The TBD 10: MLB teams that have to make up their minds about being buyers or sellers

1:38 | MLB
It's now more expensive to be a Cubs fan since they won the World Series last year
Thursday June 1st, 2017

If the Mets can find a silver lining to their mascot's flippant finger, it's that for a brief moment, the incident diverted attention away from the team's sluggish play. New York enters Friday solidly below .500 (23-29) and buried 10 games out in the NL East. The Mets also have a flock of pending free agents, making them perhaps the most interesting of what we're calling the TBD Ten, the clubs that will soon have to determine once and for all whether or not they will be buyers or sellers at the trade deadline.

As of right now, it's safe to assume that a half-dozen teams more foucsed on building for the future than contending in 2017—the Phillies (17-34), Padres (22-33), Braves (22-29), A's (23-29), Reds (24-28) and White Sox (also 24-28)—will be sellers. Then there are the six upstarts, who came into 2017 hoping but perhaps not expecting to turn the corner from pretender to contender. Count the Rockies (33-22), Diamondbacks (33-22), Yankees (30-20), Brewers (28-25), Twins (26-23) and Rays (29-27) here. If they're still in the hunt as the deadline approaches, they will be buyers, though not necessarily the most aggressive ones, because even if they wind up fading in the summer heat, their futures are generally looking bright.

Barring sudden collapses, it's safe to assume that eight teams that viewed themselves as contenders coming into 2017 will be more aggressive than the aforementioned hopefuls. This group includes the Astros (an MLB-best 38-16), the Nationals (33-19, first in the NL East), the Dodgers (33-21, tops in the NL West), the slow-starting-but-suddenly-surging Red Sox (29-23), the Orioles (27-24) and the reigning AL champion Indians (also 27-24) and—despite the fact that they've slipped below .500—the reigning world champion Cubs (25-27). As long as Chicago doesn’t run away from the pack, there’s no reason to expect the Cardinals (25-25 but just a 1 1/2 back in the NL Central) to drop out.

With 20 of the 30 teams accounted for, here's the muddle in the middle, presented in alphabetical order:

Detroit Tigers (25-28)

General manager Al Avila had a mandate to cut payroll last winter, but when favorable offers for players such as second baseman Ian Kinsler and outfielder J.D. Martinez didn't materialize, Detroit entered the season with a payroll ($199.76 million) that actually exceeded last year's ($198.6 million). Having entered play on Thursday three games back in both the AL Central and wild-card races, the Tigers are not far from a postseason spot, but having vowed to get under the luxury tax threshold for next year—something that's made even harder by the long-term deals of first baseman Miguel Cabrera (eight years and $248 million, through 2023) and pitcher Jordan Zimmermann (five years and $110 million through '20) that push their tax base even higher—the likelihood is that they will become sellers.

Cabrera and ace Justin Verlander aren't going anywhere given their no-trade protection. However, Martinez, a pending free agent who's currently hitting .271/.405/.712, is likely to leave town, and the same goes for Kinsler, who has a dirt-cheap $10 million option (with a $5 million buyout) next year. DH Victor Martinez, making $18 million through next season, could be moved with the team absorbing some salary, and the same goes for struggling closer Francisco Rodriguez and farmed-out righthander Anibal Sanchez if they show any signs of life. 

Kansas City Royals (22-30)

They're not dead yet in either the division or wild card races—sitting 5 1/2 games back in each—but the Royals are in transition, with core players like outfielder Lorenzo Cain, first baseman Eric Hosmer and third baseman Mike Moustakas all pending free agents whom the team likely won't be able to re-sign long term (though the way they're playing…).

With lefty Danny Duffy out six to eight weeks due to an oblique strain, selling seems the more likely route. Fellow starter Ian Kennedy has an opt-out after this year, but his performance to date (5.12 ERA, 5.43 FIP) looks a lot more like his 2013 to '15 struggles (84 ERA+) than his resurgence from last season (117 ERA+), his first year in Kansas City. Shortstop Alcides Escobar (.186/.212/.236) is a change-of-scenery candidate, at best. On the other hand, lefty Jason Vargas (2.39 ERA, 3.22 FIP) has pitched his way into being a significant trade chip.

Los Angeles Angels (28-28)

Coming off an 88-loss season a year ago the Angels are trending in the right direction, but with Mike Trout sidelined for the next six to eight weeks by surgery to repair a torn UCL in his left thumb, it's unrealistic to think that they can remain relevant for much longer. As my frequent SI colleague Joe Sheehan pointed out in his indispensable newsletter, the rest of the offense besides Trout was "hitting" a combined .226/.297/.344 en route to -0.7 WAR, which bodes poorly. Among the pitchers, Tyler Skaggs (oblique) is out until the end of the month and Garret Richards (biceps irritation) won't be back until August, so even if the bats of infielder Danny Espinosa, outfielder Kole Calhoun and DH Albert Pujols show some life, don't expect to see a pennant race in Anaheim this September.

As for what players could be dealt, Espinosa, pitcher Jesse Chavez, third baseman Yunel Escobar, resurgent outfielder Cameron Maybin and newly-minted closer (!) Bud Norris are pending free agents, while pitchers Ricky Nolasco and Huston Street have club options.

Miami Marlins (21-30)

Not much has gone right for the Marlins, who are seeking the franchise's first postseason berth since 2003. The season-best four-game winning streak they took into Thursday night's game offers Miami a flicker of hope that things are turning around, but with the franchise up for sale, it's not difficult to envision owner Jeffrey Loria authorizing one last sell-off, for old time's sake. If that happens, the likes of pitchers Edinson Volquez and Brad Ziegler, both signed to affordable deals that run through next year, could be trade targets. The team could look to move second baseman Dee Gordon, who has rebounded somewhat from a disastrous 2016 to bat .289 with 16 stolen bases, but with more than $40 million remaining on his deal that includes a 2021 option, that won't be easy.

New York Mets (23-29)

Including Thursday's matinee loss to the Brewers at Citi Field, the Mets have gone 7-13 since climbing back to .500 on May 9. With ace Noah Syndergaard out until at least the All-Star break due to his lat strain, the rest of the rotation on shaky ground and the bullpen a mess, the chances of New York turning things around yet again and remaining pointed in the right direction aren't very good.

If the Mets do sell, pending free agents like outfielder Jay Bruce, first baseman Lucas Duda, reliever Addison Reed and second baseman Neil Walker are likely to be among the best available options at their positions, with outfielder Curtis Granderson and infielder Jose Reyes also potentially available. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, who's signed through 2018, could also be moved to make way for top prospect Amed Rosario, though his versatility could allow for a shift to second base if Walker exits. 

Pittsburgh Pirates (24-30)

The PED suspension of outfielder Starling Marte just two weeks into the season dealt Pittsburgh's already slim postseason chances a severe blow, and it's expected that GM Neal Huntington will be making some moves come late July. Outfielder Andrew McCutchen remains available, but the former NL MVP's .223/.301/.404 performance won't net the Bucs the anticipated windfall despite his modest salary ($14 million, with a $14.5 million option for next year). The player on the roster who will, and who very well could be on the go, is ace Gerrit Cole, who has two more years of arbitration eligibility but is unlikely to remain in Pittsburgh long term.  

San Francisco Giants (22-33)

On the heels of last year's Division Series loss to the eventual world champion Cubs, very little has gone right for the Giants, who enter the weekend tied with the Padres for last place in the NL West with identical records. Ace Madison Bumgarner is out until early July due to a dirtbike-induced AC joint sprain, marquee free agent signing Mark Melancon has done only so much to shore up a porous bullpen, and the team's many attempts to fill its vacancies at third base and in leftfield have yielded little; the various and sundry participants at the former position are hitting .230/.279/.310, while at the latter it's .205/.257/.288, and the rest of the outfield hasn't been much better.

The Giants have at least one remaining year of club control over nine of their 10 highest-salaried players, with righty Johnny Cueto—who has an opt-out after this season—the exception, and his current performance (4.37 ERA, 1.4 HR/9) wouldn't get him as big a deal as the six-year, $131 million one that brought him to San Francisco after the 2015 season. All of which is to say that given their core, even if the Giants are out of it, it wouldn't be a surprise to see them buy with an eye toward 2018, which is, of course, an even year.

Seattle Mariners (25-29)

With the Astros off to a blazing start, it appears Seattle's best hope to end its MLB-worst 16-year postseason drought is through the wild card. The Mariners wee 3 1/2 games out in that race entering Thursday, but it's safe to assume that whatever direction they ultimately take, they will be sellers. As Tacoma News-Tribune beat writer Bob Dutton noted last week, M's GM Jerry Dipoto has averaged one 40-man roster-related transaction every 15 hours and 18 minutes since Opening Day. Of course, much of that activity thus far concerns a rotation that lost pitchers Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and James Paxton to injuries; so far, only Paxton is back, and the other two are at least a couple weeks away.

Seattle's core is under club control through at least next year, so it's difficult to envision Dipoto blowing things up completely. If he doesn't, expect supporting cast members like infielder Danny Valencia, outfielder Jarrod Dyson, reliever Steve Cishek and catcher Carlos Ruiz—all pending free agents—to be the ones most likely to head out of town. 

Texas Rangers (26-28)

While a third straight division crown is unlikely given that they are already 12 games behind the Astros, Texas is just 2 1/2 games out in the wild-card chase. That's somewhat remarkable given that the Rangers had a less-than-impressive off-season, have gotten disastrous results from a bullpen that has produced a collective 5.00 ERA and just got third baseman Adrian Beltre in the lineup this week for the first time this season after a calf strain.

Even with southpaw Cole Hamels out until early July due to an oblique strain the rest of the rotation has kept the team afloat. Beltre's return gives manager Jeff Banister some flexibility with the batting order; Joey Gallo's bat, which has produced 16 home runs, has to fit somewhere. Expect better days ahead, though if Texas does slide, it will have plenty to market, including pending free agents like pitchers Yu Darvish and Andrew Cashner as well as catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder Carlos Gomez.

Toronto Blue Jays (26-27)

Since stumbling into a 2-11 hole to start the season, the Blue Jays have had the AL's second-best record (24-16). And while they're still in last place in the AL East, they're just 5 1/2 games behind the front-running Yankees and two back in the wild card, and they are welcoming the Bronx Bombers to Toronto for a four-game series starting Thursday. As if that wasn't enough cause for optimism, lefty Francisco Liriano is coming back from a three-week DL stint because of a shoulder injury to start on Friday.

The Jays won the AL East in 2015 and made the postseason as a wild-card last year. Both of those routes into October remain in play this year. If they falter, they could deal starter Marco Estrada and outfielder Jose Bautista (who has a mutual option for 2018 and a vesting one for '19), both of whom are pending free agents and even explore the possibility of dealing star third baseman Josh Donaldson, who's got one year of club control remaining. 

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