Trade deadline preview: NL East
With the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline exactly two weeks away, we kick off a rapid-fire roll through the six divisions to see which teams are buying, which are selling and what moves they can -- and should -- make. First up, the National League East. (NOTE: All teams ranked according to current standings; playoff odds data supplied by Baseball Prospectus.)
Washington Nationals (51-36, 2 1/2 games ahead)
Playoff odds: 53.9% Division/23.6% Wild Card/77.6% Total
Top need: Starting pitching
The Nationals are well-positioned to capture their first playoff spot since the franchise relocated from Montreal to Washington, but it's important to remember that the rebuilding effort starring Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper is ahead of schedule. That could lessen the aggressiveness with which general manager Mike Rizzo pursues trades; he's not going to clean out a farm system that ranked No. 1 according to Baseball America at the beginning of the year but has since been hit by the promotions of Harper, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore, not to mention last winter's trade of Gio Gonzalez. He's got internal help on the way in the form of the eventual returns from injury of rightfielder Jayson Werth and reliever Drew Storen; the former has begun swinging a bat in his return from wrist surgery, while the latter's rehab assignment from surgery to remove a bone fragment in his elbow has reached Double-A Harrisburg. The Nationals will need starting pitching depth to cover for the likely shutdown of Strasburg due to an innings limit, which should arrive in early September; they have an experienced but unexceptional starter stashed at Triple-A in John Lannan, but could get something better even while staying out of the market's deeper end. With Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Lombardozzi on hand, it's conceivable they could trade a cost-controlled middle infielder in the right package, but it's hardly a given.
Atlanta Braves (49-39, 2 1/2 games behind in division, 2 1/2 games ahead in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 34.6%/29.1% Wild Card/63.8% Total
Top need: Starting pitching
After missing the playoffs by a single game last year, you can bank on the Braves being aggressive in their pursuit of help to put them over the top. With Brandon Beachy lost for the season and Mike Minor and Randall Delgado wobbling along, they particularly need help in a rotation that's 13th in the league in ERA (4.16) and 15th in quality start rate (42 percent), even after reviving the career of Ben Sheets, who threw six shutout innings against the Mets on Sunday in his first big league appearance in two years. Atlanta is said to be seeking a top-of-the-rotation arm, with Zack Greinke the name most often connected to them, and Ryan Dempster also in the picture. They're reportedly willing to part with some of their young arms to do so, with Delgado (a top 50 prospect at the outset of the year according to Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus) or Julio Teheran (fifth on both lists) likely to be atop the bill. Upgrading the lineup is a lower priority after the team acquired shortstop Paul Janish over the weekend; he'll help lessen the blow caused by the loss of Andrelton Simmons, who broke a metacarpal bone in his right hand just before the All-Star break and could miss six weeks.
New York Mets (46-43, 6 games behind in division, 3 behind in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 9.1% Division/14.6% Wild Card/23.6% Total
Top needs: Catching, starting and relief pitching
The Mets are in a difficult or even dangerous position as the deadline approaches. They're surprise contenders relative to the expectations set for them at the outset of the season, but they've been dealt a serious dose of reality over the past six weeks, going 17-20 and falling 5 1/2 games in the standings since Johan Santana's June 1 no-hitter. The rotation beyond R.A. Dickey is looking rather haggard; Santana has been lit for a 5.67 ERA in seven starts since his no-no — three quality starts and three disaster starts (more runs allowed than innings pitched) — and they just lost Dillon Gee for the season due to a blood clot in his shoulder, that on top of having already lost Mike Pelfrey to Tommy John surgery back in April. Well-regarded prospects Matt Harvey and Zach Wheeler are under consideration to fill Gee's spot, but both are a bit raw for a playoff race, and could face workload concerns given that they've already passed the 100-inning threshold, so help would appear to be in order.
The bullpen is in even worse shape, with a league-worst 4.90 ERA; closer Frank Francisco (4.97 ERA, 18 saves in 21 opportunities) isn't even the weakest link in the chain of a team that's just 36-10 (.783) when leading after six innings, more than four wins worse than the league average (.878). General manager Sandy Alderson is already said to be in pursuit of an upgrade on Josh Thole (.268/.317/.321) at catcher, with the Rockies' Ramon Hernandez and the Red Sox Kelly Shoppach the top targets. Given their myriad holes, decreasing playoff odds, and a minor league system that's only beginning to get back on its feet, the Mets' best play may be to sell, rather than to buy, though players like Daniel Murphy and Scott Hairston would represent nothing more than spare parts to most contenders.
Miami Marlins (43-46, 9 games behind in division, 6 behind in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 2.4% Division/4.7% Wild Card/7.1% Total
Top need: A reality check
With a 14-24 record since the end of May, and Giancarlo Stanton out for another 3-5 weeks as he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery, the Marlins are already dead in the water, but far be it from owner Jeffrey Loria to acknowledge that fact so quickly given the free agent-driven payroll spike that accompanied the team's new ballpark. Despite the glitzy free agents and the absurd home run sculpture, they're 12th in the league in attendance, and don't need to give the fans another excuse to stay away. More deals like the one that landed Carlos Lee aren't likely to help an offense that's 13th in the league in scoring at 3.84 runs per game and playing without its top hitter, or a pitching staff that's 13th in run prevention at 4.53 per game with ace Josh Johnson carrying a 4.28 ERA and a bullpen that's eligible for FEMA matching funds.
The best thing the Marlins could do would be to sell to rebuild a minor league system that Baseball America ranked 28th coming into the year. With their high ERAs driven by above-average BABIPs, pending free agent Anibal Sanchez (4.12 ERA, 8.0 strikeouts per nine) or cost-controlled Ricky Nolasco (4.47 ERA, $11.5 million contract for next year) could be viewed as change-of-scenery candidates who would make for a reasonable rotation alternatives to Dempster or Matt Garza. The disappointing Gaby Sanchez (.202/.250/.306) and Logan Morrison (.242/.321/.428) both represent cost-controlled buy-low propositions for teams willing to gamble for some offensive help in a thin first base market, and infielder Omar Infante (.279/.304/.436) has the versatility to be somebody's infield patch. Whether the Marlins have the stomach to go this route remains to be seen, but it's the right call.
Philadelphia Phillies (40-51, 13 games behind in division, 10 behind in Wild Card)
Playoff odds: 0.0% Division/0.4% Wild Card/0.4% Total
Top needs: Minor league prospects, decisive action on Cole Hamels
With just a 13-26 record since the beginning of June — 4-11 since the return of Chase Utley, 3-4 since the return of Ryan Howard — the Phillies have reached the end of the line as far as their five-year playoff run goes, and with a farm system that BA ranked 27th coming into the year, passing up the opportunity to rebuild would be a foolish mistake. In Hamels, a 28-year-old pending free agent, they have the trade market's top commodity, a playoff-tested ace who will bring back multiple prospects in a deal. General manager Ruben Amaro Jr. is said to be making one more push to re-sign him, with an offer of at least $120 million, but they'd be better off taking their chances on the open market given that the lefty says he'd consider returning if dealt. The Phillies also have one of the top bats on the market in the form of another pending free agent, Shane Victorino. While his numbers (.251/.316/.389) aren't at their usual level, switch-hitting centerfielders are a rare commodity. Even beyond those two names, the team's wares are considerable if not spectacular; starter Joe Blanton has a 4.79 ERA but he's been at 3.74 over the past month, while infielder Ty Wigginton (.244/.317/.393) has the versatility to be a useful bench bat, and they might as well reap whatever reward there is to be had for the resurgence of Juan Pierre (.316/.354/.385). A longer shot is dealing Jimmy Rollins, who signed to a three-year, $33 million deal; the Dodgers are said to be interested, but such a move would likely require the Phillies to include cash, and the shortstop's 10-and-5 rights could scuttle a trade anyway. One way or another, though, Amaro needs to embrace the reality that the time for change has arrived, and act accordingly.