A version of this story appeared in the July 25–Aug. 1 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. To subscribe to the magazine, click here. You can also personalize SI with our new App. Install it on iOS or Android.
Most of the attention in baseball this week will be focused on the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline. There's no one on the market like ace David Price or shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, the big prizes last year, both of whom wound up in Toronto and helped the Blue Jays to their first postseason appearance since 1993. Still, sellers have plenty of outfielders and relief pitchers to move this week. Here are the teams that should make the biggest headlines by the end of July.
Record: 59–38 (best in MLB)
Standings: First in NL Central, 7 1/2 games ahead
So maybe this isn't the greatest team ever after all. A 25–6 start was followed by a 30–30 stretch, with Chicago losing 15 of 21 heading into the All-Star break. The Cubs' pitching depth, their weak spot coming into the season, collapsed come summertime: Chicago has a 4.70 ERA since the solstice, 11th in the National League. Even with all that, the Cubs' healthy division lead means they can make deals as much geared toward the postseason as the pennant race.
With a surplus of young talent—Chicago is as deep in position-player prospects as any team in baseball—the Cubs' front office can overpay to acquire a top-tier reliever. There are reports that a trade to get closer Aroldis Chapman from the Yankees is nearing completion, which would be exactly the type of pitcher Chicago sorely needs. Other lefthanded options—such as the Brewers' Will Smith or the Athletics' Sean Doolittle—could also be critical for a Cubs team that may have to go through the lefty-heavy lineups of the Nationals (Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy), Giants (Brandon Belt, Brandon Crawford) and/or Dodgers (Corey Seager, Adrian Gonzalez, Joc Pederson) to reach its first World Series in 71 years.
UPDATE: The Cubs have indeed acquired Chapman from the Yankees. For more on the deal, check out Tom Verducci's breakdown of the trade.
Standings: First place in AL Central, 6 games ahead; trail Orioles by one game for AL's best record
Cleveland ripped off a 14-game winning streak from June 17 to July 1 that showcased its fantastic rotation and defense. But the Indians still have holes. The outfield remains patchwork until Michael Brantley's shoulder heals, and there's no sign of his return; third baseman Juan Uribe and the catchers have contributed nothing; and a lefty reliever has yet to be effective.
Cleveland has two top hitting prospects in outfielders Clint Frazier and Bradley Zimmer, but as a true small-market team with serious attendance issues, dealing that kind of cost-controlled talent is hard—especially if it means taking on a high-salaried slugger like the Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez (owed $20 million next year, the final year of his contract) or the Brewers' Ryan Braun (owed $86 million guaranteed through 2020). Still, the Indians have a chance to win back a city in which they've become the third team behind the Cavaliers and the Browns. It would be worth their while to make an investment.
New York Yankees
Standings: Fourth place in AL East, 7 1/2 games out; sixth in AL wild-card, 4 1/2 games out
Team president Randy Levine has been adamant that the Bronx Bombers have no plans to sell, telling Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal on July 14 that the team will see where it is at the trade deadline and that "the Yankees have never been quitters." That may be so, but despite winning five of its past seven games against the Orioles and the Giants, both first-place teams, New York has still not been higher than two games over .500 all season. The Yankees haven't won a playoff game since 2012, and this year marked the first time since 1995 that they were under .500 at any point after the All-Star break.
Retreat doesn't have to mean surrender, and a strategic sell off—which, in this case, means trading at least outfielder Carlos Beltran and relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller—is long overdue. New York hasn't produced an everyday player since Brett Gardner in 2008 or a starting pitcher since Ivan Nova in '10. (The jury remains out on 22-year-old starter Luis Severino, now back in the minors after starting the season 0–6 with a 7.46 ERA.) There is a crop of prospects on the way—including catcher Gary Sanchez and slugging outfielder Aaron Judge—but it will be 2018 or '19 before they could form a solid core. The Yankees need to target those seasons, rather than this October, for a chance at a championship.
These three teams on the border of buy/sell/hold could shape the deadline activity.
Kansas City Royals
Standings: Third place in AL Central, eight games out; seventh in AL wild-card, six games out
The reigning World Series champions have the same flaws they did a year ago, with a weak rotation and a hole at second base. Kansas City cashed in much of its farm system to get Johnny Cueto from the Reds and Ben Zobrist from the A's last summer, but the Royals lack that kind of prospect depth now. With Cueto (Giants) and Zobrist (Cubs) having left as free agents after last season, Kansas City needs to fill those same gaps again, and they will have to get creative to do so.
Standings: Third place in NL Central, 8 1/2 games out; fifth in NL wild-card, two games out
Pittsburgh is right in the thick of the postseason chase and thus unlikely to sell. Nevertheless the Bucs have to create space for young talent like first baseman Josh Bell, outfielder Austin Meadows and shortstop Kevin Newman. It would make sense for them to consider dealing first baseman John Jaso, second baseman Josh Harrison and, yes, even centerfielder Andrew McCutchen.
Standings: Third in AL West, 6 1/2 games out; fifth in AL wild-card, 4 1/2 games out
It's hard to argue that Seattle should overpay for 2016 help. Then again, how many more chances can the team hope for with aging key contributors like ace Felix Hernandez (30), second baseman Robinson Cano (33), starting pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma (35) and designated hitter Nelson Cruz (36)?