With the trade deadline just over a month away, Albert Chen picks four teams who need to make a move if they want to contend.
That was the word one baseball executive used on Thursday to describe the state of the trade market. It's one month from the July 31 trade deadline, but things are inching along like Interstate 405 in Los Angeles at rush hour. This is no surprise: In this era of the second wild card, more teams can delude themselves into thinking that they have a shot at October glory, and entering the last weekend of June, no team in the American League was more than 7 1/2 games out of a playoff spot. In the NL, all but four (Rockies, Marlins, Brewers, Phillies) were within six games.
With everyone still contending, the handful of sellers—right now, the only clear ones appear to be the Phillies and Brewers—are demanding treasure chests of prospects in return. “You can’t really blame the teams thinking they’re still in it. You look around the AL, and there are no great teams out there right now,” says the exec. “Everyone still has a shot.”
As we saw last year with one of the craziest months of July trades, things can change in a hurry. The next few days and weeks will be critical stretches for in-limbo organizations like the Marlins. After being swept by the Cardinals, Miami hosts the Dodgers and Giants in a season-defining week and could be well out of the race even before Jose Fernandez throws his first pitch. Likewise for the Reds, who are loaded with assets and have the most intriguing potential rental in Johnny Cueto, but are also just five games out of a playoff spot. Then there are the Athletics, who have won five in a row and, with the fourth-best run differential in the league, have reason to believe that they’re not as hopeless as their 34–41 record might indicate.
Then there are the countless teams hungry to make a deal. We present you the teams most in need of making a splash in July.
On Thursday, Doug Fister’s seven shutout innings stretched his rotation’s franchise record of scoreless innings to 41 1/3; over one week, Washington has gone from 1 1/2 games back in the division to leading the pack by 3 1/2 and looking like they could have the NL East sealed up by the All-Star break. But this team is still far from the 100-win juggernaut that we all thought they’d be.
The biggest problem that needs to be addressed is the bullpen: The Nats are searching for relief help even as Drew Storen is looking like one of the best and most improved closers in the game right now. Francisco Rodriguez is pitching well (15 saves, 1.00 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 27 innings), but his contract ($9.5 million over the next two years) may make him hard to move. Aroldis Chapman could be available if the Reds decide to sell, but the smartest move for the Nats may be one that reunites them with Tyler Clippard, who notched his 13th save for the A’s on Thursday night.
It’s easy to look at Washington—with the best player on the planet, Bryce Harper, not turning 23 until October, with Anthony Rendon still just 25, with an uber-prospect like Lucas Giolito on the way—and think that this is a team built to dominate for years. But remember: Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond, Fister and Denard Span are all free agents after this season. The window may be closing. The Nats need to win now.
The phenom who could have the best stuff of all the Mets' starters will be called up from Triple A Las Vegas this weekend. We all know about the great young pitching in Queens, and Steven Matz, who led the Pacific Coast League with a 2.19 ERA and 94 strikeouts and 90 1/3 innings, is a significant addition to a team that’s sinking fast after a rip-roaring start to the season.
There’s a reason why general manager Sandy Alderson is feeling the heat in Queens. It’s obvious where this club needs help: New York snapped a seven-game losing streak on Thursday, but managed to do so by scoring only a pair of runs in a 2–0 win over Milwaukee. It was the end of a miserable eight-game road trip during which the club—ranked 27th in the majors in runs scored and 28th in slugging—scored a total of 11 runs.
With all the young hurlers on the Mets, it feels like the window is just opening—and yet it may already be closing. David Wright is 32, Curtis Granderson is 34 and Michael Cuddyer is 36. Matt Harvey, a free agent after 2018, has only three more seasons after this one before he signs a $300 million contract with the Yankees. You could very well argue that the Mets should be sellers at the deadline. But this is a team that’s built to win now, and as bad as they’ve looked recently, they’re still just 3 1/2 games behind the Nationals and 3 1/2 games out in the wild card race.
Does the longest playoff drought in baseball end this year? The Blue Jays, winners of 15 of their last 20, are trending in the right direction. Toronto owns the best run differential in the AL (+80) and the second-best in baseball; the offense has scored 405 runs this season, and the next best team, the Yankees, has scored 350. Manager John Gibbons has done a masterful job playing matchup games with his lineup, as the likes of Justin Smoak and Danny Valencia have played key roles in the rise of the Jays. But the dazzling offense can only carry this team so far. The bullpen has struggled, but the rotation remains the big problem and is the priority for GM Alex Anthopoulos. Despite the gaudy win-loss record, Drew Hutchison (7–1, 5.33 ERA) has been a disappointment; Aaron Sanchez is on the DL, and the team doesn’t want to rush him back; and Daniel Norris is still trying to rediscover his fastball at Triple A Buffalo.
Over the off-season, Anthopoulos added an MVP candidate in Josh Donaldson and one of the best catchers in the game in Russell Martin. He had an excellent winter, but he still has work to do. A two-month rental like Cueto doesn’t make sense for a lot of teams, but it could save the season for this team, which has as much at stake as any this year.
The defending champs, now without Nori Aoki, have a very messy outfield situation. Carlos Gomez would be a nice addition (though it could make for some awkward moments in the clubhouse). But San Francisco's offense, thanks to the emergence of Joe Panik and Matt Duffy and the MVP stylings of Buster Posey, has been surprisingly good, ranking sixth in the league in runs and fifth in OPS. But even with Matt Cain and Jake Peavy set to come back in a month, the Giants—who fell short in their pursuits of James Shields and Jon Lester over the winter—need another starter, as the rotation beyond Madison Bumgarner (7–4, 3.04) and Chris Heston (8–5, 3.73 ERA) is still loaded with question marks. GM Brian Sabean was reportedly scouting Cueto at a recent game, but even Scott Kazmir, Aaron Harang or Mike Leake could be a difference maker for the Giants in the surprisingly tight NL West race.
“It’s quiet right now, but there are so many teams right on the cusp that you know that a number of them are going to be aggressive,” says the exec. “We saw what happened last year. Things are about to pick up.”
In other words, get ready for what should be another memorable July.