What are the biggest needs for these five fringe playoff contenders?
In order for a newly-acquired player to be eligible for the postseason, he must be acquired by his new team by Aug. 31. That gives teams just ten more days to make an upgrade who can help them in the playoffs. With that in mind, here’s a look at the biggest needs of the five teams on the fringes of the playoff hunt, defined here as those with less than a 50% chance of making the playoffs but more than an 18% chance, per Baseball Prospectus’s playoff odds.
Los Angeles Angels
Playoff Odds: 45.5%
Biggest Need: Leftfielder
It tells you something about the quality of the race for the second wild card in the American League that the Angels currently occupy that spot (by a half-game over the Orioles) despite having gone 15–18 since the All-Star break. Los Angeles was in first place in the AL West at the break but has gone 9–18 since July 23 to fall 2 1/2 games behind the Astros. Despite C.J. Wilson’s season-ending elbow surgery and Matt Shoemaker’s demotion to the minor leagues (and the lousy pitching that led up to it), the primary reason for that poor showing has been the futility of their offense: The Angels have scored just 3.2 runs per game over those last 27 contests.
Desperate for production out of leftfield, they acquired three outfielders prior to the non-waiver deadline in David Murphy, David DeJesus and Shane Victorino; the latter two are currently platooning in left. Those three have combined to hit .201/.250/.295 in 149 plate appearances for the team, which isn’t a far cry from the production the Angels have gotten from that position on the season as a whole (.206/.273/.304). Marlon Byrd might have been an ideal solution for the Halos there, but the Giants just acquired him on Thursday.
San Francisco Giants
Playoff Odds: 28.6%
Biggest Need: Starting pitcher
The Giants seemingly addressed their two biggest needs with two former Reds, acquiring starting pitcher Mike Leake from Cincinnati at the non-waiver deadline and by getting Byrd on Thursday. Leake pulled a hamstring after his first and still only start for San Francisco, however, and Matt Cain, who returned from the disabled list in early July, had a 6.05 ERA in eight starts prior to turning in a quality outing against the Cardinals on Wednesday. Leake may return from the disabled list to start against the Pirates on Sunday, but he said on Thursday that his hamstring isn’t completely healed and may not be before the end of the season.
With Ryan Vogelsong already in the rotation and Tim Hudson and Tim Lincecum on the DL as well (and with both of them as uninspiring alternatives even when healthy), the Giants could stand to add another starter to help them catch the Dodgers, whom they trail by 2 1/2 games in the NL West and now look like a more realistic target than the Cubs, whom San Francisco trails by four games in the wild-card race.
Playoff Odds: 27.5%
Biggest Need: Leftfielder
Hey, look, it’s another team that could have used Marlon Byrd! And this one even has a pun-friendly mascot. Oh well. The Orioles have cycled through Alejandro De Aza, David Lough, Travis Snider, Delmon Young, Steve Pearce (currently on the DL with an oblique strain), Nolan Reimold, Junior Lake and now Henry Urrutia in left his year without finding a satisfactory solution (combined line of their leftfielders this season: .202/.275/.314). Even if he does hit, Urrutia, a 28-year-old Cuban rookie who appeared in 24 games for Baltimore last year, is a better fit at designated hitter, where the team is currently employing 29-year-old third-string catcher Steve Clevenger, who is on a small hot streak (Jimmy Paredes turned back into a pumpkin in July).
Neither Urrutia nor Clevenger is going to block a legitimate veteran addition. However, with Byrd, Victorino, DeJesus, Murphy and Will Venable off the board and the Angels in similarly desperate need of help at the position, the Orioles could have more competition for a satisfactory leftfielder than they do for that second wild-card spot.
Playoff Odds: 21.2%
Biggest Need: New manager
You could argue that the Nationals’ biggest need is the soft spot in their schedule, one which they entered this last week’s with a three-game set in Colorado. From July 18 to Aug. 16, they faced some of the league’s best starting pitchers in 15 of 29 games, going 3–12 against Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Noah Syndergaard (each of those last five twice), Madison Bumgarner, Jose Fernandez, Gerrit Cole, A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano. It’s no wonder their offense is in a collective slump.
Simply getting Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Max Scherzer to return to their established levels and getting Denard Span back from the DL (he’s on a minor-league rehab assignment now) would solve most of what’s wrong with the Nationals. The talent is there, but largely due to a variety of injuries, the performance hasn’t been. Those players are ostensibly healthy now, and if they can find their form against the weaker competition of the Brewers, Padres, Marlins (once again without Fernandez) and Braves—all of whom the Nationals will face in 13 of their next 16 games from Aug. 21 through Sept. 6—Washington could be in position to change the outlook of their division when the team gets a rematch against the Mets at home on Sept. 7.
All of that said, the Nationals might have won a few more of those games against those elite pitchers had Matt Williams bothered to, among other things, align his rotation to match up against them coming out of the All-Star break, or used his best relievers in close games against them, or not issued an intentional walk to get to the Mets’ hottest hitter in a game that remains a pivotal point in the divisional race. Williams isn’t to blame for the bulk of the Nationals’ struggles, but he has contributed to the severity of their skid and appears to be doing more harm than good in a race in which Washington now has no room for error. The Nationals need a manager capable of putting his team in the best position to succeed, and Williams has demonstrated repeatedly that he is not that manager. His dismissal is overdue.
Playoff Odds: 19.0%
Biggest Need: Lefty reliever
The Rangers have been the most active of these five in terms of adding players over the last three weeks, trading for Venable, starter Cole Hamels, lefty reliever Jake Diekman, righty reliever Sam Dyson and first baseman Mike Napoli, as well as claiming catcher Bobby Wilson off waivers. On top of that, they also got Derek Holland back from an injury suffered in his first start of the season. In doing so, the Rangers have addressed several of their biggest needs, particularly on their pitching staff.
Still, with the offense clicking once again—thanks in part to returns to form from veterans Adrian Beltre and Shin-soo Choo and second baseman Rougned Odor’s successful return to the majors—any additional upgrades for Texas should come on the pitching staff, and in the bullpen in particular. The best place to start would be a lefty with better control than Sam Freeman (5.2 walks per nine this season) or Diekman (5.1 BB/9). One good option: Cincinnati’s Manny Parra, a 32-year-old pending free agent who has pitched in nothing but hitters' parks in his career and has walked fewer than three men per nine innings in two of the last three seasons, including this one.