A Conversation With the 'Angel and Devil' on the Shoulders of Five GMs

MLB's trade deadline is fast approaching. For teams in the postseason hunt, is it time to buy in or sell high on stars?
Author:
Publish date:

Welcome to The Opener, where every weekday morning you’ll get a fresh, topical column to start your day from one of SI.com’s MLB writers.

There are, at least, two sides to every decision-maker in baseball: the optimistic buyer and the cold, calculating seller. The advice of both must be given the proper weight to guide the direction of each franchise. It's sort of like the shoulder angel and devil—except there's no telling whether buying or selling ultimately represents the angel that will lead each team to salvation. 

It appears Cubs GM Jed Hoyer has reluctantly embraced the seller’s lifestyle in the wake of Chicago’s 11-game losing streak. Yankees GM Brian Cashman, meanwhile, has said the Bombers will look to buy unless the team “sinks like a stone.” Atlanta’s Alex Anthopoulos made the first headline-grabbing move of the month on Thursday by trading for Joc Pederson, indicating the Braves aren’t ready to throw in the towel after losing Ronald Acuña Jr. for the year. There’s not much point in debating how they’ll approach the next couple weeks.

But with 19 teams within six games of either a division title or a wild-card berth, there are plenty of other clubs still determining their plans for the trade deadline. At least a few of those teams are likely to fall out of contention before the deadline, while others that remain within a reasonable distance of a playoff spot will decide it’s not worth it to go all in.

I've managed to wrangle (imagine) the transcripts of the internal debates raging inside five different baseball operation offices across the league. After hearing arguments from both sides, I'll try and forge a path forward for clubs straddling the middle of the road as the deadline quickly approaches.

kendall-graveman

Seattle Mariners

Buyer: We haven’t played postseason baseball since Ichiro was a rookie. It’s been 20 years, more than twice as long as the second-longest active postseason drought. Do we really want to run that streak to 21?

Seller: We also have MLB’s longest active drought without a World Series appearance, at 44 seasons. Seattle has never hosted a pennant-winning team since this franchise’s inception in 1977. Our odds of snapping that streak will be better if we wait out this rebuild just a little longer and deal our veterans who are close to free agency (Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, Kendall Graveman) for one last wave of prospects.

Buyer: That’s what we’ve been hearing for the better part of two decades now. We already have a consensus top-five farm system. But the same holes on offense we have now could still be there in a couple years if we don’t make a move. There’s only one infielder among our top 13 prospects, as ranked by MLB.com.

Seller: Yeah … about that offense. Our 89 wRC+ as a team ranks 24th in the majors. We’ve just been extraordinarily clutch (and fortunate) to score enough to win as much as we have. Our 19–8 record in one-run games is the best winning percentage in those contests by a wide margin. We have the run differential of a 40–51 team, which is eight games worse than our actual 48–43 record—by far the largest negative gap in the league.

Buyer: Let’s not forget we’ve also played MLB’s seventh-hardest schedule. And we could be boosted by Cal Raleigh, who’s regarded as the backstop of the future and was just called up before the All-Star break. He’s a switch-hitter with power who had a 23-game hitting streak earlier this season. But we’ll need to upgrade the production at practically every infield position—except for shortstop, where J.P. Crawford has been stellar—if we want to end our postseason drought.

Seller: You’re not wrong. But I think you’re jumping the gun on the timing of those external additions we’ll eventually need to make. Even though we’re only 3.5 games back in the wild card race, FanGraphs gives us just a 2.8% chance of qualifying for the playoffs as a result of our ugly peripherals. Let’s sit back, appreciate the young gems who’ve blossomed in the rotation, and get ready for a run in the near future once the competition in the AL West has weakened.

Verdict: A measured SELL. We know Mariners fans are starving for a playoff contender they can get behind. And we know Trader Jerry is itching to make a deal. But I can’t endorse the buyer’s argument here, unless we’re just talking small deals around the edges—acquiring Asdrubal Cabrera as a utility infielder could be worth a shot. The rebuild is going too well to take a short-sighted approach now. Graveman, a free agent this winter, is the classic sell-high reliever a team like Seattle should be looking to offload. Holding onto Haniger, however, could prove beneficial in 2021 if this team is ready to take another step then. 

Cleveland

Seller: Let me take the first crack here.

Buyer: Please, go ahead.

Seller: Well, where should I begin? Before winning three in a row against the last-place Royals heading into the break, we’d lost nine in a row after being swept by the Astros and Rays, who finished us off with a seven-inning no-hitter.

Buyer: Hey, three of those losses were by one run.

Seller: The no-no’s unofficial nature spared us from becoming the first team in MLB history to be no-hit three times in one season.

Buyer: Our offense was never going to be our strength.

Seller: We’ve also lost series to the Tigers, Twins and Pirates in the last month.

Buyer: Every team hits a rough patch.

Seller: There are four AL East teams and three AL West teams who are tied with us or ahead of us in the standings. In the AL Central, we’re eight games back of the White Sox and closer to the Tigers and Twins (15 GB each) than first place.

Buyer: Sure, but we’re still only 4.5 games back of the second wild-card spot, and that’s not bad considering all of our injuries.

Seller: Okay, let’s talk about those injuries. Our already thin outfield has lost Josh Naylor, Jordan Luplow and Eddie Rosario over the last month. The two pitchers with the most innings pitched—Shane Bieber and Aaron Civale—are on the injured list, and the third (Zach Plesac) returned from a freak thumb injury Thursday against Kansas City and allowed three runs in four innings. Aside from those three, the rest of our team’s starters have an 8.00 ERA this season. Our rotation coming out of the break is as follows: Eli Morgan (8.44 ERA in five starts) Cal Quantrill (6.27 ERA in eight starts), Plesac, J.C. Mejia (8.88 ERA in seven starts) and Triston McKenzie (5.72 ERA in 11 starts). The rotation was supposed to be our strength this season. But the young guys, some of whom have been forced into duty because of injuries, don’t look ready.

Buyer: Yeah, our pitching depth has taken a hit after trading a bunch of our veterans the past couple of years. Who could have seen that coming? But we only have Jose Ramirez under contract for two more years after this one, and we need to take advantage of his presence while we can.

Seller: About that … we should probably trade him, too.

Buyer: What? Already?

Seller: Maybe not now, but in the offseason, yeah. With owner Paul Dolan only willing to open his checkbook enough to pay for the league’s lowest payroll, the window for winning a World Series with the remnants of the 2016 core that got us so close is pretty much shut. Did you read this article from last week by Sports Illustrated’s Will Laws?

Buyer: No. Who’s that?

Seller: I don’t know. But he made some points along those lines that I’m not going to rehash here.

Verdict: Lean more into the rebuild that started with the trade of Francisco Lindor and SELL the likes of Rosario, Cesar Hernandez (career-high 15 home runs), Bryan Shaw (3.25 ERA in 36 appearances) and Blake Parker (2.92 ERA in 14 appearances), all of whom are free agents this winter.

Philadelphia Phillies

Buyer: We’re right at .500, only 3.5 games behind the Mets. We didn’t hire Dave Dombrowski out of retirement or re-sign J.T. Realmuto earlier this year to act like a seller this month. Why shouldn’t we look to improve?

Seller: We haven’t had a winning record since June 13. We’d be out of it in almost any other division.

Buyer: Maybe so, but we’re in the NL Least, baby. Plus, we’ve had the third-toughest schedule in all of baseball so far, so better days are likely ahead. In fact, for the rest of July, we only play one team with a winning record—the Yankees, who aren’t exactly covering themselves in glory. Other than them, we’ve got the Marlins, Braves, Nationals and Pirates on tap. And with Didi Gregorius back in the lineup, we’re probably the healthiest team in the division in terms of long-term injuries.

Seller: Even with a fully intact roster, we don’t have much depth despite boasting a top-five payroll. Our farm system isn’t strong enough to buy real game-changers for the lineup or rotation.

Buyer: We may be a little top-heavy, sure. But our superstars are more or less performing as they should. Once again, it’s our bullpen costing us. We lead the majors with 22 blown saves—but we may have finally found a reliable closer in Ranger Suarez, who has an 0.77 ERA in 35 innings. The sooner we get a couple more relievers we can rely on, the better chance we have to put pressure on the Mets and come out on top in a tight divisional race without an obvious favorite. It wouldn’t be the first time we staged a September comeback against them, and most of the pressure would be on them.

Seller: We already tried an offseason overhaul with the bullpen. Shouldn’t we wait a little longer and see if Joe Girardi can work things out down there? Maybe the roles will fall into place now that Suarez seems to be entrenched at the back.

Buyer: We haven’t made the playoffs in nine years. That’s the longest streak in the NL. We haven’t even finished with a winning record in that span. It’s past time for patience. Once we get to October, good things could happen with Zack Wheeler, Aaron Nola and Zach Eflin fronting the rotation. We have some exciting talent at the lower levels we can afford to dangle. Dombrowski would love to pry away Craig Kimbrel from the Cubs after he won a World Series with him in Boston. He may be out of our price range, but let’s do what we can to get some pitching.

Verdict: BUY cheap, controllable relief help. A back-end starter to force Vince Velasquez out of the rotation for good wouldn’t hurt, either.

Cincinnati Reds

Buyer: Okay, this should be easy. We’re 9–2 in July and just took three out of four on the road against the division-leading Brewers, so we’re now just as close in the standings to them as we are the Cubs and Cardinals down in third.

Seller: Yeah, it’s been a nice run. But you said it yourself; we’re just as close to underachieving two teams in third place—one of which has essentially declared its intention to sell—as we are to the team in first.

Buyer: We’re also just 3.5 games behind the Padres for the second wild card. And our arrow is pointing upward. We’ve allowed just 27 runs in our 11 games this month.

Seller: Against the spiraling Cubs, the last-place Royals and the offensively challenged Brewers.

Buyer: It’s still impressive. And our true strength lies on offense, anyway. We’ve scored the third-most runs in the National League, behind the Dodgers and the … Giants? Wait, that can’t be right.

Seller: It is. And unfortunately, a lot of that probably has to do with Great American Ball Park. Our team wRC+ of 101 indicates we’re just a barely-above average hitting team.

Buyer: That wRC+ is still good for fourth in the NL! And we’re three games above .500 both at home and on the road, so it’s not like we’re the Rockies, who can’t hit a lick outside of their home bandbox. We just put two outfielders, Nick Castellanos and Jesse Winker, in the starting lineup of the All-Star Game.

Seller: Castellanos has been great. So great, in fact, that he’s probably going to end up opting out of his contract after this season. We have to be prepared for that in case the bottom falls out.

Cincinnati Reds right fielder Nick Castellanos (2) reacts after hitting a solo home run to give the 3-2 lead in the seventh inning during a baseball game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, Monday, April 5, 2021, at Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Reds won, 5-3.

Buyer: So shouldn’t we go for it now while we have him at his best? Look, we do have to face the Brewers, Mets, Cardinals, Cubs and Mets again leading up to the trade deadline. If we come out of the break, lose the Brewers series and don’t put some distance between us and our other division rivals, we can re-evaluate. But for now, why don’t you say we bolster the bullpen and try to win our first division crown since 2012? With Luis Castillo finally looking more like himself, it’s our only glaring weakness, and the easiest type of one to shore up this time of year.

Seller: Fine. But don’t you come crying to me if all we have to show for this is getting swept out of the playoffs again.

Verdict: BUY … unless they fall back behind the Cubs and/or Cardinals by the deadline.

Los Angeles Angels

Buyer: Wow, what a week it’s been for us! Shohei Ohtani was the center of the baseball universe and is probably the biggest reason why the All-Star Game got a small ratings boost. Jared Walsh made the play of the game with his diving stop in left field. How can you not invest more in this team with the vibes this high, especially with Mike Trout hopefully back in the lineup by the end of the month?

Seller: Yeah, it’s probably been our best week of the season, maybe aside from that time last month when we had back-to-back sweeps against the Royals and D-Backs. And that’s sort of the problem, isn’t it?

Buyer: Look, this isn’t the year any of us imagined, especially with Mike Trout getting injured. But our manager set a goal of playing .500 ball until he came back, and we’ve actually topped that and gone 27–22 without the best player in the sport. That’s the pace of an 89-win team.

Seller: Sure, but we’ve mostly been beating up on the cellar dwellers. We’re 20–7 against losing teams and 25–37 against winning teams. We won’t be able to make the sort of improvements we need to make to contend for the World Series in the middle of the season.

Buyer: We can’t look at this season as World Series or bust. We owe it to our fans—and to Trout—to make a run at the playoffs. And we have an obvious path to improvement: better starting pitching. We rank 25th with a 5.06 rotation ERA.

Seller: Yeah, but that’s the path every contender will at least be exploring (and what we’ve been trying to improve for the better part of a decade now). Twelve of the 17 teams at or above .500 have at least one starting pitcher on the injured list, and that doesn’t include the Nationals, Braves and Cardinals—three teams who fancy themselves as contenders with at least two starters on the IL—because they’re just below .500. And we don’t have a deep enough farm system to outbid other clubs for the most sought-after names while also maintaining a solid base of prospects for the future.

Buyer: Look, I’m not saying we should go get Max Scherzer. But Ohtani, Alex Cobb and youngster Patrick Sandoval have been our only decent starters. Jose Quintana, Andrew Heaney, Griffin Canning and even 2020 success story Dylan Bundy have all been disappointing to awful. Can we at least get another competent arm to give us a shot? Maybe Colorado’s Jon Gray?

Seller: Our pitching isn’t even completely to blame. We have an awful defense—with Walsh being one of the worst offenders, that nice All-Star snag notwithstanding. And that’s something we can’t overhaul midseason. Meanwhile, we have a couple pending free agents in Cobb and Raisel Iglesias who could actually fetch us something nice to help us get Trout a World Series ring in the future, and not just a token playoff berth in the present.

Buyer: I hear you. Look, we still have some time to make a decision. Here are our opponents for the rest of this month: Mariners, A’s, Twins, Rockies, A’s. That’s not so bad, right? Let’s see how we hold up against those guys without Trout and let that guide us in the right direction.

Verdict: This is maybe the hardest call of them all. It takes a strong stomach to willingly eat another year of Trout’s prime, but there are five teams between the Angels and the second wild-card spot. This has got to be a HOLD, with the decision range likely being a couple modest moves in either direction based on how things unfold the rest of this month.

More MLB Coverage:

Three Big Questions Ahead of the MLB Trade Deadline
Participation Woes Cloud Sho-Stopping All-Star Weekend
How Should the Braves Move Forward Without Ronald Acuña Jr.?
In the Year of Ohtani, MLB’s Stars Are Celebrating the Greatest of Them All