Like the rate of strikeouts, the noise level around the trade deadline goes up every year. It’s a kettle of cioppino that’s on boil for more than a month. Anything and everything gets thrown in, including the ridiculous (Max Scherzer!), to the overhyped (Yasiel Puig, a guy with an OPS+ of 85 outside of Great America Smallpark) to the usual suspects (any and all lefthanded relievers, who should be given the eponymous name of Diekman, because Jake, as the heir to Francisco Liriano, now has been traded in the last week of July for the third time in five years.)
The kettle is overflowing this year because teams can no longer make August major league trades. All trades must be completed by 4 p.m. ET Wednesday. No more hemming, hawing and deferring for a few more weeks.
The one deadline is contributing to the pressure on teams to get something done. Part of that pressure also can be attributed to clickbait culture. This time of year rumors get more attention than the outcomes of actual games. Teams answer to the noise.
Layered on top of the one deadline and the hype is the recent history of deadline deals. We have come to know that this is the time of year when the World Series could be won.
The past five World Series champions all made significant moves at the deadline (including the old Aug. 31 waiver deadline): the 2014 Giants (Jake Peavy), 2015 Royals (Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist), 2016 Cubs (Aroldis Chapman and Mike Montgomery), 2017 Astros (Justin Verlander) and 2018 Red Sox (Nathan Eovaldi and Ian Kinsler).
And here’s the key: all five of those teams were in first place when they made those deals. The very best must get better.
Given this frenzy, woe to the general manager who decides to let the deadline pass by standing pat. In this new environment, every team feels the heat to get something done–but some more than others. Here are the six teams that face the most pressure at the deadline and the specific need they better address by 4 p.m. Wednesday:
1. Yankees: Starting Pitcher
The Yankees like to make stealth deals–the kind of deals when they are under no pressure to make one (Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, Luke Voit, etc.). But their rotation has been so bad that now they must make a deal, a position in which they are uncomfortable because that’s when the price goes up. The price on Trevor Bauer and Matthew Boyd may be too high.
“They probably wind up with Robbie Ray,” said one American League source working the trade market. “I’d say Ray or [Zack] Wheeler.”
The New York rotation has fallen apart with such deep issues that this appears to be more than a contained slump. The issues involve every starter:
CC Sabathia:He landed on the IL with right knee inflammation. His ERA in his past three starts is 8.79. When Sabathia faces hitters a third time they plaster him for an OPS of 1.016. He may be fiercely competitive, but Sabathia no longer has the swing-and-miss stuff you want out of a postseason starter.
Masahiro Tanaka: He has pitched all season without his best pitch, the splitter, and he finally hit rock bottom in Boston Thursday when he was pounded for a dozen runs. The start turned in the first inning when Tanaka hung an 0-2, two-out slider to Jackie Bradley Jr. That’s the perfect spot for his split, but because he doesn’t trust it any longer, Tanaka threw the slider.
So bad was Tanaka that the Yankees’ support staff immediately launched into a “deep dive” to see if he was tipping his pitches. As one staffer said, “You almost hope that’s what it is. Because if it’s not …” So far, they have come up with nothing.
On the day the staff began investigating whether hitters knew what was coming, Tanaka actually went through a workout on the bullpen mound at Fenway in an attempt to fix his splitter–a rare day-after bullpen session, even if he was throwing at about 70 percent effort. The Yankees believe the slicker, more aerodynamic 2019 baseball may be exacerbating his problems with his split. But the ball isn’t going anywhere, so Tanaka is working hard to see if he can get his old friend back. Without that pitch, Tanaka can’t be trusted.
James Paxton: It is very simple what has happened to Paxton: ever since he injured his left knee and missed most of May, he can’t stay over the rubber long enough, which is causing him to repeatedly leave four-seam fastballs up and over the fat part of the plate. With a slightly below average spin rate on the pitch, he can’t survive those frequent mistakes with location.
It’s easy to see when his season started downhill: After going 3-2 with a 2.81 ERA across eight starts in April and May, Paxton went 2-4 with a 6.38 ERA in June and July. What's more, opponents hit .378 off his fastball in June and July after Paxton held hitters to a .233 clip against his heater in April and May.
People make a big deal out of Paxton's troubles in the first inning. Sure. But what's just as alarming for someone you thought could give you length in the postseason is that he's allowed the highest batting average (.380) going through a lineup for a third time. The next worst pitcher (Tyler Mahle, .352) is still 28 points better than Paxton.
J.A. Happ: As a fastball specialist, he picked a bad year to be down a tick in velocity (but better lately) and down with his command. Happ has been burned all year by a mechanical flaw in his release when he tries to bury his fastball up and in to righthanders–too often he doesn’t get it high enough or far enough in.
(Free advice to Happ: as David Price did midway through last season, I would move Happ from the third base side of the rubber to at least the middle of the rubber, the better position to create an angle in to righthanders.)
And with the baseball this year, those mistakes become home runs. How many? Lots of them:
Most Home Runs Allowed on Four-Seam Fastballs in Strike Zone
Home Runs Allowed
1. J.A. Happ
2. Matthew Boyd, Tigers
3. Five Others Tied
Domingo German: His pro innings high is 123 1/3. He will pass that level before September.
Luis Severino: Who knows when he might actually see game action? Once he gets on a mound, he still needs the equivalent of spring training (at least four weeks and five starts). Yankees GM Brian Cashman admits as the clock begins to work against Severino, the club will consider two paths: build him up slowly to be a 100-pitch starter by the end of the year, or give him more frequent but shorter appearances to make use of him as a 40- to 50-pitch guy who can be an opener or piggyback starter. That decision may also be influenced by the Yankees’ lead in the division.
2. Dodgers: Lefthanded Power Reliever
Last postseason the Dodgers used a lefthander in a high leverage relief role only 10 times, with four of those spots going to converted starter Alex Wood, who yielded what may have been the turning point homer of the World Series (Eduardo Nunez pinch-hit homer in Game 1). Maybe the Dodgers can get by turning Julio Urias into that guy in the postseason. Maybe they think Rich Hill can climb into his time machine and go back to being a relief option. Maybe the closer, Kenley Jansen, rediscovers two ticks on his cutter and stops giving up homers.
This team is too good to be dealing in maybes. Like the 2016 Cubs, who upgraded from Hector Rondon to Chapman at a high cost (Gleyber Torres), the 2019 Dodgers are too good to enter October with a glaring weakness. Good luck getting Will Smith from the Giants, but that’s the sort of platoon-neutral relief ace Los Angeles needs.
3. Houston Astros: Power Starting Pitcher
The Astros thought rookie Forrest Whitley could be for them what Walker Buehler was for the Dodgers last year, but Whitley just returned to minor league game action this month after a two-month “reset” to address a downturn in his stuff.
Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley have been terrific, and any team that hopes to get out of the American League tournament has to find enough starters to at least hang with them in a series. (Good luck.) Houston is 47-20 when they hand the ball to their Big Three. But with anybody else on the hill, the Astros are just another team: 21-19. To lock down the No. 1 seed, Houston needs a reliable fourth starter. Best guess: they get Wheeler, who they prefer over Noah Syndergaard (Houston doesn’t do two-seamers).
Aside to the Yankees: you better get a power pitcher if you want to get through Houston. This is hard to believe, but the Astros are the worst team in baseball at hitting pitches at 95 mph and greater (.205). They are the third best at hitting pitches at 86 MPH and below. You don’t beat Houston with finesse or breaking pitches. You need pure heat.
4. Chicago Cubs: Relief Pitcher
A bad bullpen in July for a contender keeps a GM up at night. GM Jed Hoyer can’t be resting well these days. Cubs relievers are 4-6 with a 5.08 ERA this month with the worst strikeout-to-walk rate in the league. Montgomery (traded), Carl Edwards Jr. (demoted), Xavier Cedeno and Brandon Morrow (injured) are gone. Craig Kimbrel is not in top game shape and heavy usage is catching up to Pedro Strop (460 games from 2012-18), the way it did to Jansen, Bryan Shaw, Kelvin Herrera, Addison Reed, Wade Davis, et al.
Chicago has tried to find answers on the cheap (Derek Holland, Rowan Wick). The Cubs need another reliable arm just to get to October before they think about getting through it.
5. Minnesota Twins: Relief Pitcher
Sergio Romo is not enough for a team sending up signals that it is desperate. Minnesota is running a train station, not a bullpen. This season Minnesota has jettisoned six relievers (Justin Nicolino, Addison Reed, Blake Parker, Mike Morin, Adalberto Mejia and Matt Magill) and brought in seven others (Austin Adams, Ian Krol, Drew Hutchison, Cody Allen, Carlos Torres, Jeremy Bleich and Romo). They’re not done.
This team is reminiscent of the 2017 Brewers and 2018 Phillies–somewhat surprising first-place teams for most of the year that fell short because of a lack of depth. Let’s see if the Twins have been paying attention.
6. Tampa Bay Rays: Power Hitter
No team in the wild-card era has made the playoffs with the lowest payroll in baseball. The Rays are trying to become the first. So you say it’s not fair to ask baseball’s Little Engine That Could to do more and be aggressive at the deadline? I say postseason windows are rare gems that never should be treated casually, no matter the payroll.
On July 18, 2017, the Diamondbacks had lost eight of nine games and already were essentially eliminated from the division race (10 ½ games out). But they invested in the wild-card by swinging a trade to rent J.D. Martinez. They went 40-30 thereafter to hold on to the first wild-card spot. They beat the Rockies at home in the wild-card game before the Dodgers swept them in the NLDS. They played two home playoff games–the only postseason games they have hosted in the past seven years.
The Rays rank 10th in the league in runs per game, 10th in slugging, 11th in home runs, and 11th in OPS against relief pitching. (Pay attention to that category. The top four are the Red Sox, Yankees, Twins and Astros). Too many games now pivot on one or two swings of the bat. Tampa Bay just doesn’t have enough firepower to slug with the elites of the modern game. And no, Eric Sogard alone is not the answer.