Trades for Lee, Pence and Rios that should happen, but probably won't
I've spent most of this month covering the trade deadline from many angles -- top targets at given positions, potential destinations, credible rumors about trades under discussion. As the July 31 non-waiver deadline draws near -- it's at 4 PM Eastern on Wednesday -- here are three trades that should happen, but probably won't, for one reason or another.
While the urge to get fanciful isn't easy to resist, I'm not coming entirely from leftfield on any of these. At least as far as the headliners go, all have been discussed by the teams involved to one degree or another.
Cliff Lee to the Orioles
At 58-48, with a +30 run differential, the Orioles are for real, but they're five games out in the AL East race and clinging to the second AL wild-card spot, a half-game ahead of the Indians. They've done this with a rotation that ranks 12th in the league in ERA (4.65), 11th in innings per start (5.8), 10th in quality start rate (49 percent) and 10th in overall run prevention (4.43 runs per game), numbers that will need to improve if they're going to advance. While Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez and Wei-Yin Chen have all pitched well when available -- they have just 50 starts between them -- none of them is anything close to a number one starter, and nobody else who's started more than one game for Baltimore has an ERA below 4.76. The O's need an ace, and Cliff Lee is the only one who's even remotely available.
Though he's become a bit more homer-prone over the last two years, the 34-year-old Lee is still an outstanding pitcher, with a 3.05 ERA, 8.5 strikeouts per nine and a 6.0 strikeout-to-walk ratio this year. He's certainly being paid like an ace. He's owed $25 million a year through 2015, with a $27.5 million club option and a steep $12.5 million buyout for 2016; that option can vest if he remains healthy and durable. So at the very least, he's owed around $70 million including the remainder of this year. While the Phillies (48-56) haven't marketed him aggressively, they're listening to offers, and they want top prospects in addition to freedom from the remaining financial burden. The Orioles, who began the year with the game's 16th-highest payroll at $92.3 million and who have just one significant financial commitment beyond 2014 -- Adam Jones through 2018 -- can afford to take on that salary. If they did, they'd also prevent the competition, particularly the Red Sox (63-44), with whom they're competing in both division and wild-card races, from getting him.
The question is whether Baltimore has the appetite to deal multiple top prospects, or the depth to come up with enough good ones to suit the Phillies. In this case, it would almost certainly mean including either Kevin Gausman, who has been knocked around in his 33 1/3 innings with the big club, or Dylan Bundy, who's out for the year with Tommy John surgery. It would probably also include infielder Jonathan Schoop, who missed two months of this season with a stress fracture in his lower back and is hitting just .268/.327/.399 at Triple-A Norfolk, though he has hit .400/.466/.820 in 58 PA (11 at Norfolk) across three levels since returning to action. Such a deal would almost certainly need to include more than that, and given what the Orioles have, there may not be enough to make Philadelphia general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. do a deal. Furthermore, Lee has a no-trade clause that allows him to block trades to 21 teams. In other words, there are no shortage of reasons this won't get done, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't.
With David Murphy hitting an abysmal .222/.279/.373, Nelson Cruz among the players who could be disciplined for Biogenesis connections and Lance Berkman mulling retirement, the Rangers need offense, particularly given that they've averaged just 3.52 runs per game while going 23-29 since the calendar turned to June. Meanwhile, the Giants are 46-58, 10 games back in the NL West and 11 1/2 back in the wild-card race; they need to start planning for next year.
Pence, who's 30, is making $13.8 million and can be a free agent at the end of the year. He's hitting .277/.320/.457 with 14 homers, numbers that look better when you account for San Francisco's ballpark; his 124 OPS+ ranks seventh among all rightfielders with at least 300 PA. The Giants have told teams they'd rather re-sign him than trade him, and they plan to make him a qualifying offer at the end of the year so they can at least net a supplemental first-round draft pick if he leaves.
Though they just sent five players (including two still to be named) to the Cubs for Matt Garza, the Rangers have the organizational depth to make a deal, particularly when it comes to position prospects, an area where San Francisco is lacking. Given general manager Brian Sabean's longstanding predilection for veterans, the two sides could explore other avenues as well. With Joakim Soria back from Tommy John surgery and Neftali Feliz working his way back as well, the Rangers are willing to deal closer Joe Nathan, who's 38 and in the midst of a strong season (32 saves in 34 attempts, a 1.73 ERA and 9.5 strikeouts per nine) and who just happened to be drafted by Sabean back in 1995; he's got a relatively modest $9 million club option for next year, though he could void it by finishing another 16 games.
Another alternative would be for the two sides to explore moving Ian Kinsler, who has $62 million remaining on his deal through 2017 but who's blocking Jurickson Profar from taking over second base. In that case, Texas would probably have to eat salary and the Giants would need to figure out what to do with Marco Scutaro, who's signed through 2015. Scutaro's versatility would make him an attractive trade target for any contender — particularly the Red Sox and Yankees, neither of whom should be as hot and heavy for Michael Young (.277/.342/.402, -0.6 WAR) as they've reportedly been.
At 62-42, the Pirates have a firm handle on a wild-card spot, and they're just a half-game back in the NL Central, but that doesn't mean they couldn't withstand fortification. As I've noted several times, rightfield has been a particular problem for Pittsburgh; between Travis Snider, Jose Tabata, Garret Jones and others, the team has gotten just a .226/.290/.359 showing, by far the worst in its lineup aside from shortstop, and in fact the worst in the entire league in terms of OPS or OPS+.
Rios, who's currently hitting .272/.324/.428 with 12 homers, isn't a middle-of-the-order hitter, but he would fill that gaping hole and could help out defensively, given that the Pirates are seven runs below average in rightfield according to Defensive Runs Saved. Jones could continue to serve as the long half of a platoon with Gaby Sanchez at first base. The hitch is that the 32-year-old Rios is owed around $5 million for this year, $12.5 million for next year and $1 million for a buyout of a $13.5 million option for 2015, and Pittsburgh has shown a reluctance to take on such a commitment even given that its $66.8 million payroll ranks 26th in the league. Additionally, the White Sox are said to be asking for two top prospects plus a lesser player in return. That's more than they'll get unless they eat a significant amount of remaining money, but the Pirates do have prospects to deal; they came into the year with five players on the Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus Top 100 Prospects lists, including current rotation staple Gerrit Cole. He's obviously untouchable, as is righty Jameson Taillon -- or is he? -- but that still leaves centerfielder Gregory Polanco, righty Luis Heredia and shortstop Alen Hanson, any one of whom could be a potential starting point for a deal. It won't be painless, but neither have the last 20 years of Pirates baseball.