him despite his four-year, $75 million deal. Truth be told, given the injury histories of Latos and Brett Anderson, as well as the limited track record of Mike Bolsinger, the Dodgers wouldn’t be overreaching to add another mid-rotation arm such as Mike Leake. One pitcher who could split the difference between those two groups is Jeff Samardzija, a pending free agent who has averaged more than seven innings per start for the White Sox this year and would benefit greatly from a move to a competent defensive team.
• POWER RANKINGS: Royals displace Dodgers for second, Padres rise
San Francisco Giants (55–45, .550, 63.2)
Top need: Quality starting pitcher
The Giants have won 12 of their last 14 games to shave five games off the Dodgers’ lead in the NL West, and the big reason for that surge is that they’re finally healthy. Hunter Pence returned from the disabled list three days before that run began. Jake Peavy, who will start against the Brewers on Wednesday, returned four days before that and has pitched well in four starts on the month (3.51 ERA). Matt Cain rejoined the rotation the day before Peavy, and Tim Hudson was activated just last week. With Nori Aoki having returned on Monday, the Giants are at full strength on offense with ample depth in their fragile outfield, and with Jeremy Affeldt returning a week ago, their bullpen is once again fully stocked.
If San Francisco has any weakness, it’s the quality of the team's starting pitching. Madison Bumgarner has experienced no hangover from his heavy postseason workload, and Chris Heston has emerged as a legitimate asset, going 6–1 with a 1.92 ERA in nine starts dating back to his no-hitter. However, Cain has been inconsistent across five starts since his return, posting a 4.50 ERA and just two quality starts, and Hudson, who turned 40 earlier this month, has allowed six runs in nine innings in two starts since returning from the disabled list, where he had been nursing a strained pitching shoulder. Much as it might mean a sad end for the latter, who is expected to retire after this season, the Giants owe it to themselves to try to upgrade one of those two rotation spots. If they do, they’ll have to make a big splash, as a low-level move like the Dodgers’ acquisition of Latos wouldn’t be guaranteed to be an upgrade. Indeed, the Giants have been linked with Hamels and Shields in the rumor mill, although they may no longer be in the chase for the former.
Washington Nationals (52–46, .531, 70.6)
Top need: Outfielder
It's been a productive last 24 hours for the Nationals, as Tuesday saw them trade for Phillies closer Jonathan Papelbon, then welcome Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman back from the disabled list. With those three in place and Stephen Strasburg starting a minor-league rehab assignment on Wednesday, the Nationals seem poised to leave the Mets in the dust once again even without making any additional moves. Still, given the fragility of their lineup this season, they could stand to add a bench bat, particularly an outfielder. Denard Span remains on the disabled list with a bad back, Michael Taylor still isn’t hitting and Tyler Moore hasn’t hit all year despite being forced into the lineup by the injuries to Werth, Zimmerman and Span, which pulled Clint Robinson into the outfield. As a result, they could find themselves fishing in the same waters as the Pirates.
They could avoid that by focusing on centerfield. Philadelphia’s Ben Revere could be a compelling option there. He is having his best season at the plate at age 27, is a force on the bases (29 steals in 83 attempts) and has two team-controlled years left, making him a potential caddy for Taylor not only this season, but also in the wake of Span’s free agency this winter. Of course, the Nationals could go bigger with a move for the Brewers' Carlos Gomez, who is signed through 2016, or the Reds' Jay Bruce, who can spot in center and is signed through '16 with a club option for '17, but that seems unlikely and unnecessary. The Nats seem more likely to reinforce their bullpen with a smaller move than to go big for a bat now that Werth, Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon are back in the lineup.
Chicago Cubs (52–47, .525, 41.1)
Top need: Middle infielder or outfielder
It seems absurd to suggest that a team that had so many near-ready infield prospects coming into this season needs to trade for an infielder. However, shortstop Starlin Castro has been far and away the Cubs’ worst player this season and, by bWAR, is responsible for at least half of the Cubs’ current 2 1/2-game deficit to the Giants in the Wild Card race. Castro has hit just .237/.271/.305 this season, resulting in a 61 OPS+ that is among the six lowest figures by a qualified hitter this season. There’s nowhere to go but up from there, though reserve infielder Jonathan Herrera has been nearly as bad in part-time work (65 OPS+ in 106 PA).
Still, the Cubs do have Javier Baez, who just returned to the active roster in Triple A on Tuesday after missing nearly seven weeks due to a broken finger. Baez was raking before his injury (.314/.386/.536) and went 2-for-5 with two home runs and just one strikeout at shortstop on Tuesday. The Cubs wouldn’t seem to have too much to lose at this point by calling up Baez and giving him an extended look at shortstop. Even Baez’s ultimately dismal showing in the majors last year (.169/.227/.324 with strikeouts in 41.5% of his plate appearances) was only marginally worse than what Castro has done.
Castro has actually been the subject of trade rumors himself. As a 25-year-old under contract for four more years, he would effectively be a prospect-type acquisition for another team despite being a six-year veteran with $38 million remaining on his contract. Castro and Baez, in fact, have been used interchangeably in rumors about the Cubs pursuing Hamels or Shields. The Cubs could use a fifth starter, but Tsuyoshi Wada is close to a return from the disabled list and, to my eye, the Cubs need more help on the other side of the ball.
A challenge trade with intra-division rivals Milwaukee—sending Castro and some cash for disappointing 25-year-old shortstop Jean Segura, who hits arbitration for the first time this winter, has three years of team control remaining and has swung a hot bat this month (.342/.373/.380)—would be fascinating but unlikely. The best bet here is help for the outfield, where the team has fewer long-term prospects and rookie rightfielder Jorge Soler has struggled, hitting just .253/.298/.354 since his return from a sprained ankle at the beginning of the month. Byrd could be an option here as well, but the Cubs could go bigger, pursuing Bruce or Gomez, particularly with Dexter Fowler due to hit free agency after the season, or maybe going after Soler’s countryman Yoenis Cespedes.
New York Mets (52–48, .520, 44.2)
Top need: Outfielder with big bat
The Mets are in a good position entering Wednesday’s action, just one game out in the NL East and three out of the second Wild Card spot, but the Nationals vastly improved themselves on Tuesday and the Pirates and Giants look awfully hard to catch right now. The Mets, meanwhile, are dead last in the majors in runs scored per game (3.5) and need to go big in adding sock to their lineup this week. That means the likes of Justin Upton, the Hanley Ramirez gambit I proposed last week, Bruce, Cespedes or, replacing the since-traded Troy Tulowitzki on my list of Mets targets from a week ago, Gomez.
Gomez could actually have the largest impact, as centerfielder Juan Lagares has been the Mets’ worst full-time hitter this year, hitting just .256/.281/.336 (72 OPS+) on the year and .194/.208/.245 since June 19. Travis d’Arnaud could return from the disabled list this weekend to improve the team’s catching production, and last Friday’s additions Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson can help in the infield, but the outfield needs a bat, and the lineup needs it to be a big one.