How contenders should fill holes
The goal of a deadline deal for a contending team is to make an upgrade, and the easiest way to do that is to replace an underperforming part.
Below, I identify the biggest hole on a contending team in each of the six divisions. In each case, the position listed is performing near or even below replacement level, meaning the level of production that can be expected from a freely available replacement player, either a minor leaguer or waiver-wire acquisition. These holes are so deep that a league-average player could represent as much of an upgrade in these spots as a star might elsewhere, doing so at a fraction of the cost in players or additional salary.
Having said that, such an upgrade is simply not available at shortstop this year, which is bad news for the Rays, Braves, and Giants, among others. Those three teams all would have made the below list given the size of their holes at shortstop, but with Jose Reyes off the market, the players believed to be available (Ian Desmond, Jason Bartlett, Jamey Carroll, Rafael Furcal, Paul Janish, Juan Uribe) have all been just as bad this season (Carroll in the field, the rest at the plate) as the players they'd be asked to replace.
Also, though Brian McCann just hit the disabled list with an oblique strain, I do not consider the Braves to have a hole at catcher. McCann shouldn't miss much more than the minimum two weeks, and David Ross has hit .284/.382/.498 in 372 plate appearances as a Brave over the last three seasons and is right around those marks again this year. Still, the McCann injury, like the one to Buster Posey earlier this season, is a reminder of just how quickly a hole can open up.
Heyward, the Rookie of the Year runner up a year ago, was supposed to be one of the best players in the NL East this season, not one of the worst, but, as was the case last year, his great potential has been stymied by injuries. This year, the culprit is a sore right shoulder, which began to bother him in early May. Heyward spent the first half of June on the disabled list, but the time off didn't seem to do much good. Heyward has hit .195/.279/.335 since May 1, including a .228/.296/.407 line since his return from the DL. Even moreso than Conger and Rios, Heyward is not a player his team is looking to replace long-term, but if he's not healthy and not hitting (and he's not), it's doing no one any good to keep running him out there. Fortunately, most of the top available rightfielders are rentals, any of whom could help the Braves solidify and enlarge their current three-game lead in the NL Wild Card race.
It just goes to show how true it is that you can never have enough pitching. The Reds were a popular pick to repeat as NL Central champions in part because of their starting pitching depth, but here we are in late July and former ace Edinson Volquez (5.93 ERA, 16 GS) and sophomore lefty Travis Wood (5.11 ERA, 16 GS) are toiling in Triple-A, while Dontrelle Willis, of all people, is holding down the fifth starter's spot in Cincinnati. Willis, who hasn't posted a major league ERA below 5.00 since 2006, isn't even the problem here, at least not yet.
The problem is the formerly league-average innings eater Arroyo, who is still eating innings, but is also coughing up hits and home runs at an alarming pace. Arroyo posted a 3.63 ERA in April, but just four of his 15 starts since have been quality. The Reds have gone 6-9 in those 15 games while Arroyo has allowed 25 home runs and posted a 6.19 ERA. Once again, Arroyo is a player to whom the team has made a long-term commitment, owing him $13.5 million over the next two years, but once again, the team would be better off with him riding pine. Since we're dealing with the mid-market Reds here, we can strike the eight-figure players like Wandy Rodriguez and Derek Lowe from Cincinnati's shopping list. Jimenez, though, would be a bargain even for the Reds at the $4.2 million he is owed for next year, and they just might have the prospects to pry him loose from the Rockies if they are so inclined. The Orioles' Guthrie, meanwhile, might benefit from escaping the powerful AL East.
Not listed among the guilty above is prodigal son Micah Owings, who has gone 2-0 with a 2.35 ERA in three starts for the Diamondbacks, albeit with a lower strikeout rate than Galarraga and a lower strikeout-to-walk ratio than Duke. Owings made two of those starts in late May, and just returned to the rotation on Sunday after a strong showing in the bullpen in between. Still, even though he was once a D-backs prospect, it's a stretch to envision the 28-year-old Owings as the solution to Arizona's fifth-starter problem given his 5.11 career ERA coming into this season and 5.01 ERA in 67 career starts, including those last three.
For those wondering, yes, the Giants, who have scored just 3.61 runs per game, the fourth-worst mark in the majors, need hitting more than the Diamondbacks need pitching, but their need is diffuse, not concentrated in a single position. As noted up top, upgrades in the middle infield aren't readily available via trade this year, and San Francisco has top prospect Brandon Belt on hand to help prop up their performances at first base and in the outfield corners, though they have yet to fully embrace him as a starter. The Giants do need a bat desperately, but in order to experience a significant upgrade, they'll have to acquire a star like Beltran.
Beckett, Lester, and Buchholz have combined to go 25-10 with a 2.85 ERA in 52 starts this season, but with Buchholz out until mid to late August with a strained lower back, three-fifths of the Red Sox' rotation is comprised of the "other than" group above. In addition to that 5.67 ERA, that group has compiled a 1.54 WHIP and is averaging less than 5 2/3 innings per start. Lackey has been better since returning from the disabled list in early June, but still has a 4.99 ERA in his nine starts since then. Wakefield has allowed fewer than five runs in just one of his last five starts, and Andrew Miller, who currently holds the fifth spot in the Boston rotation, has allowed seven runs in two of his last three starts.
As for the target list above, Jimenez is a bit of a pipe dream, and the Dodgers' Kuroda, who has a full no-trade clause, may yet refuse to leave the west coast. The lefty Rodriguez is signed with Houston for $26 million over the next two years, and his $13 million option for his age-35 season would become a player option if he's traded. Old pal Lowe, who helped the Red Sox win the 2004 World Series, is signed with Atlanta for $15 million for his age-39 season next year. Harang has a 4.31 ERA outside of Petco Park. Edwin Jackson, who was just traded on Wednesday morning, would have been the best fit but now the Red Sox may be forced to settle for one of the above.
Rios hit .199/.229/.301 in his first 41 games for the White Sox after being claimed off waivers from the Blue Jays in August 2009. Last year, he had a huge month of May, but steadily declined thereafter, hitting .258/.301/.383 in the second half and .228/.291/.354 in September. This year, he's not only not hitting, but his once-excellent fielding is now grading out as sub-standard according to range-based metrics like Ultimate Zone Rating and Baseball Prospectus's Fielding Runs. Rios is owed $38 million over the next three seasons (including the buyout of his 2015 option), but even if the White Sox aren't willing to write that off as a sunk cost just yet, he'd do the team a lot less harm on the bench. Utility man Brent Lillibridge would be an easy in-house upgrade for the short term, but if the White Sox, who are just 4 ½ games out of first place in the Central entering Wednesday's action, want a proper centerfielder, they'll have to go fishing. Assuming the team remains committed to Rios long-term, a smaller deal for player like Crisp or Cabrera might be the best fit here.
The Angels never appreciated Mike Napoli, and my guess is they still don't realize what they had and what they've lost. Napoli is hitting .276/.386/.564 this season for the team the Angels currently trail by three games in the West. The difference in WARP between Mathis and Napoli this season: 2.5 wins. They player the Angels got for Napoli, Vernon Wells, is hitting .220/.253/.414 and is owed $63 million over the next three seasons. Further complicating things, the rookie Conger, who has struggled as a part timer, is supposed to be the team's catcher of the future, so a deal for a long-term replacement such as the Cubs' Geovany Soto wouldn't make sense. That leaves Angels general manager Tony Reagins to hope that an over-performing veteran such as Hernandez or ex-Angel Molina can stay hot through the end of the season, and that's assuming Hernandez is even available with the Reds still clinging to contention in the NL Central.