Even among a host of contenders with bullpen woes, those of the Nationals stand out. Not only does their 'pen own the majors' worst ERA by a wide margin—through Sunday, their 5.31 mark is 0.29 runs worse than the Mets'—but the unit's struggles have reportedly divided the clubhouse. After a winter of failing to address the problem comprehensively, Washington finally did something about it on Sunday, trading reliever Blake Treinien and a pair of prospects to the A's in exchange for lefty Sean Doolittle and righty Ryan Madson, both of whom have served as successful closers in the past.
Despite their sizable lead in the NL East, the Nationals probably aren't done dealing, and not only because of the mounting pressure to get past the Division Series, something they have never done since moving to the nation's capital a dozen years ago. They won't be the only division leader looking to make some moves before the July 31 deadline. Here's a look at what each of those clubs, presented in alphabetical order, must do during the next two weeks:
Record: 52-41, 3 games ahead in AL East
Top needs: Third base, bullpen
Last week, the Red Sox released Pablo Sandoval right around the halfway point of a disastrous five-year, $95 million contract that produced -2.0 WAR in 161 games. Between Sandoval, Devin Marrero and the five other players who have spotted at the position, Boston's third basemen have combined to hit just .228/.283/.327, by far the AL's worst performance. Rightly cautious about rushing 20-year-old Rafael Devers—a consensus top-20 prospect coming into the season—the Sox will instead need help from outside the organization and are said to be "moving closer" to a deal for White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier. If that falls through, they're known to have expressed interest in the Marlins' Martin Prado. Other options could include Pittsburgh's David Freese, Oakland's Jed Lowrie and San Diego's Yangervis Solarte.
Boston is known to have scouted another White Sox player, righthander David Robertson, suggesting that the club is in need of setup help in front of closer Craig Kimbrel. Tyler Thornburg, whom the Red Sox expected to be their top setup man this year, never pitched and recently underwent season-ending surgery to correct thoracic outlet syndrome. Carson Smith has battled shoulder inflammation while attempting to return from May 2016 Tommy John surgery, and Joe Kelly recently went down with a hamstring strain, though the team expects him back by the end of the month.
Record: 47-43, 1 1/2 games ahead in AL Central
Top needs: Starting pitching, bat
Perhaps it's a hangover from last year's deep postseason run, but aside from Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco (whose fractured metacarpal shelved him last fall), Cleveland's rotation has taken a significant step back. In fact, its starters ranked second in ERA in 2016 (4.08) but has slipped to seventh (4.38) this year despite improved peripherals (a 3.78 FIP, down from from 4.05 a season ago). Trevor Bauer, Josh Tomlin and Danny Salazar (who hasn't pitched in the majors since May 27 due to shoulder soreness) are all sporting ERAs of 5.40 or worse. The Indians are one of several teams known to be interested in Oakland ace Sonny Gray, and they could be willing to surrender top catching prospect Francisco Mejia to land a premium player.
As for the offense, it could use help at any one of a number of spots. Catchers Yan Gomes and Roberto Perez have been dreadful on the offensive side, and though Cleveland is more than satisfied with their defense, the club could accelerate the arrival of the 21-year-old Mejia, currently in Double A, if he's not traded. Second baseman Jason Kipnis and rightfielder Lonnie Chisenhall are both on the DL and may not be back until August; the former has just .232/.292/.402 for a 77 OPS+ this year, so some insurance might be in order either at the keystone or at third base, given that Jose Ramirez has made 17 starts at second in Kipnis' absence (mostly early in the year). First baseman Carlos Santana has hit just .236/.337/.405 for a 92 OPS+ and has been particularly inept against lefties (.220/.309/.371). The Indians aren't likely to fill all of those needs, but they can cast a wide net and find help somewhere at a low cost.
Record: 62-30, 16 1/2 games ahead in AL West
Top need: Pitching
Given their substantial division lead, the Astros can afford to look toward October, and with their offense cranking out nearly six runs per game, the focus should be on pitching. While Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers have both been brilliant, each has spent time on the disabled list for the second straight season, and together they've combined for just 28 starts. Keuchel, sidelined twice by a pinched nerve in his neck, last pitched in a big league game on June 2, and the hope is that he will be back by the end of the month. The same goes for fellow starter Collin McHugh, who hasn't pitched in the majors this year due to elbow impingement. With Mike Fiers and Charlie Morton roughly average but erratic, an upgrade is in order. Houston is said to want a difference maker. Having lost out on Jose Quintana, the team is one of many said to be interested in Gray, who fits that bill; they've also been connected to the Giants' Jeff Samardzija, who doesn't. Pittsburgh's Gerrit Cole (under control through 2019) or Atlanta's Julio Teheran (through 2020) both make some sense as well given that the Astros will have to give up real talent.
If the cost is too prohibitive, Houston could focus on its bullpen and attempt to pry Zach Britton from the Orioles, who will be listening to offers for Brad Brach and Darren O'Day as well. It's also worth noting that the Astros just lost righty Will Harris to a bout of shoulder inflammation, and their righty-heavy staff could use another bullpen lefty alongside Tony Sipp.
Record: 64-29, 10 1/2 games ahead in NL West
Top need: Bullpen, corner outfielder
Having lost Julio Urias for the season due to an anterior capsule tear, many point to the Dodgers' relatively unheralded rotation behind Clayton Kershaw as their biggest weakness. That said, Alex Wood, who began the year in the bullpen, pitched his way onto the NL All-Star team, Rich Hill has rounded into form, Brandon McCarthy has rebounded from a difficult return from Tommy John surgery and both KentaMaeda and Hyun-Jin Ryu have been serviceable. It's difficult to imagine president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman parting with a blue chip prospect such as Alex Verdugo to get another frontline starter, though it's worth noting that the team could dangle centerfielderJoc Pederson in such a deal given the emergence of Chris Taylor.
Where Los Angeles could use more help is in the bullpen. For as effective as righties Pedro Baez, Josh Fields and Brandon Morrow have been, if there's a chance to get Britton from the Orioles it would be difficult to pass up. Lefties Luis Avilan and Grant Dayton have been shaky, so an extra option or two wouldn't hurt. Offensively, the team is known to be interested in the Tigers' J.D. Martinez, which suggests that they don't expect much out of the injured Adrian Gonzalez (currently on the DL with a herniated disc), since Cody Bellinger has become a lineup staple and would presumably return to leftfield given a healthy Gonzalez.
Record: 52-42, 4 1/2 games ahead in NL Central
Top need: Starting pitching, second base
As surprise contenders less than two years after beginning their rebuilding effort, the Brewers wouldn't seem to be a team likely to dig too deeply into their farm system to shore up their roster. However, they did pursue Quintana and are said to have shown "the most interest" in Gray, which would mean they're open to moving major talent. They've also expressed interest in the Blue Jays' J.A. Happ, and if GM David Stearns has called Toronto, one would figure they also discussed ex-Brewer Marco Estrada, who unlike Happ will be a free agent this winter. Bullpen-wise, Milwaukee just traded for Yankees rookie lefty Tyler Webb and has been mentioned in connection to Padres lefty Brad Hand, a 2017 All-Star who has become a hot commodity.
The Brewers' major offensive weakness has been at second base, where Jonathan Villar, who enjoyed a breakout season last year, is hitting just .225/.288/.351. Given Villar enjoyed greater success as a multiposition utilityman, the club could return him to that role while grabbing a rental such as the Braves' Brandon Phillips, the A's Jed Lowrie or the Giants' Eduardo Nunez. The Mets have a couple trade candidates in the infield, but Neil Walker is out until early August with a hamstring injury and Asdrubal Cabrera may not be enamored about the idea of playing second base full time.
Record: 55-36, 9 1/2 games ahead in NL East
Top need: Starting pitching
Having dealt for a closer for the third straight season (Jonathan Papelbon in 2015 and Mark Melancon last year year), general manager Mike Rizzo can turn his attention to replacing Joe Ross, who was just lost for the year to Tommy John surgery. Edwin Jackson, slated to take his spot on Tuesday, isn’t the long-term answer, and neither are other internal options such as Jacob Turner or A.J. Cole. Rental options such as the Blue Jays’ Marco Estrada, the Braves’ Jaime Garcia and the Padres’ Trevor Cahill and Jhoulys Chacin are among those who make sense here.
Even with the Doolittle/Madson deal completed, there’s still buzz about Rizzo focusing on the bullpen, with the Padres’ Brad Hand and the Tigers’ Justin Wilson, both lefties, among those known to interest him. Also, with shortstop Trea Turner lacking a timetable for his return from a fracture in his right wrist, it will be interesting to see if Washington makes a move to pick up Danny Espinosa, who was just DFA’d by the Angels after hitting a dreadful .163/.237/.276. Espinosa’s presence forced the rookie Turner to centerfield last year; with Adam Eaton out for the season and Michael Taylor currently out with an oblique injury, the Nats could add some depth and flexibility via a reunion.