It’s trade season in baseball, and once again, teams are forced to decide if they should add players to help them win this season or deal away some veterans to improve their chances of winning in future years. For some teams, the choice is simple; either they have a clear path to the playoffs or they’ve been out of contention for so long that their sights are set on getting better for the next few years.
But what about the glut of teams in wild-card races? Are they contenders or pretenders? Can they improve their rosters now without emptying out the farm? Can they acquire solid prospects without giving up on this year?
The five teams below are stuck at the Trade Deadline fork in the road. My job is to be their GPS.
San Francisco Giants (50-50, 2 1/2 GB in NL Wild-Card)
Schedule before deadline: 3 vs. Cubs, 3 at Padres, 2 at Phillies
Why they’re stuck: Madison Bumgarner is supposed to be traded, right? Maybe not anymore. But should the Giants trade their ace and World Series hero? In April, May and June, that seemed like a foregone conclusion. But the Giants are 14-3 in July and are very much in contention for a wild-card berth. Considering this is Bruce Bochy’s last season, romance could rise above reason and San Francisco could decide to give its Hall of Fame manager one last ride for a fourth ring.
The right direction: If the Giants don’t sell Bumgarner, that doesn’t mean they’ll be all-out buyers. They have a deep bullpen and were already expected to trade one or two of their backend relievers. They could flip one of their relievers for a prospect or two, which would allow them to improve their farm system without giving up on this year. Consider it a hybrid position: Buying for next year without sacrificing this year.
Arizona Diamondbacks (50-50, 2 1/2 GB in NL Wild-Card)
Schedule before deadline: 3 vs. Orioles, 4 at Marlins, 2 at Yankees
Why they’re stuck: The Diamondbacks have been on the path to this crossroads since the season began. They were never going to rival the Dodgers for the division, but they weren’t going to be a last-place team either. But that doesn’t make the decision any easier. They have a +63 run differential (translating to a 56-44 expected win-loss record), which ranks third in the NL behind the Dodgers and Cubs, but there isn’t an obvious hole that, if filled, would get them in the playoffs.
The right direction: The smartest move for Arizona would be to follow the course it started in December when it traded franchise first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to the Cardinals for major-league ready prospects Luke Weaver and Carson Kelly and minor leaguer Andy Young. This trade nudged the Diamondbacks toward a rebuilding state. They should move lefthanded starter Robbie Ray, and if the Giants don’t trade Bumgarner, the Diamondbacks could ask for even more in return for Ray.
Texas Rangers (50-49, 6 1/2 GB in AL Wild-Card)
Schedule before deadline: 3 at Mariners, 4 at A’s, 2 vs. Mariners
Why they’re stuck: The Rangers arrived at this fork from the direction opposite the Giants. They unexpectedly surged through the first half of the season, perhaps with the most qualified comeback player of the year candidates on the same team (Lance Lynn, Hunter Pence). And in less than two weeks, they’ve reversed the trajectory of their season. They’ve lost seven straight games and are 4-10 in July. This comes at the same time the A’s, Angels and Indians are getting hot. Texas is not a playoff team as it is right now, but will it be if it adds another hitter or two? What about another starting pitcher to follow up Mike Minor and Lynn?
The right direction: With the lack of quality starting pitchers available on the trading block, the Rangers would be wise to deal Minor for controllable young talent, players who should be ready to contribute when Texas opens its new stadium next season.
Boston Red Sox (54-46, 3 GB in AL Wild-Card)
Schedule before deadline: 3 at Rays, 4 vs. Yankees, 2 vs. Rays
Why they’re stuck: It’s still hard to comprehend that the Red Sox are in this position with a team that largely mirrors last year's that won 108 games and the World Series. Inconsistency has marred the Sox since the start of this year, and while they have the talent to make a playoff run, they’re simply running out of time to do it. They’re 11 games out of the AL East and at this rate are not catching the Yankees. Boston’s only hope is the wild-card, and even that won’t be easy with the Rays, A’s, Angels and Indians all playing well. And on Sunday the Red Sox’ first deadline acquisition, righthander Andrew Cashner, allowed four runs and lost to the Orioles, his former team. Baltimore starter Asher Wojciechowski no-hit the Boston lineup through six innings and the Red Sox recorded just one hit in the game.
The right decision: The next nine games before the deadline will be crucial for the Red Sox as they decide their course of action. If they buy, they would most likely be adding a few lesser bullpen pieces but would not be making a major splash. They simply don’t have the prospects to land one of the top players on the market. Unless they make up serious ground before the end of the month, the Red Sox should think about doing an abbreviated rebuild for MLB-ready prospects. If done right, they could be back on top within the next two years.
Cleveland Indians (57-41, 3 GB in AL Central, Lead AL Wild-Card)
Schedule before deadline: 3 at Blue Jays, 4 at Royals, 2 vs. Astros
Why they’re stuck: The Indians aren’t at the same fork as the other four clubs. They should definitely buy before the deadline. How to buy, though, is the question. Cleveland has a loaded rotation that, when healthy, has more quality arms than starting spots. Meanwhile, the Indians still lack depth on offense, especially in the outfield. The big question around the league is the same one the Indians are facing: Will Cleveland trade Trevor Bauer?
The right direction: Trade a strength to address a weakness. The Indians need to trade Bauer, who will likely earn between $18-$20 million in arbitration next season. With so many buyers looking for a top-tier starter and another year of control on Bauer, the 28-year-old righthander’s value is never going to be higher. Possible destinations for Bauer could be the Yankees for outfielder Clint Frazier (originally drafted by Cleveland) and another one or two prospects; the Astros for outfield prospect Kyle Tucker; or the Angels for outfielder Jo Adell (their top prospect). If the Dodgers wanted to mask their bullpen woes by adding another starter, Cleveland could send Bauer there for any one of their outfielders. The Braves and Phillies could also be in on Bauer, but if the Indians want to address their outfield with MLB-ready players, it might be tough to work out a deal with either of them.