• With less than a week to go before the trade deadline, these are the biggest questions remaining around the league.
By Jon Tayler
July 25, 2019

With less than a week to go before the July 31 trade deadline, the state of the league is unsettled. Separating the buyers from the sellers is no easy task, nor is figuring out what the teams in the middle should or will do. To sort it all out then, here’s a look at the biggest questions as the deadline approaches.

Who are the obvious buyers and sellers?

Per FanGraphs’ playoff odds, seven squads have postseason chances of 0.0%: the Orioles, Blue Jays, White Sox, Tigers, Royals, Mariners and Marlins. All will be looking to move players in search of a better tomorrow. To that group you can add seven more: the Angels (4.5%), Mets (3.9), Reds (3.2), Padres (3.2), Rockies (1.3), Pirates (0.9) and Rangers (0.2), who are all four games or more out of a playoff spot.

On the other side of things, the contenders who have playoff odds of 75% or higher are the Dodgers (100%), Astros (99.9), Yankees (99.7), Braves (96.6), Twins (94.8), Nationals (86.8) and Cubs (80.0). They’ll certainly be fishing for upgrades, particularly the teams on shakier ground like Minnesota, Washington and Chicago.

So who does that leave?

The Red Sox, Rays, Indians, Athletics, Phillies, Brewers, Cardinals, Giants and Diamondbacks are all floating in the middle, likely to see where the next six days take them, or perhaps both buying and selling depending on the market. It all depends on a lot of factors across the league, starting with…

Are the Giants really not going to trade two of the best pitchers on the market?

Thanks to their hot streak, the Giants are no longer obvious sellers, but holding onto Madison Bumgarner and Will Smith when they’re set to hit free agency this winter would be a risky plan. It’s fun to imagine Farhan Zaidi in his office cursing a blue streak every time his team pulls off another come-from-behind win, but San Francisco’s bubble bursting would make his next week that much simpler.

Ultimately, it’s hard to see Zaidi passing up the opportunity to bolster the farm system and make the team younger, no matter how close to a playoff spot the Giants are. But maybe he pursues a soft sell where Smith goes but Bumgarner stays, with San Francisco recouping draft pick compensation for the latter if he leaves.

If the Giants keep Bumgarner, though, that re-shapes the starting pitching market, as the best rental will be off the board, forcing contenders to sift through an expensive group of cost-controlled arms like Marcus Stroman, Matthew Boyd and Trevor Bauer.

Wait, Trevor Bauer? Aren’t the Indians in a playoff spot? Why would they trade Bauer?

With postseason odds of 68.8%, a mere two-game deficit in the AL Central, and control of the first wild-card, you would think that Cleveland wouldn’t hang a “For Sale” sign on its ace. Yet rumors of Bauer being available persist, and where there’s smoke, usually you can find fire.

On some level, it makes sense. Bauer is going to leave vapor trails out of Cleveland when he reaches free agency after the 2020 season, and in a market thin on starters, he’d be the best one available by a wide margin (assuming the Mets aren’t shopping Noah Syndergaard). If Bauer can return major league-ready prospects who can help now and later at a fraction of his cost (he’s looking at making anywhere from $15–20 million in arbitration next season), then the Indians will likely think long and hard about pulling that trigger, even if it worsens their playoff and title chances.

But on the other hand, the Indians have the pieces to win now, and the window to do so with Francisco Lindor is rapidly closing (albeit because Cleveland’s ownership is slamming it shut). A rotation of Bauer, Mike Clevinger and a healthy Corey Kluber can dominate October, and with Jose Ramirez returning from the dead (.314/.324/.629 in the month of July), the lineup is trending toward average. Plus, improving the offense wouldn’t cost much: Rental bats like Nicholas Castellanos, Justin Smoak or Hunter Pence should all be available for cheap. I would bet Bauer stays, barring a massive offer.

So if Bumgarner and Bauer are both off the market, then what should you do if you need a starter?

The pickings for rotation help are slim. Stroman and Boyd represent the best bets if you want someone good and young beyond 2019, but both can be shaky. The Rangers will probably shop veterans Mike Minor and Lance Lynn, but they’re under cheap contracts through 2020, and Texas won’t give them away. The Diamondbacks could deal Robbie Ray, but controllable lefties with big strikeout stuff aren’t exactly cheap. For as much as they bathe in bad publicity like a pig rolling around in the mud, the Mets are likely wary of moving Syndergaard because of what the fanbase’s reaction would be (read: pitchforks and torches), and his price would be gasp-inducing anyway.

But there isn’t much choice beyond that. The best rental starter available is Zack Wheeler, who’s planning to make one final pre-deadline start after a stint on the injured list with shoulder fatigue. Beyond him, you’re gambling on the unsavory likes of Jason Vargas, Jordan Lyles, or Drew Pomeranz.

Is the same true for relievers?

I’m afraid so. Smith is far and away the best free agent-to-be on the market, followed by fellow veteran Giants lefty Tony Watson; after them, it’s a steep drop to Sergio Romo, Greg Holland, Daniel Hudson or a situational option like Jake Diekman. The latter types won’t cost much, at least, but this isn’t a situation where an elite closer will be available for relatively little. If Smith is off the board, teams will have to dig deep to afford Ken Giles, Shane Greene or Kirby Yates, or stomach the long-term contracts of shaky closers like Ian Kennedy or Wade Davis.

So what will be available both in quantity and for cheap?

Do you need a hitter this deadline? Then you’re in luck, because there are plenty of useful bats that will likely cost next to nothing. Castellanos, Smoak, Pence, Freddy Galvis, Scooter Gennett, Todd Frazier, Asdrubal Cabrera, Corey Dickerson, Adam Jones, and maybe even Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu could all be up for grabs over the next week, and none will likely cost more than a B-level prospect or two. Granted, a lot of those names aren’t exactly in their prime or producing much, but if you have a hole in the lineup, you could do a lot worse than picking one of them and hoping for a two-month hot streak.

Still, there’s no Manny Machado-level player in that bunch, save perhaps Abreu, and it’s unlikely any good cost-controlled hitters will change teams between now and Aug. 1. Maybe the Padres reduce their outfield surplus by dealing away one of Hunter Renfroe or Franmil Reyes, or the Rangers pull the plug on Nomar Mazara or Rougned Odor, or someone blows away the Royals with a massive offer for Whit Merrifield. But more likely than not, the hitters who’ll be dealt will be short-term pickups at minimal cost.

Should I be preparing for a relatively quiet deadline, then?

This deadline has the feel of one that’s going to have a lot of rumors but not much action. All the biggest and best names come with immense price tags, and with teams caring about years and dollars and prospects more than ever, it’s hard to see how valuations are going to line up enough for a plethora of trades to take place. That’s not to say nothing will happen; just that, with few quality rentals available, contenders might find themselves priced out of what they want.

Further potentially complicating the market is the disappearance of the August waiver trade deadline. In theory, that should result in more July 31 moves, as contenders no longer have an extra month to fill holes, nor do sellers have more time to get rid of onerous contracts. But with the playoff picture still unsettled for a lot of clubs, one deadline might lead to fewer buyers, as borderline contenders may err toward safety and decide not to spend in pursuit of an unlikely World Series run.

Which team is likeliest to make the most noise, though, if things do get very loud?

The Giants hold the keys to the deadline in Bumgarner and Smith, but the Blue Jays might make hay regardless. Stroman and Giles (both free agents after 2020) seem likely to move, and Smoak, Galvis, Hudson and Eric Sogard will be traded if even a half-decent offer comes across Ross Atkins’s phone. Beyond Toronto, Detroit also could be a popular trade talk partner thanks to Boyd, Greene, Castellanos and Joe Jimenez.

On the other side of things, the Phillies’ playoff odds are a mere 28.3% as their roster has crumbled around them, but they may not have a choice but to try to buy their way back into the hunt. Philadelphia is built to win in the short-term but has no real assets to move even if it continues to slide down the standings. The problem for Matt Klentak is that his team’s problems are wide-ranging. That may mean a flurry of moves for the Phillies, or it may mean a quiet week as they instead try to fix things internally.

The same is true of the Red Sox, who need reinforcements across the board but don’t have the prospects to afford the elite options. Dave Dombrowski is going to have to get creative to improve his team, but never rule him out of getting wild at the deadline.

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