With just two weeks remaining until the non-waiver trade deadline, the time has come for teams to decide if they’re in or out of this year's pennant races. Should your favorite team make a deal in pursuit of a playoff berth, or should it concede the season and trade the veterans who don’t project to be part of its next winning roster? Today, I offer my take on which American League teams should be buyers and sellers, as well as exactly what they should be picking up or getting rid of. I’ll address the National League tomorrow.
Teams are listed within each category in order of their overall record at the end of Sunday’s games. All stats are as of Sunday, July 17.
Status: First place in AL Central
Biggest Need: Catcher
Cleveland’s catchers—primarily Yan Gomes and Chris Gimenez—have hit .169/.215/.299 this season. That line translates to a split OPS+ of 47, which means that, after a ballpark adjustment, Indians backstops have been 54% worse at the plate than the average major league catcher. Gomes and Gimenez have also been below average pitch framers, per Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, and Gimenez has thrown out just three of the 15 men who have attempted to steal a base against him. Gomes has been so bad in July that the Indians held an elaborate clubhouse exorcism/sacrifice to Major League deity Jobu on Saturday in an effort to lift the hex of their starting catcher, who was mired in an 0-for-27 slump. Gomes did indeed snap his hitless skid on Sunday, only to end up separating his shoulder the same day, sending him to the disabled list.
Merely bringing the Indians’ catching situation up to replacement level would represent a massive improvement; with Gomes out, the catcher tandem is now Gimenez and fellow journeyman Roberto Perez, an even more feeble duo. Landing someone like the Brewers' Jonathan Lucroy (.303/.360/.493 with 12 homers in 336 plate appearances) would be a huge improvement.
Status: First place in AL East
Biggest Need: Starting pitcher
The Twins and Reds are the only teams with a worse rotation ERA this season than Baltimore's 5.14 mark. Just two of the men in the Orioles' starting quintet have an ERA+ at or above league average, and both of them—Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman—have FIPs near 4.30. The O's gave former top prospect Dylan Bundy a chance to start on Sunday, but even if he suddenly blossoms into the pitcher he was once expected to be, their rotation would still be terrible and in desperate need of fixing.
Things are so bad in those last three spots that the worst thing general manager Dan Duquette could do is nothing. Simply acquiring a pair of league-average starters would greatly improve the team’s outlook, and with the Red Sox having already upgraded their rotation by adding All-Star Drew Pomeranz in a trade with the Padres, there is an added sense of urgency in Baltimore.
Status: First place in AL West
Biggest Need: Pitching of any and all kinds
Yu Darvish’s return from the disabled list on Saturday was mostly encouraging, but with Colby Lewis (strained latissimus dorsi) and Derek Holland (shoulder inflammation) out until at least late August, the Rangers’ rotation is still only four men deep. Among those four are Darvish and A.J. Griffin, who have both struggled to stay healthy, and Martin Perez, whose 4.83 FIP and 17 runs allowed in 9 2/3 innings in his last two starts (admittedly against the Red Sox and Cubs, the two best offenses in baseball) are alarming. As much as the rotation could use reinforcements, however, Texas also has the majors' second-worst bullpen ERA, a 5.01 mark that bests only that of the Reds’ abysmal relief corps.
The needs of the Rangers’ pitching staff are significant. Fortunately for them, they have a fantastic farm system from which to deal and one of the top trade chips in baseball in displaced infielder Jurickson Profar, a former No. 1 prospect who is still just 23 years old.
Boston Red Sox
Status: Second place in AL East, 2 games out; leading wild-card race
Biggest Need: Relief pitching
The Red Sox have already made two big additions to their pitching staff, adding Diamondbacks closer Brad Ziegler and Padres ace Drew Pomeranz on either side of the All-Star break. Unfortunately for Boston, its bullpen has sprung more leaks than Ziegler alone can plug. Carson Smith was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery; closer Craig Kimbrel is out for another two to five weeks following knee surgery; and setup man Junichi Tazawa is also on the DL with a shoulder impingement. More help is needed, as the healthy and effective returns of Kimbrel and Tazawa are not guaranteed.
Toronto Blue Jays
Status: Third place in AL East, 3 games out; in second wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Pitching
The Jays have already enjoyed a couple of in-season upgrades via the late-May return of second baseman Devon Travis from the disabled list and a subsequent trade for former All-Star closer Jason Grilli. They have gone 29–17 (.630) since Travis’s return on May 25, matching Cleveland for the second-best record in the AL over that span and leading the majors in runs scored. On Saturday, they will be getting first baseman Chris Colabello back from his performance-enhancing drug suspension, and Jose Bautista (turf toe) could return from the disabled list before the deadline, as well.
Clearly, if the Blue Jays are going to go outside of the organization for an upgrade, it should be to their pitching staff. The big question is if they should just supplement their bullpen or if they need to worry about their rotation as well. The answer will lie in the health and performances of two men: Marco Estrada, who has been battling a bad back all season and opened the second half on the disabled list, and Marcus Stroman, who was lit up in his first post-break start (seven runs, six earned, and three home runs allowed in 4 2/3 innings against the light-hitting A's). That could mean an 11th-hour decision for Toronto’s front office.
Status: Second place in AL West, 4 1/2 games out; 1 game out of wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Centerfielder
The Astros appear to believe that whatever offensive upgrade they need will come via the August callups of top prospect Alex Bregman, who is currently raking in Triple A, and 32-year-old Cuban veteran Yulieski Gurriel, who was signed to a five-year, $47.5 million contract on Friday. Both players are primarily third baseman (well, Bregman is a shortstop, but Houston has that spot covered) but are expected to play multiple positions in order to keep their bats in the lineup.
With those two on the way, the Astros seem likely to focus on improving their pitching before the trading deadline, but their biggest need is an upgrade in centerfield. Houston’s centerfielders have hit just .210/.266/.324 on the season for an sOPS+ of 60. Ironically, the primary offender has been last year’s big deadline addition, Carlos Gomez, who appeared to perk up in June (.286/.362/.452) only to fall into another slump in July (.149/.200/.340).
Status: Second place in AL Central, 6 1/2 games out; 3 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Starting pitcher
The Tigers are hoping to get J.D. Martinez (fractured elbow) back in the lineup before the deadline, which would be a massive upgrade for their offense and would allow them to focus on improving their pitching staff. The back end of their bullpen has been solid, but the unit as a whole has the third-worst relief ERA in the AL (4.46) due to a lack of depth.
Detroit's rotation, meanwhile, is in shambles, with Jordan Zimmermann (neck strain) and Daniel Norris (oblique strain) on the DL and Anibal Sanchez having allowed 12 runs in 8 1/3 innings since returning to the rotation at the start of July. Zimmermann and Norris are both expected back in early August, but the 23-year-old Norris, as well-regarded as he might be, has yet to establish himself as a viable major league starter. With Sanchez having struggled all year, the Tigers would still only have three reliable pitchers at that point, one of whom is rookie Michael Fulmer, who has never thrown more than 124 2/3 innings in a professional season.
Detroit is on the very fringe of the “buyers” group. If the club doesn't make a significant addition to its rotation by July 31, it would seem to have no real hope of a postseason berth. Fortunately for the Tigers, they don’t have any particularly compelling trade chips who will be free agents at year’s end, so standing pat is unlikely to hurt them in the long run.
Kansas City Royals
Status: Tied for third place in AL Central, 8 games out; 4 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Starting pitcher
The Royals’ needs are extensive and complicated by the fact that two of their worst players this season have been two of the core players in their recent run of success: leftfielder Alex Gordon and shortstop Alcides Escobar. Those two aren’t likely to be replaced, limiting Kansas City’s ability to upgrade an offense that has been the second worst in the AL this season. The Royals could still upgrade third base or rightfield and should get centerfielder Lorenzo Cain (hamstring strain) back from the disabled list soon. Still, they seem more likely to achieve a significant upgrade with a trade for a starting pitcher. Only the A’s, Orioles and Twins have had a worse rotation ERA in the AL this year than Kansas City’s 4.93, and it wouldn’t be nearly as disruptive for the team to bump Chris Young to the bullpen or to option Yordano Ventura to Triple A as it would be to bench Gordon or Escobar.
All of that said, the Royals might be best off standing pat and putting their focus on next year. That's when third baseman Mike Moustakas will return from the knee injury that ended his 2016 season in May, and when a slew of important players will be in their walk years. Among them are Cain, Escobar, Moustakas, first baseman Eric Hosmer, designated hitter Kendrys Morales, starters Edinson Volquez and Danny Duffy and relievers Wade Davis and Luke Hochevar.
Chicago White Sox
Status: Tied for third place in AL Central, 8 games out; 4 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Catcher
The White Sox are in a similar position to Kansas City, both in the standings and with regard to their multi-year outlook. Outfielder Melky Cabrera, third baseman Todd Frazier and second baseman Brett Lawrie are all due to become free agents after the 2017 season, so Chicago is unlikely to start tearing things down in the next two weeks. At worst, the club will stand pat or shift its focus to next year.
The White Sox were already buyers once this year, acquiring pitcher James Shields from the Padres in early June. Shields was awful in his first three starts for Chicago but has posted a 2.43 ERA in his last five starts. Still, the Sox could use another starter after Carlos Rodon returns from the disabled list, which would allow them to bounce Miguel Gonzalez from the rotation. (The team's top pick in last year’s draft, righthander Carson Fulmer, was called up on Friday but will be used out of the bullpen.)
Given the concerns about Austin Jackson’s recovery from June knee surgery, Chicago is said to be inquiring about a centerfielder. The team's biggest need, however, is an upgrade at catcher, a position the White Sox badly botched in the off-season, when they released Tyler Flowers and added Alex Avila and Dioner Navarro, sacrificing defense for offense only to get a .206/.293/.330 performance from the position thus far, good for a sOPS+ of just 80.
On The Fence
Status: Third place in AL West, 8 1/2 games out; 5 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Need: Shortstop, starting pitching
Biggest Chip: RHP Steve Cishek
The biggest difference between the Mariners and the Royals and White Sox is that Seattle has some impending free agents who would be worth shopping in the next two weeks and no obvious two-year plan. It would be interesting to see what the M's could get for 34-year-old Korean veteran Dae-ho Lee, who has hit .283/.327/.503 with 12 home runs in 199 plate appearances in his first MLB season, and 33-year-old platoon outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, who has hit .269/.335/.547 with 24 home runs in 355 plate appearances combined in the past two seasons after missing all of 2014 with an illness. With less urgency about next year, Seattle could also shop Cishek, lefthanded platoon outfielder Seth Smith and 35-year-old starter Hisashi Iwakuma, all of whom are under control for next year, the last two via club options.
That said, with Felix Hernandez (calf strain) close to returning from the DL and Taijuan Walker (right foot tendinitis) likely not far behind, the Mariners, who have the fourth-best run differential in the league, could decide to go for it. If so, they could use another starting pitcher to force the struggling Wade Miley out of the rotation and a righthanded-hitting shortstop to platoon with or even outright replace switch-hitting–22-year-old sophomore Ketel Marte, who has struggled at the plate, particularly against lefthanded pitching (.237/.255/.330).
New York Yankees
Status: Fourth place in AL East, 8 1/2 games out; 5 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: RHP Aroldis Chapman
Should the Yankees fail to jump a long list of teams either in the division or wild card races, this will be the third time in the last four years that they will have missed the playoffs. Given that, their front office and ownership should be adjusting to the idea that the best strategy is to shift their focus to next year. That doesn't mean, of course, that New York actually will trade off some of its assets. Nonetheless, the Yankees must sell this month, given the fact that Chapman and rightfielder Carlos Beltran will be two of the biggest names on the market if they do.
The Reds failed to trade Chapman at last year’s deadline despite tons of interest and will likely regret it for years given how much his value dropped after his off-season domestic violence incident. New York benefited from that mistake, but it can’t afford to make a similar one. Yes, the Yankees would get a compensation pick in next year's draft for Chapman, who will be a free agent this winter, but they would do better by landing a proven minor league talent. They are also unlikely to get compensation for Beltran, who will turn 40 in April and is a liability in the field. Given how rarely New York has one of the top 15 picks in the draft (the last time was 1993), the franchise can’t pass up this rare opportunity to bring young talent into its farm system.
Status: Fourth place in AL West, 14 1/2 games out; 11 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: LHP Rich Hill
If the A’s can turn Hill—a 36-year-old reclamation project who has a 2.06 ERA in 17 starts since reemerging with the Red Sox at the end of last year—into prospect gold, his one-year, $6 million contract could prove to be one the best low-stakes gambles in recent memory. Hill and fellow impending free agents like outfielder Josh Reddick and reliever Marc Rzepczynski must go.
It’s only slightly less essential that Oakland cash in third baseman Danny Valencia, who has one arbitration year left. Valencia will turn 32 in September and has hit .296/.355/.507 over the last two seasons. His value is unlikely to get much higher, and the A’s have virtually no chance of winning with him before that evaporates.
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Status: Fifth place in AL West, 15 1/2 games out; 12 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: IF Yunel Escobar
The Angels largely punted this off-season, and since then, they have seen the young starting pitching that was the best non-Mike Trout thing about this team carved up by elbow injuries. It’s time to tear it all down. Trout is not going anywhere, but Escobar (who has a $7 million option for next year) and lefty starter Hector Santiago (who has one arbitration year remaining and a 1.88 ERA in his last six starts) should be shopped.
Los Angeles still has Trout under contract for four more years. It can spend the next two trying to build a team around him as pitchers Andrew Heaney, Garrett Richards and Tyler Skaggs work their way back from their respective ulnar collateral ligament tears.
Tampa Bay Rays
Status: Fifth place in AL East, 18 1/2 games out; 15 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: IF/OF Steve Pearce
The Rays are not only lousy, but they also have very little worth selling. Pearce, who is on a one-year contract, has largely replicated the production of his 2014 breakout season and offers defensive flexibility. He’s not particularly good at any of the positions he plays (first base, second base, third base and the outfield corners), is 33 and is just returning from a hamstring injury this week. Still, a player who has posted an OPS+ above 150 in two of the last three seasons must be worth something, right?
Status: Fifth place in AL West, 21 games out; 17 1/2 games out of wild-card spot
Biggest Chip: IF Eduardo Nuñez
Things obviously haven’t gone according to plan in Minnesota this year, which was reflected in Monday's news that general manager Terry Ryan had been relieved of his duties. The team still has a lot of young talent on the major league roster and in the organization, so whoever will be calling the shots before the deadline will have some attractive pieces to deal. Chief among them is Nuñez, an All-Star this year, who has one arbitration year remaining and offers speed, surprising power and defensive flexibility, having started at shortstop, third base, second base and the outfield corners in recent seasons.
He's not the only piece who could be moved, though. Catcher Kurt Suzuki is a veteran backstop who has had a nice rebound at the plate this year and comes with a $6 million vesting option for next year, the requirement for which (485 plate appearances) he is unlikely to reach even if he plays full time for the remainder of this season. Lefty reliever Fernando Abad has been dominating southpaw batters to the tune of a .163/.196/.256 line and has one more year of team control remaining. Note to prospective buyers: Don't pay attention to Suzuki's or Nuñez’s defense or Abad’s tiny sample size and BABIP.