This is one of the most interesting Julys in recent memory. Due to an overwhelming parity, more than two-thirds of the teams in MLB can say that they have a reasonable chance at a playoff spot, including a ridiculous 11 of 14 teams in the AL, where all but three teams are within three games of a postseason berth.
Many point to the expanded playoffs as the reason, but a glance at the standings shows that the addition of a second wild card berth -- which guarantees a team just a single game -- isn't changing the picture so much as the parity. Nineteen MLB teams have from 40 to 47 losses, a compression of the standings that keeps almost everyone thinking about the postseason.
So what are these teams to do in advance of the July 31 deadline? In some cases, there's no decision to be made; the Red Sox, with their bloated, veteran-heavy payroll, high expectations and new health, will be buyers. The Blue Jays, decimated by injuries to their rotation and having just lost Jose Bautista to the DL, will not. Those two teams may be separated by two games in the standings, but are much further apart in reality.
As you move away from the easy calls, though, you find that the bubble is wider than college basketball's on Valentine's Day. Here are a six teams -- three American League and three National League -- that are among the most interesting bubble cases:
You want to believe, because it's a great town and a great park and a great story. Here's the problem: Fundamentally, this isn't a good baseball team. The Orioles have been outscored by 56 runs; only the Twins have a worse differential in the AL. That's more than half a run a game. That's who they are. Their good record in the first six weeks was driven by a bullpen pitching, to a man, way over its head, and some late-game and extra-inning longballs that bolstered the team's performance in close games.
Those wins are banked, and keeping the Orioles in the race, but it's a mirage. Baltimore is a half-game ahead of the Red Sox but have a run differential 114 runs worse. Which of those do you think is more predictive of future performance? There's not much here to sell -- "hold" may be the better term to use -- but the Orioles have no business buying.
The Indians are once again living off a second straight strong start, but whereas the 2011 team fell fast and hard, this one arrested its descent before the All-Star break and has kept itself in two races. We say "OBP is life," and the Tribe proves it, leading the AL in walks drawn for a .335 OBP (third) that is sustaining an offense (410 runs, eighth) lacking in longball power (83, 11th). Some early-season good work by the rotation was a chimera, as it was largely the result of pitchers with poor fundamentals getting lucky on balls in play. Now, the Indians have allowed more runs than any AL team other than the Twins, and their -30 run differential is a strong indication that they should be selling.
In this case, though, Cleveland can take a good look at going the other way. Unlike many AL teams, it can realistically consider itself to have a shot at both the front and back doors to the postseason. The Indians also have a roster that is somewhat easier to improve than most, strong up the middle and weak on the corners. You'd rather be searching for first base and leftfield help at the deadline than at shortstop.
The Indians also need to look for some bullpen support, and that's always the cheapest and easiest thing to find at the trade deadline. The Indians may not be able to get into the ace-starter market -- they made a big bet and lost a year ago on Ubaldo Jimenez -- but could find themselves in the mix for second-tier guys like Jason Vargas and Wandy Rodriguez. With so many players at their peak ages and relatively weak competition, it's their time.
Yesterday's walk-off heroics aside, the A's are playing for the Coin Flip Game, and that's a dangerous spot to be in, because even if you win, you might lose, with a "playoff appearance" consisting of a 2 ½-hour whipping on a Friday afternoon in someone else's park. There are reasons to praise what the A's have done, from filling out the rotation with inexpensive innings eaters to adding power in Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick to winning the offseason's big trade by getting Jarrod Parker and All-Star Ryan Cook from the Diamondbacks for Trevor Cahill.
Look deeper, though, and you see a team that's next-to-last in pitcher strikeouts but first in run prevention, and as the 2011 Pirates will tell you, that's a recipe for a second-half collapse. The A's are more interesting at the plate but no better -- 12th or worse in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging and runs scored -- and have more holes than can be filled at one trade deadline. Better to see what you can get for some of these great stories -- Bartolo Colon and Jonny Gomes and the fluketastic Cook (.156 BABIP, 0% HR/FB) -- and keep your eyes on 2014.
This seemed like an easier call at the All-Star break, but the Diamondbacks were swept coming out of it and slipped to their current position -- and were rumored to be dumping franchise player Justin Upton. Like the Brewers, this was a division champion last year; unlike the Brewers, the Snakes haven't been wiped out by injuries and defections.
Despite their position in the standings, the Diamondbacks have been fundamentally as good as the Giants and Dodgers. That's thanks largely to good work by the back end of the rotation (Wade Miley and Joe Saunders) that has made up for the declines by the front of last year's rotation (Ian Kennedy and the injured Daniel Hudson).
Leaving aside the potential for an Upton trade, Arizona would be most helped by upgrading at third base, especially if it can find a player to stabilize the infield defense. Trading some of its good pitching within the division would be painful, but adding the Padres' Chase Headley would make a world of difference this year and over the next couple. Perhaps the Upton mess is a smokescreen, because it makes a lot more sense for the Diamondbacks to be building around him.
When the Brewers traded for Shawn Marcum and Zack Greinke two offseasons ago, it was with the idea that they'd have a two-year window to win a World Series. They got within two games of the goal last year, falling to the Cardinals in a six-game NLCS, then lost Prince Fielder to free agency. This year's team has suffered injuries that the 2011 version didn't, and combined with regression by the bullpen finds itself in a tough spot: not one of the better teams in the league, but not so far off the pace that selling is an option.
Complicating matters is the decision to sit Greinke for one turn through the rotation, which will make it harder to trade their most attractive chip even if they want to. Given the initial plan to contend, their proximity to a playoff berth and the presence of a great player at his peak in Ryan Braun, the Brewers have to buy. They can look to shore up an awful bullpen with low-profile deals and, as thin as the market is, try to find some help at shortstop or perhaps an outfielder with OBP skills. Barring an immediate losing streak, the Brewers are stuck.
Perhaps the toughest decision on the board, because the indicators point every which way. The Mets have lost six straight, including some crushing defeats fueled by the soft underbelly that is their bullpen. Then again, the easiest thing to fix is a weak bullpen, so that's something that can be addressed. The Mets are fourth in the league in runs in a pitchers' park thanks to a .328 team OBP, which seems like something to build around.
It's hard to look at the Mets' individual performances, though, and see where that is sustainable -- more players, like Ruben Tejada, Kirk Nieuwenhuis and MVP candidate David Wright, are overperforming than the other way around. Despite their zip code, their relatively new park and their regional sports network, the Mets may not be able to afford big-ticket items, leaving them to make marginal improvements. It's a hard sell to a fan base that needs a win and has started to invest in this team, but the losing streak may end up a blessing for a team that is better off looking to future seasons and better financial days.