Trade deadline preview: NL Central
With the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline less than two weeks away, we've taken a brisk stroll through every division to identify which teams are buying, which are selling and what moves they can — and should — make. Last but not least, the National League Central, with three clear contenders, two clear sellers and a team caught in the middle with one of the market's top commodities (NOTE: All teams ranked according to current standings not including Wednesday’s results; playoff odds data supplied by Baseball Prospectus.)
Playoff odds:54.1% Division/28.3% Wild Card/82.4% Total
Top needs: Centerfield, leadoff hitter
The loss of Joey Votto to a torn meniscus isn't a season-threatening injury — he'll be back by mid-August — but it does highlight a surprising facet of what had looked like a playoff-bound team: their offense isn't very good. Playing half their games in hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark, the Reds nonetheless are producing just 4.15 runs per game, which ranks ninth in the league, with both their .249 batting average and .314 on-base percentage even further down the table. The good news is that unlike most contenders, they don't have to focus on pitching. Their staff is second in the league in run prevention at 3.68 runs per game and they're near the top in strikeout and walk rates as well as defensive efficiency while remaining in the middle in home run rate, impressive given their surroundings.
Votto's absence can be covered, at least to some extent, by Todd Frazier, who has hit .277/.343/.554 with 10 homers in 195 plate appearances while filling in at three of the four corner positions, most notably third base, where he did stellar work in place of the injured Scott Rolen. Key supporting cast members Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce have underproduced relative to expectations, but the most glaring problems have been centerfielder Drew Stubbs (.222/.293 .367) and shortstop Zack Cozart (.240/.287/.389), problems that have unfortunately played into Dusty Baker's age-old inability to find a competent leadoff hitter. With Cozart getting most of the reps atop the lineup, Cincinnati's leadoff men have hit an astoundingly poor .206/.252/.317.
The market offers several potential remedies. The Twins' Denard Span (.287/.353/.391) would be an ideal solution to both problems, but he won't come cheap given that he's cost controlled through 2014. The Phillies' Shane Victorino would also be a strong solution, with fellow Phil Juan Pierre, the Cubs' David DeJesus and the A's Coco Crisp representing lesser options, either due to lower on-base percentages or shakier defense in the middle pasture. The Red Sox' Ryan Sweeney and Daniel Nava could also be added to the mix. With attendance up 10 percent the team has the ability to take on salary, which is good news given the depletion of their system after the Mat Latos deal and the graduations of Devin Mesoraco and Cozart and Frazier to the big league roster.
Pittsburgh Pirates (51-40, tied for first, 3 ahead in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 21.3% Division/28.3% Wild Card/49.6% Total
Top needs: Corner outfield, shortstop
Still in search of their first winning season since 1992, the Bucs are tied for the second-best record in the league, and for once they'll be buyers at the deadline instead of sellers. Their most glaring need is at the outfield corners, where Opening Day starters Alex Presley and Jose Tabata have both served minor league stints (the latter is still there). Presley is hitting .261/.299/.468 since returning in early June, but the team has gotten just a .202/.245/.330 performance from its leftfielders, while the rightfielders have hit .264/.302/.442. The Pirates appear serious about their pursuit of the Diamondbacks' Justin Upton, but thus far they've been unwilling to part with outfielder Starling Marte or pitcher Jameson Taillon, and they lack the shortstop the Diamondbacks are seeking, which underscores the fact that incumbent Clint Barmes has been awful at the plate (.205/.229/.292). As for alternatives to Upton, Victorino and the Padres' Carlos Quentin have also been under consideration.
Even with James McDonald and the resurgent A.J. Burnett putting in strong performances at the front of the rotation, the team could also use another starting pitcher, particularly given that Erik Bedard has underperformed (4.55 ERA) and has yet to take his inevitable midsummer injury sabbatical, and that Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens both have ERAs worse than the park-adjusted league average as well. General manager Neal Huntington has reportedly dipped his toe in the deep end of the pool to inquire about Cole Hamels, Zack Greinke, Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and even Boston's Jon Lester. The latter doesn't appear to be available, while the rest are heavily sought and will require considerable packages to obtain. The price could be prohibitive for a mere rental but a cost-controlled asset such as Garza (signed through 2013) or Tampa Bay's James Shields (with reasonable club options through 2014) would be more desirable. Pittsburgh has the prospects to make a blockbuster happen, but it will depend on its willingness to cash in its blue-chippers.
St. Louis Cardinals (47-45, 4 1/2 games behind in division and Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 22.7% Division/ 27.2% Wild Card/49.9% Total
Top needs: Starting and relief pitching
Owners of the league's second-best run differential (+64, one run behind the Nationals), the defending world champions are the league's sleeping giant, a team that would appear poised to kick it into high gear down the stretch. But while the lineup withstood the nearly two-month absence of Lance Berkman — they rank second in scoring at 4.79, a whisker behind the Rockies despite diametrically opposed offensive environments — their pitching has suffered some serious blows. Co-ace Chris Carpenter is out for the season after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome, while Jaime Garcia has been shut down since early June due to a rotator cuff tear that’s causing impingement; he only recently started throwing again, and an August return is no guarantee. Kyle McClellan, who filled in for Carpenter early last year, recently underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Co-ace Adam Wainwright, whose loss to Tommy John surgery last season didn't prevent the Cards from winning it all, has made an uneven return with a 4.42 ERA, but that owes something to a .326 BABIP and a 9.88 ERA through his first three starts; he's at 3.69 since.
Despite their glaring need, the Cardinals haven't been seriously connected to any of the market's top names, perhaps because Greinke, Dempster and Garza all toil for division rivals; the Cards did check in on the Brewers' ace but found the cost prohibitive. Despite a strong system, they've been reluctant to entertain the idea of trading top prospect Shelby Miller, a 21-year-old righty who came into the year ranked among the game's top 10 prospects by Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and ESPN but who has been lit for a 5.79 ERA while struggling mightily with his control and his repertoire. According to BP's Kevin Goldstein, "[H]is stuff is off significantly, as his fastball has lost a full grade from 2011, his curveball is not as crisp and his changeup has slipped from average to fringy." Ouch. The team does have other prospects to offer, with pitchers John Gast and Trevor Rosenthal a couple of possible candidates, and they've also got an eye towards upgrading the bullpen. General manager John Mozeliak recently plucked lefty Brian Fuentes off the waiver wire, and has sent scouts to check on the Padres' Huston Street.
Milwaukee Brewers (44-47, 7 games behind in division and Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 1.9% Division/11.0% Wild Card/12.9% Total
Top needs: Prospects, healthy infielders
The 2011 NL Central champions haven't been at .500 since they were 6-6 on April 18, and while they've gone 10-5 since June 29, the reality is that they've got heavy traffic ahead of them. They also have one of the market's most highly sought trade targets in Greinke, and while general manager Doug Melvin hasn't formally committed to trading the 28-year-old ace, there's little expectation the Brewers will be able to retain him in the wake of Matt Cain's market-setting extension. Given the extent to which Melvin emptied out the farm system to obtain Greinke and Shaun Marcum in the winter of 2010-2011, the Brewers may not be able to afford passing up the opportunity to trade him, particularly with the Rangers and Angels, two of the game's richest teams, in hot pursuit.
Greinke isn't the only player the Brewers could move. With John Axford displaced from the closer role, Francisco Rodriguez will get a chance to remind teams of his credentials; the Mets, his former team, are one potential destination. Third baseman Aramis Ramirez, who was signed to a three-year, $36 million deal this past offseason, has drawn interest from the Dodgers, though the Brewers would likely need to send some cash in such a deal. Corey Hart would draw plenty of interest from those in the market for a corner outfielder or a first baseman, though he's apparently not on the block. Second baseman Rickie Weeks, stuck in a .197/.312/.348 rut, and owed $21 million for 2013-2014, won't be moved, either, and while the Brewers don't appear inclined to sell low, some team might be willing to take a gamble.
For all of that, the Brewers haven't committed to selling, and it's possible to see how squinting and imagining that a strong return from Marcum, who's making strides in his recovery from elbow tighness, and a continued rebound from Weeks (.275/.362/.569 in July) could put the Brewers right back in the thick of things. That's a dangerous level of optimism given the team's shortcomings and the addition of the second Wild Card, which guarantees only participation in what amounts to a coin flip.
Chicago Cubs (37-53, 13 1/2 games behind in division and Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 0.0% Division/0.0% Wild Card/0.0% Total
Top needs: Prospects and cost-controlled players
Since taking over as team president, Theo Epstein has made no secret of the Cubs' need to rebuild, and he has gone so far as to say that no one, not even Starlin Castro or Jeff Samardzija, is untouchable for the right package of players. That said, the Cubs aren't likely to deal either, at least not at the trade deadline. Instead, the focus is on moving Dempster, a pending free agent riding a scoreless streak of 33 innings, and Garza, who has one more year of club control before free agency. Both are heavily sought, and Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer are said to be nearing a decision on the former so that they can focus on dealing the latter. The Dodgers are said to be the leading suitor for Dempster, with a couple of pitching prospects the likely return, but nearly every team in the market for a starter has weighed in.
Beyond those two, Epstein and company would dearly like to move Alfonso Soriano. The 36-year-old leftfielder is owed about another $45 million through 2014, but the good news is that he's currently hitting .272/.326/.489 with 17 homers, a step up from the .248/.305/.463 he hit from 2009-2011. In a market that's distinctly lacking thumpers, the Cubs may find a taker if they're willing to eat enough salary. The Dodgers come to mind as a team that might be desperate enough to take the plunge, though they've already turned up their noses. The Rays could be a fit as well, particularly as they could DH him. Bryan LaHair, who shed the "Quad-A" label and earned All-Star honors in his first season as a regular, would be the best first base option on the market if he's available, though his price tag is said to be high — not surprising given that he won't even be arbitration eligible until 2015. Among their other players, rightfielder David DeJesus and second baseman Darwin Barney have drawn interest, with the Tigers particularly interested in the latter.
Houston Astros (34-58, 17 1/2 games behind in division and Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 0.0% Division/0.0% Wild Card/0.0% Total
Top needs: Prospects and cost-controlled players
To an even greater extent than the Cubs, the Astros are in full-scale rebuilding mode in the wake of Jim Crane's purchase of the team this past winter. Their farm system has already taken significant steps forward under new general manager Jeff Luhnow, though their current lineup has only a few players — catcher Jason Castro, second baseman Jose Altuve and recently injured shortstop Jed Lowrie — who amount to more than placeholders.
Having already gotten down to business by dealing Carlos Lee to the Marlins, the remaining focus is on pitching. Wandy Rodriguez is a credible midrotation option who has put up ERAs below 4.00 for five straight seasons, including this one. He's at 3.75 right now, and while his strikeout rate has dropped to 6.0 per nine (down from 7.8 last year), his walk rate is down to 2.1 (compared to 3.3 last year). The biggest problem as far as dealing the 31-year-old lefty is his contract; he's making $10 million this year and $13 million next year, with a $13 million club option for 2014 that becomes a player option if he's traded. The Tigers and Orioles are teams that have been mentioned in connection with him, but they may need cash from the Astros in order to entice them. Beyond that, the Astros have not one but two proven closer options in Brett Myers and Brandon Lyon to offer; neither is an ideal ninth-inning guy, but either could find a home with a team looking for bullpen help, such as the Mets. Myers has saved 19 games this year, though his home run and strikeout rates (1.2 per nine and 5.9 per nine) aren't exactly what one seek from a late-game reliever. Lyon has been confined to a setup role, but he saved 20 games for Houston two years ago and he has made a strong recovery from shoulder surgery, with a K rate of 8.8 per nine that belies his strikeout-shy nature.