Which NL teams should be gearing up for the stretch run, and which ones should be getting ready for next year? Cliff Corcoran picks his buyers and sellers.
With less than two weeks remaining until the trade deadline, the time has come for teams to decide if they’re in or they’re out of this year’s pennant races. Should your favorite team make a deal in pursuit of a playoff berth, or should it concede the season and trade the veterans who don’t project to be part of its next winning roster? Today, I offer my take on which National League teams should be buyers and sellers, as well as exactly what they should be buying or selling. My take on the American League can be found here.
Teams are listed in order of overall record at the end of Monday’s games. All stats are as of Monday, July 18.
San Francisco Giants
Status: First place in NL West
Biggest Need: Starting pitcher
The Giants can significantly upgrade their roster in the coming weeks simply by getting healthy. Sergio Romo came off the disabled list on July 4 to fortify the bullpen. Matt Cain, who showed dramatic improvement in May before a hamstring strain interrupted his season, is due to return to the rotation this week. On the other side of the ball, third baseman Matt Duffy, second baseman Joe Panik and rightfielder Hunter Pence are all expected back from injury before the deadline.
If all of those players return on schedule and in good form, San Francisco's biggest need may be a righthanded-hitting outfielder who can play centerfield, where Denard Span is hitting .213/.284/.295 against lefties. Alternatively, the team could target a lefthanded reliever more trustworthy in high-leverage situations than 39-year-old Javier Lopez, who has more walks than strikeouts on the season, or sophomore Josh Osich, against whom righties are hitting .341/.460/.634. But a less-than-ideal return from Cain, who was lit up in his rehab start for Class A San Jose on Friday night (4 IP, 10 H, 9 R, 3 BB, 2 K), could necessitate the Giants adding another starting pitcher. They may want to do that anyway to improve their chances of going deep into the postseason.
Status: First place in NL Central
Biggest Need: Relief pitcher
With their hitting depth, positional flexibility, the impending return of outfielder Dexter Fowler from a hamstring injury and a starting rotation comprised of five starters with an ERA+ of 107 or better, the Cubs don’t have many holes on their roster. There is not a team in baseball that wouldn’t be improved by the addition of a quality high-leverage reliever, however, and that is exactly what Chicago is expected to pursue.
Status: First place in NL East
Biggest Need: Centerfielder
By ERA, Washington has the best rotation and second-best bullpen (behind the Dodgers) in the majors, so it can focus on plugging the biggest hole in its lineup: centerfield. The Nationals’ centerfielders this year—primarily Ben Revere and Michael Taylor—have hit just .221/.274/.337 as a group. That translates to a 66 sOPS+, a whopping 34% worse than the average major leaguer at that position. Together, Revere and Taylor have been 1.4 wins below replacement, according to baseball-reference.com’s numbers, and 0.3 wins below replacement per FanGraphs, which takes a more favorable view of their defense via Ultimate Zone Rating.
Washington gave shortstop prospect Trea Turner some starts in centerfield during his last stint in Triple A, but the team correctly appears to prefer using him at second base, pushing All-Star Daniel Murphy to first until Ryan Zimmerman (rib cage) returns from the disabled list. Given Zimmerman’s struggles this season, that could be a frequent alignment after he's back, as well. A more permanent solution would be better.
Los Angeles Dodgers
Status: Second place in NL West, 5 1/2 games out; leading wild-card race
Biggest Need: Lefthanded-hitting outfielder
Despite seemingly season-long rotation struggles, the Dodgers may not need to add another starting pitcher after all. Clayton Kershaw (back) should come off the DL this week; Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-jin Ryu have already returned, albeit with wildly disparate results; Alex Wood (elbow impingement) is not that far behind Kershaw; and Brett Anderson (back surgery) is working toward a return as well. Los Angeles could use some help on the other side of the ball, however: Only the Brewers, Mets, Phillies and Braves scored fewer runs per game in the NL prior to the All-Star break.
The most obvious place for an upgrade is the outfield, where only Joc Pederson—who is due back from a disabled list stint for a bruised shoulder this week—has managed an OPS+ above league average. Given that Yasiel Puig, Trayce Thompson (yet another Dodger currently on the DL with a back problem), Howie Kendrick, Scott Van Slyke and the injured Enrique Hernandez are all righthanded, adding a lefthanded corner outfielder who could take the strong side of a platoon would seem to make the most sense, even if Puig and Thompson have had reverse splits this year.
Status: Second place in NL East, 5 1/2 games out; in second wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Starting pitcher
My pick for this year’s surprise team in March, the Marlins are legitimate contenders who entered the All-Star break in a playoff position and have already established themselves as buyers with the acquisition of reliever Fernando Rodney. Pitching should continue to be their focus, as the starting rotation behind Jose Fernandez and Adam Conley has been weak. As things stand, Miami lacks a viable fifth starter, so a trade for a front-end arm would represent a massive upgrade—one that, along with a second-half surge from Home Run Derby champion Giancarlo Stanton, could keep the team in the thick of the wild-card race right down to the wire.
New York Mets
Status: Third place in NL East, 6 1/2 games out; 1 game out of wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Starting pitcher
The biggest problem facing the Mets as they attempt to reload for another pennant run is uncertainty. What’s going on with Noah Syndergaard’s dead arm? Can Steven Matz pitch effectively into the postseason with a bone spur in his elbow? When will first baseman Lucas Duda return from the stress fracture in his lower back, and will he be as productive when he does? Will Zack Wheeler start any games this year after experiencing setbacks in his recovery from Tommy John surgery? Can Travis d’Arnaud get his bat going and stay healthy? Is Jose Reyes the answer at third base? Will Michael Conforto's time in Triple A fix his sophomore struggles? New York is running out of time to figure out the answers to these questions and determine exactly what move (or moves) it needs to make.
As mentioned above, the Mets' biggest shortcoming this season has been scoring runs, making an upgrade at leftfield, first base or catcher most beneficial. There is a chance, however, that those positions could improve without a trade with the returns of Duda, d'Arnaud and Conforto. But with Matt Harvey lost for the season because of thoracic outlet syndrome, Wheeler not close to a return and Logan Verrett now the team’s full-time fifth starter, New York's rotation depth has been spent, and questions remain about the health of Syndergaard and Matz. It hurts to divert resources away from upgrading the offense, but the Mets’ smartest move would probably be to add a starter, though clearly one move is not going to get the job done this year.
St. Louis Cardinals
Status: Second place in NL Central, 8 games out; 2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Relief pitcher
The Cardinals echo the Cubs in terms of the depth and flexibility of their roster and the consistency of their rotation; indeed, St. Louis is the only team in the majors to have used just five starting pitchers all year, and only the Red Sox have out-scored them on a per-game basis this season. The one place the Cardinals have had some instability is the bullpen, where Trevor Rosenthal, beset by control problems, lost the closer job in late June and has posted a 9.42 ERA since the start of that month. Korean import Seung-hwan Oh has been outstanding, taking over for Rosenthal as closer, but the only other St. Louis relievers currently boasting a FIP below 4.10 are Rule 5 rookie Matthew Bowman and well-traveled veteran Jonathan Broxton.
The Cardinals’ 7–16 record in one run games on the season can be blamed in large part on their shaky ‘pen. Make that record 12–11, and they’d be leading the wild-card race and just three games behind the Cubs.
On The Fence
Status: Third place in NL Central, 9 games out; 3 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Starting pitcher
Biggest Chip: RHP Mark Melancon
The Pirates’ rotation has been a disaster this season: Only the Diamondbacks, Rockies and Reds have a worse ERA in the NL than Pittsburgh’s 4.80 mark, and all three of those teams play in hitter-friendly ballparks. Pittsburgh has already tried to fix things with two of its top prospects, Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, but Taillon, who missed all of the 2014 and ’15 seasons after Tommy John and hernia surgeries, hit the disabled list with shoulder fatigue after five big-league starts, and Glasnow gave up four runs in 5 1/3 innings in his debut and was shipped back to Triple A. The Bucs got Gerrit Cole back from the DL over the weekend, and Taillon is returning in short order. But that won’t be enough to push lefties Jeff Locke, Jonathon Niese and Francisco Liriano—the last of whom I identified as the first half's worst lefthanded starter—out of the rotation. Those three are the primary reason that Pittsburgh is teetering on the edge of relevancy.
Last Thursday, Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune reported that the Pirates were looking to trade Niese or Locke to make room for Glasnow’s return, but it’s difficult to imagine another team having interest in either of them. A better solution is simply to bump one or both of them to the bullpen, which the team did with Locke at the end of the first half and the Mets did with Niese in last year’s postseason, and make an aggressive move for a front-end starter.
That said, it would be understandable if the Pirates’ front office were to decide it isn’t worth the cost in prospects just to participate in another wild-card game, particularly given the possibility of third baseman Jung-ho Kang being suspended due to the sexual assault allegations against him. If that’s the case, Pittsburgh should shift gears and consider selling some players who are actually performing well, such as corner infielder David Freese, closer Mark Melancon and righty reliever Neftali Feliz, all of whom will be free agents at year’s end.
Status: Fourth place in NL East, 13 1/2 games out; 8 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: RHP Jeremy Hellickson
There is little surprise and no argument to be made about which teams should be sellers in the NL; of the seven I have listed here, you could have named six of them in March. The Phillies, who have the best record of the seven, got off to a surprisingly strong start, going 22–15 through May 14, but they have played down to expectations since, going 21–36, the third-worst record in baseball over that span.
Philadelphia is in a relatively late stage of their rebuild, so it doesn't have much to sell. One candidate might be 29-year-old righty Jeremy Hellickson, who is amid a one-year, $7 million contract and has been enjoying his best season since 2012. He could be a budget-price rotation fix for a team looking for some league-average reliability. The bullpen offers journeyman-turned-closer Jeanmar Gomez, who has one arbitration year remaining beyond this one, and veteran David Hernandez, who had a rough June but has struck out 55 men in 44 innings and could benefit from a move to a less homer-friendly ballpark. Also of note is slick-fielding outfielder Peter Bourjos, who can play all three outfield positions and, like Hernandez and Hellickson, is in his walk year.
Status: Third place in NL West, 13 1/2 games out; 7 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: RF Carlos Gonzalez
Gonzalez is the top name on the market at this deadline, though there’s no guarantee that the Rockies will trade him. He is owed roughly $5.7 million for the final two months of this season, $20 million for 2017 (the final year of his contract) and would receive a $1 million assignment bonus if he's traded. That’s a potential $26.7 million in savings for a Colorado team badly in need of a rebuild, some of which the club could eat to improve its prospect haul. Concerns about Gonzalez’s fragility have faded given that he hasn’t been on the disabled list since 2014, but concerns about his ability to produce outside of Coors Field have not: He’s batting .277/.335/.402 on the road this year. Still, given his overall production, his health and the fact that he is neither a rental nor an albatross, he seems worth the gamble.
Elsewhere, lefty reliever Boone Logan, who is in his walk year, seems like a lock to be flipped. Veterans Mark Reynolds and Nick Hundley, who will also be free agents after the season, could be compelling options for teams looking for depth at first base or catcher.
Status: Fourth place in NL Central, 16 games out; 10 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: C Jonathan Lucroy
Gonzalez may be the biggest name on the market, but Lucroy isn’t far behind. The Brewers’ catcher has rebounded nicely from his poor 2015 to rank among the top catchers in baseball on both sides of the ball, and he comes with a sweetheart of a contract that finds him owed just $6.7 million for the final two months of this season and all of next season, via a club option. That contract is so nice that it may give Milwaukee second thoughts about trading a player who has become something of an unofficial team captain. Lucroy is a catcher in this 30s, however, and he will never be more valuable as a trade chit than he is right now.
The Brewers have already committed to a rebuild, and it would be irresponsible of them not to trade Lucroy before this year’s deadline. The one catch is that he has the ability to block a trade to eight teams, which could result in a demand to renegotiate his contract in order to approve a trade. We only know the identity of one of those teams, however, and that’s the Nationals, who have no need for a catcher.
Ryan Braun will be a much harder sell despite his return to form over the last two seasons. The six-time All-Star will turn 33 in November, is owed $91 million for the next four seasons (including an option buyout for 2021 and deferred payments that will last another 14 years) and can block trades to all but six teams (the Giants, Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Marlins, Angels and Padres). Still, Milwaukee might find takers for veteran relievers Carlos Torres and Blaine Boyer and surprising 31-year-old Rookie of the Year candidate Junior Guerra. They should also give serious consideration to trading slugging first baseman Chris Carter, who has two team-controlled years remaining but will turn 30 in December.
San Diego Padres
Status: Fourth place in NL West, 16 games out; 9 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: OF Melvin Upton, Jr.
The Padres have already traded starting pitchers Drew Pomeranz and James Shields and reliever Fernando Rodney. It's the trade of Pomeranz, a 27-year-old with two team controlled years remaining, to the Red Sox last week that is the best evidence San Diego does not expect to contend before 2019. That would seem to make everyone available, other than first baseman Wil Myers and infielder Yangervis Solarte, both of whom are under team control through that season.
In terms of priority, the Padres should try to cash in Upton, who is in the midst of his best season since leaving Tampa Bay after the 2012 campaign. Of course, that might require the Padres to eat some of the roughly $21.6 million he is owed for the last two months of this year and all of next season. They should also see if there is a team out there that still believes in righthander Andrew Cashner, who turns 30 in September and will be a free agent in the fall. Elsewhere, a minor league free-agent find like lefty reliever Ryan Buchter may seem ideal for a rebuilding team such as San Diego, but the fact that he’s 29 and an extreme fly-ball pitcher suggests the Padres may want to cash in his five remaining years of team control before his small-sample-size performance experiences a likely correction.
Status: Fifth place in NL West, 17 games out; 10 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: RHP Tyler Clippard
The Diamondbacks had big hopes for this season after signing Zack Greinke and trading for Shelby Miller, but they have conceded to reality this month, dealing closer Brad Ziegler to the Red Sox and sending the struggling Miller down to Triple A. They still have strong enough of a core to contend next year with a healthy A.J. Pollock and some off-season reinforcements, so they don’t want to burn things to the ground. Given a history of heavy workloads, however, now might be the time to cash in the 31-year-old Clippard, who has a year left on his contract. Another piece worth dealing is infielder Rickie Weeks, who could be more useful on the bench of a contender.
I’d also be very tempted to sell high on Jean Segura, who has two team-controlled years remaining but has come back to earth since his hot start to the season, hitting .271/.333/.374 since May 14. His early-season performance proved that there is still some life in his bat, but he has fooled us with a hot start before.
Status: Fifth place in NL Central, 21 1/2 games out; 15 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: RF Jay Bruce, SS Zack Cozart
The Reds' failure to trade Aroldis Chapman at last year’s deadline still stings. They shouldn’t make the same mistake twice and get while the getting’s good with Bruce, who returned to the All-Star Game this year after a three-year absence, and Cozart, who is an elite defensive shortstop and is having a career year at the plate at the age of 30. Bruce has a $13 million club option for next year with a $1 million buyout and can block trades to eight teams, of whom only the Red Sox, Indians, Marlins and Yankees could be considered contenders, and that last is a stretch. Cozart has one year of arbitration remaining and no such obstacles to a trade.
Don’t expect Cincinnati to find a taker for Brandon Phillips, however: He is owed $14 million for next year, has been one of the game's worst second basemen this year and strained a calf muscle on Friday. He also seems to have no interest in leaving Cincinnati, as he used his 10-team no-trade clause to block a deal to the Nationals a year ago.
Status: Fifth place in NL East, 24 games out; 18 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: LHP Ian Krol
The Braves are not trading ace Julio Teheran: He’s a 25-year-old stud who is signed to a team-friendly contract that lasts through 2019 with a $12 million option for '20. With the team opening a new ballpark next year, Atlanta will be looking to climb out of the basement, and Teheran is a central figure in the plan to return to contention. In a recent tweet, general manager John Coppolella said, “I don't see us trading Teheran at this point. He's almost into 'right-arm' type status for us right now.”
Meanwhile, the Braves have already traded Jhoulys Chacin, Jason Grilli, Kelly Johnson and Bud Norris since the start of May. With infielder Erick Aybar and catcher A.J. Pierzynski struggling and another catcher, Tyler Flowers, out with a broken left hand, there’s not much left to offer on a roster that has been largely stripped bare. Trading righthander Arodys Vizcaino might have made some sense, but he went down with an oblique strain in the first game of the second half. That leaves utility infielder Gordon Beckham, middling reliever Jim Johnson (whom Atlanta traded a last year’s deadline) and Krol, a journeyman lefty reliever who is having a breakout year at the age of 25 and will be arbitration eligible for the first time in January.