The July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline is now less than two weeks away, so we continue our roundabout stroll through the six divisions to see which teams are buying, which are selling and what moves they can — and should — make. Next up, the American League Central, where the preseason favorites are finally surging, and one contender starting to look like a pretender (NOTE: All teams ranked according to current standings not including Wednesday’s results; playoff odds data supplied by Baseball Prospectus.)
Chicago White Sox (50-41, 2 1/2 games ahead)
Playoff odds: 60.0% Division/19.3% Wild Card/79.3% Total
Top need: Starting pitching
Thanks largely to the emergence of Chris Sale, outstanding seasons from Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski, and the resurgences of Adam Dunn, Alex Rios and Jake Peavy, the White Sox have rebounded from last year's 79-83 disappointment, holding first place in the division for most of the past seven weeks. They've already gotten a head start on their midseason upgrades, trading spare parts for a rejuvenated Kevin Youkilis (.315/.407/.534 since the trade) who has shored up their third base sinkhole nicely. Though they're not getting much offense from middle infielders Gordon Beckham and Alexei Ramirez, they're third in the league in defensive efficiency at .708, and the rest of the lineup has been productive enough to rank fifth in scoring at 4.75 runs per game, so there's little reason to prioritize an upgrade there.
The key need is in a rotation where stalwarts John Danks and Gavin Floyd are both on the disabled list. The former, limited to just nine starts by a shoulder strain, is only at the long-toss stage of rehabbing, and isn't likely to be back until late August at the earliest. The latter just went on the DL due to elbow tendonitis, but is slated to return on July 23, costing him just one turn. With the workloads of the less-than-durable Peavy and Sale a concern, Philip Humber erratic (a 5.77 ERA despite throwing a perfect game), and rookies Jose Quintana and Dylan Axelrod showing promise but hardly dominating, fortification is a priority. General manager Kenny Williams has checked in on the Brewers' Zack Greinke, and the team has expressed interest in the Cubs' Ryan Dempster and the Padres' Clayton Richard, who was drafted and developed by the Sox before being traded to San Diego in the Peavy deal. The problem for the Sox is that their farm system ranked dead last according to Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN at the outset of the season, "And they're not particularly close to No. 29, either," wrote the latter's Keith Law. "When you don't spend money in the draft, you're not going to fare well in anyone's organizational rankings." That may explain why the Sox were recently spotted scouting Yankees prospect Dellin Betances — Williams may need to get a third team involved in order to get what he needs.
Detroit Tigers (48-44, 2 1/2 games behind in division, 1/2 game ahead in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 23.8% Division/17.7% Wild Card/41.5% Total
Top needs: Second base, starting pitching, designated hitter, rightfield
With nine wins in their past 11 games and 23 in their last 36, the Tigers have not only climbed over .500 for the first time since early May, they've edged into a Wild Card spot. It's clear this is not the juggernaut that most observers expected to rule the division, but their problems remain clear and fixable. They've gotten miserable production from their second basemen (.197/.280/.272), mainly Ryan Raburn and Ramon Santiago, an issue which affects them on both sides of the ball; their .673 defensive efficiency is 21 points below the league average, and second-to-last in the league, a problem even for a pitching staff that tops the league in strikeout rate at 8.4 per nine. Their rightfielders (.230/.280/.373, primarily from Brennan Boesch) and designated hitters (.265/.279/.396, mostly from Delmon Young) aren't pulling their weight either. In the rotation, only Justin Verlander and Doug Fister have ERAs below 4.42, a mark that belongs to rookie Drew Smyly, who had claimed the fifth starter role only to hit the DL recently with an intercostal strain.
Not surprisingly for a team that has underachieved relative to preseason expectations and the game's fifth-highest payroll, the Tigers are expected to be one of the most aggressive teams at the deadline. For second base, the team has checked in on the Cubs' Darwin Barney, the Rockies' Marco Scutaro, the Diamondbacks' Stephen Drew and Ryan Roberts, and the Marlins' Omar Infante, who played for Detroit from 2002-2007. For the rotation, they've been in on the Cubs' Dempster and Matt Garza and the Mariners' Jason Vargas as well as the Astros' Wandy Rodriguez; not only is the latter owed $13 million for next year, but his $13 million option for 2014 becomes a player option if he's traded. Detroit appears to be much less focused on the rightfield and DH spots, in part because the bats of Boesch (.395/.425/.684) and Young have heated up (.302/.298/.528 — yes, you read that right) in July. Note that they acquired the latter on August 15 last year; this may be a spot where they feel like they can sneak an upgrade through waivers, and they're hopeful of Victor Martinez making a September return from microfracture surgery.
The Tigers are unwilling to include top hitting prospect Nick Castellanos in a deal, but catcher Rob Brantly, righties Jacob Turner and Bruce Rondon and lefty Casey Crosby are prospects that appear to be under discussion. The 21-year-old Turner, the team's top prospect coming into the year, has been filling in for Smyly, but he was tagged for three homers and seven runs in two innings by the Angels on Tuesday night, not exactly a convincing audition.
Cleveland Indians (47-44, 3 games behind in division, 1/2 game behind in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 16.2% Division/14.2% Wild Card/30.4% Total
Top needs: Leftfield, first base, starting pitching
Their record says they're in the playoff hunt, but the Indians' −30 run differential is the league's fourth-worst, so there's risk of trying to upgrade a mirage. The team's offense is a middling one, with above-average production from three of their four up-the-middle players (Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Michael Brantley) but subpar production from first baseman Casey Kotchman and a leftfield contingent (Shelley Duncan, Johnny Damon and Aaron Cunningham) that's combined to hit .217/.296/.349. With Grady Sizemore still recovering from a microdiscectomy and hardly to be counted on for a full-strength return, they've shown interest in Carlos Quentin and Shane Victorino, but they'll have heavy competition for either, and the word is that they don't want to take on a significant contract or surrender top prospects. That's at least somewhat understandable given the way they cleaned out the system last year to acquire Ubaldo Jimenez.
Speaking of whom, the rotation is in no great shape, with a disconnect between their 4.63 ERA (10th in the league) and 54 percent quality start rate (fourth). No Indians starter has an ERA better than the park-adjusted league average; Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe and Jiminez have combined for a 4.53 ERA but still managed to deliver quality starts 64 percent of the time, meaning that their whuppings have been consolidated. Fill-in Zach McAllister has delivered a 3.17 ERA while striking out 8.6 per nine, but there's still a whole lot of room for improvement among this collective. Even so, the Indians haven't been mentioned in connection with any of the market's top starters, or even the mid-tier ones, suggesting that whomever they drum up will provide only a modest improvement.
Kansas City Royals (39-51, 10 1/2 games behind in division, 8 behind in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 0.0% Division/0.0% Wild Card/0.0% Total
Buying/selling: Selling, but also buying
Top needs: Starting pitching
Despite a talent-laden farm system and promising young core, this hasn't been the season where the Royals turn the corner; instead they're headed for their 17th losing season out of the last 18. Even so, the Royals aren't entirely focused on selling; with a rotation whose ERA is a lofty 5.42, they have told teams that they're looking for major league talent in trades, particularly starting pitching they can keep around. To that end, they've inquired about Garza, who is under club control through next year, and they've mulled the idea of bringing back Greinke, whom they traded to the Brewers before last season.
The Royals do have spare parts to deal. Closer Jonathan Broxton isn't anywhere near as dominant as he was before his elbow injury — his 6.1 strikeouts per nine are just over half his prior career rate of 11.5 — but while the team has explored the possibility of re-signing him, they're better off flipping him. Rightfielder Jeff Francoeur has slumped (.250/.290/.379), but he's a career .293/341/.484 hitter against lefties, and he's still got a cannon for an arm, making him a handy bench piece; the Royals are reportedly eager to move him so they can promote Wil Myers from Triple-A. Yuniesky Betancourt runs into a fastball every now and then, and he's added second base to a resume of positions he can play badly; more to the point, he's blocking Johnny Giavotella, who is again raking at Triple-A (.326/.413/.500).
Minnesota Twins (38-53, 12 games behind in division, 9 1/2 behind in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 0.0% Division/0.0% Wild Card/0.0% Total
Top needs: Pitching, minor league prospects
Just two years removed from their second consecutive AL Central title, and their sixth in a nine-year span, the Twins' only race at the moment is for the majors' lousiest team. They're the worst in the AL by a whisker, with a .419 winning percentage to Seattle's .418, but have a ways to go to catch the Astros' .370. Their −88 run differential is the game's lowest, so at least they've got that going for them, which is nice. They're well supported at the still-new Target Field (sixth in attendance), but after boosting payroll from $65 million in the Metrodome's final year to the $100 million range, they've got reasons to cut back.
Joe Mauer isn't going anywhere, and neither is Justin Morneau, who is still owed more than $20 million through next season and is hitting just .254/.319/.445, but the team does have other tradable commodities. Josh Willingham, who has 22 homers to go with a 272/.386/.563 line, is the most desirable, but he's in the first year of a very affordable three-year, $21 million deal, so the team would prefer not to move him. Denard Span has recovered from last year's concussion woes to hit .286/.351/.392; with Ben Revere also productive, the time could be right to move the 28-year-old Span, who's signed through 2014 and owed just $11.75 million including the buyout of a 2015 club option. Middle infielder Jamey Carroll isn't hitting much (.240/.323/.285), but he's shown time and again that he can help in a utility role. Perhaps the most intriguing possibility is Francisco Liriano. His 4.93 ERA and 5.0 walks per nine scream "abandon all hope, ye who enter here," but the 28-year-old lefty is whiffing 9.6 per nine, and over his last nine starts has delivered a 2.83 ERA while allowing just two homers and walking a more palatable 3.9 per nine (against 10.5 strikeouts per nine) in 57 1/3 innings. Then again, over his last 106 appearances (94 of them starts) since the beginning of the 2009 season, Liriano has delivered a 4.73 ERA while walking 4.0 per nine; he's a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, one who might continue to catch lightning in a bottle for his new employer for two months, or revert into the game's most frustrating pitcher yet again. The Twins, who long ago hinted that they wouldn't be able to afford him, absolutely have to deal him to help prop up a subpar farm system and/or a pitching staff in dire need of anyone who can miss bats; Liriano and relievers Glen Perkins and Jared Burton are the only hurlers with strikeout rates above 5.7 per nine.