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MLB trade deadline: 3 teams who will almost certainly be buyers

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The trade deadline approaches and brings with it a real sense of excitement.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The All-Star rosters are out, which is probably exciting to someone. Maybe even you! The ASG is not particularly my thing, but I still feel a bit of a thrill when they arrive. Not because I care about the game or its outcome, but because it marks the halfway point of the season. Technically, it marks the slightly-more-than-halfway point of the season; after Monday, each team has played at least 82 games and is officially past the midpoint of the summer. Things are getting serious, and that's what excites me.

The time after the All-Star Game is trading season, running up to the deadline of August 1. Things already got off to a bit of an early start thanks to the Padres, who barely waited until June to trade James Shields to the White Sox. They continued their fast-moving ways when they sent Fernando Rodney to the Marlins early last week. But the real action happens in the three weeks that end July, and it's one of my favorite times of the year. There's something about a deadline and a ticking clock that generates a lot of excitement, especially when combined with a bunch of trades. I'm looking forward to it.

With that in mind, I wanted to try to predict the contours of this year's trading season. One could try to predict who will be available for trade, but as the last few years have shown us, the appropriate answer to that question is "everyone, for the right price." It might seem like players on bad teams and without much time left on their contract are guaranteed to be sent elsewhere, but as the Padres demonstrated at last year's trade deadline, that's not always how it works. And, as the Josh Donaldson trade reminded us all, even players who seem untouchable could always be moved, as long as someone is willing to send enough value back in return. So predicting what players are available is not something I'm interested in attempting.

Predicting what positions teams will want to fill via trade, however, is much more fruitful. It's not so much that there are fewer variables; all the reasons that a player might not get traded also mean he might not be traded for. If the cost is too high, or the management of the team evaluates their prospects differently than we do, these predictions might look silly. But unlike predicting the moves of sellers, these guesses are interesting, even if they're wrong. If I say the Padres should trade, I don't know, Cory Spangenberg, and then they don't, nobody really cares, or at least not until the beginning of next year. If I say a competitive team desperately needs to patch a certain hole, and they don't, that's still interesting! A team gunning for the playoffs that doesn't take a seemingly-obvious path to improvement is still worth talking about. In that scenario, I don't feel like I entirely wasted my time writing this article, which is good.

So I'm trying to identify the teams that make the most sense as buyers at this trade deadline. I think there are two main criteria they need to hit in order to qualify:

  • They have to be able to improve via trade. This isn't about whom specifically a given team can acquire, but more generally about how easy it will be for them to improve upon their current baseline performance. A team with above-average or better players at literally every single position is going to find it very difficult to improve, simply because so few players would actually qualify as upgrades to that roster. So this is mostly a question about roster construction and balance.
  • They have to have a reason to try to improve. This is the classic win-curve argument, that the importance of wins is highest for those teams right on the cusp of the playoffs and less for those teams that are either very good or very bad, and thus less sensitive to a difference of one or two wins. The Braves have lots of positions they could certainly improve upon very easily, but given their 28–55 record, I suspect they won't be looking to do so.
With that in mind, here are the teams that are, in my opinion, most likely to be active buyers in the next several weeks:

1. Red Sox, SP/3B/LF/C

This is the obvious first choice, the team that's inspired the most trade talk already. They hit the second criteria squarely, as at the time of this writing, they sit two games back of the Orioles in the AL East, a half-game in front of the Blue Jays, and one game ahead of both the Tigers and Astros in the Wild Card. Per Baseball Prospectus's Playoff Odds, based on their current position in the standings and their projected rest-of-season performance, they have a 40.3 percent chance of winning the division outright and a 23.2 percent chance of taking a Wild Card slot; per FanGraphs's Playoff Odds, those figures are 39.3 percent and 24.6 percent, respectively. They're right on the edge, is the point, and a win in either direction is pretty likely to mean a lot to them come October.

They've also got multiple obvious areas of improvement, meaning the likelihood of finding a piece that fits is high. Their rotation is a bit of a shamble; even if you believe in Steven Wright's fluttering transformation into an ace knuckleballer and think David Price has been mostly unlucky with the long ball and is still an elite pitcher and think Rick Porcello won't turn back into the dinger-prone disappointment of 2015, there are still a lot of innings to fill and no clear candidates to fill them. You can probably get by with Eduardo Rodriguez/Clay Buchholz/Sean O'Sullivan/Henry Owens/Roenis Elias covering one of the two remaining rotation spots and basically hope that one of them figures something out. Planning on two of them to conjure up some magic in the second half is a lot more questionable, and that leaves Boston with an easy place to improve.

Of course, pitchers might not be available, or not at a palatable price, but that won't necessarily stop Boston. Three positions are currently staffed by collections of players that have performed below-average, and depending on your views of them, they all make sense as possible upgrade targets. Third base has been staffed by Travis Shaw and Marco Hernandez, neither of whom has any real minor league pedigree. Shaw has managed to hit thus far, with a 105 wRC+ and .270 TAv both just about average, but everyone is understandably wary of relying on him, given his lack of a track record. The projections do seem to think he's legit, however, with Steamer, ZiPS, and PECOTA all pegging him for 1.0 WAR over the rest of the season, so while this is an upgrade-able spot, it might not make as much sense as some of the alternatives.

Like, for example, left field, a spot Rusney Castillo was supposed to fill and has instead been played primarily by Chris Young and Brock Holt. With the latter battling lingering concussion systems and the former out with a serious hamstring injury, what could conceivably be a valuable platoon instead projects for 0.1 fWAR (FanGraphs depth charts) and 1.0 WARP (BP depth charts). Even if they return quickly, neither Holt nor Young is the sort of player whose performance needs to be in the lineup, so this is another spot where an upgrade seems highly plausible.

That leaves catcher, a position that has undergone a lot of turmoil in Boston this season. The Red Sox have two highly regarded prospects at the position in Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart, but the former has hit for a 50 wRC+/.202 TAv, and the latter is out for the foreseeable future with a severe ankle sprain. The position in the near future will likely be manned by Ryan Hanigan and Sandy Leon, but neither of them appears to be a sustainable solution, as both project to hit a lot like Vazquez has (which is to say, poorly). The result of all that is a FanGraphs rest-of-season projection of 0.9 fWAR, a BP projection of 1.3 WARP, and a position that the Red Sox could upgrade relatively easily. With three easy spots for improvement and every incentive to make those improvements, it seems almost certain the Red Sox will pull the trigger on at least one move in the next few weeks.

2. Tigers, C/CF/SS/SP

The Tigers are in an even more desperate position than the Red Sox, probably; at 44–39, they're 6.5 games out of the AL Central lead and 1.5 games out of a Wild Card slot. FanGraphs gives them an 8.6 percent shot at the division and a 26.8 percent chance of the Wild Card, while BP puts those odds at 4.0 percent and 22.9 percent. Those aren't great, and they might even be so not-great that the Tigers decide not to pull the trigger on a big move. There appears to be a much bigger chance that any upgrades they make simply won't matter, so it's possible the Tigers don't go for it. But, even though it's cliché by now to point this out, Tigers owner Mike Illitch is pretty old (86) and doesn't seem to care much about the long-term future of the Tigers. He puts a heavy emphasis on the present, it appears, and so I suspect the Tigers will pull the trigger on a trade despite their borderline playoff odds.

Like the Red Sox, they've a few potential slots, though reasonable valuations of the players currently occupying those slots can differ wildly. Catcher is a good place to start; the Tigers have given the playing time behind the dish to Jarrod Saltalamacchia, formerly of the Red Sox and Marlins, and James McCann, a 26-year-old with lots of service time remaining. Per FanGraphs, they've been uninspiring, if fine, and project for 1.0 fWAR over the rest of the year, a borderline acceptable figure for a playoff team.

At Baseball Prospectus, however, which takes into account the framing abilities of catchers in its WAR metric, neither looks nearly as adequate. Both have cost their teams about 10 runs per full season over the course of their career, and neither hits well enough to possibly justify that, leading to a -0.7 rest-of-season WARP projection. That is, by a non-zero margin, the worst catcher projection in the league and easily the worst of any possible playoff contender. If the Tigers believe in framing—and they probably should—this is a position that desperately needs reinforcement.

Center field requires less of a hard look to determine it needs upgrading. The bulk of the playing time there has gone to Cameron Maybin, a former top Tigers prospect who has hit surprisingly well this year. He's been a below-average hitter for his career, however, and all the projection systems expect him to return to that in the second half. His defense has also been rather poor; he's already cost the Tigers 3.3 runs in center per UZR and seven runs per DRS. While the Tigers have gotten better-than-expected production out of Maybin in the first half, they should understand the opportunity to upgrade.

Then there are several other positions the Tigers could conceivably upgrade, though none of them is as stark as center field or catcher. At shortstop, a lot depends on what you think of Jose Iglesias's defense, which has always passed the eye test with flying colors and been viewed with lots more skepticism by the advanced fielding metrics. With a bat that's never pulled its own weight — Iglesias is a career .270/.330/.357 hitter, or a .248 TAv/87 wRC+ — it really comes down to the glove. PECOTA projects Iglesias for not-great defense and 0.1 WARP for the rest of the season, so if you agree with that, this is another easy spot to improve upon.

If the right players are available, third baseman Nick Castellanos and starting pitcher Mike Pelfrey are both totally uninspiring eaters of playing time. Castellanos's bat has woken up this year, but his defense is still pretty suspect. He accrued negative value up until this year. In addition to Pelfrey being in the rotation, the Tigers just lost Jordan Zimmermann to the DL and lost Anibal Sanchez to the sands of time long ago. With numerous weak spots, playoff odds right on the brink, and an owner not known for waiting, it seems obvious that Detroit will be an active player this July.

Rangers, C/1B/SP

I really wanted to pick at least one NL team for this list, but I just couldn't do it. As has been pointed out numerous times, the AL is rife with parity this year, while the NL has a pretty clear upper tier and a lot of teams totally out of the race. It's basically the Cardinals, in a similar spot to the Tigers, and the Mets, slightly better and the only NL team to have playoff odds between 50 and 75 percent at either Baseball Prospectus or FanGraphs. Both teams are very well-rounded and don't have any obvious, glaring weaknesses, so it's very easy for me to see them sitting out.

Instead, I think we have to return to the AL and take a look at the Rangers. They aren't a totally intuitive choice, since a 52–32 record and the top spot in the AL West by 7.5 games suggests a team that has been dominant and should be totally secure in its dominance. That's not the Rangers, though. They're a good team, with lots of talent, that has also gotten extremely lucky. That's how you get a team that both FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus project to go .500 for the rest of the season, and also both give roughly a 90 percent chance of making either the Wild Card or Divisional game.

That also means their roster has a lot of gaps that can be easily improved upon. As with the Red Sox and Tigers, we'll start at catcher, which the Rangers have staffed with a motley combination of Bobby Wilson, Bryan Holaday, Robinson Chirinos, and Brett Nicholas. Maybe you recognize some of those names more than others, but none of them is particularly inspiring, either at hitting or fielding. BP projects none of them for greater than 0.1 WARP over the rest of the season, so this is a clear opportunity for the Rangers.

First base has also been a bit of a black hole in Arlington; Mitch Moreland has hit .229/.297/.410, good for a 78 wRC+/ .247 TAv, which might suffice at some positions but certainly not at first base. There are some internal options the Rangers could deploy; Jurickson Profar has been hitting well in his return to the majors and has started to see some playing time at first. Similarly, if Joey Gallo gets called up late in the year, he could easily play some games at the cold corner. Still, one-dimensional-but-useful hitters are one of the most common commodities of the trade deadline, so this still seems like an easy improvement.

That leaves starting pitcher, which is probably the most dire need for the Rangers. Yu Darvish recently pitched a rehab start, and if he returns quickly, he'll join Cole Hamels in a fairly formidable top of the rotation. Behind them, however ... yeesh. Martin Perez and Derek Holland aren't great, but they'll probably do in a pinch. As your third and fourth starters, it's a lot rougher, and it leads to Nick Martinez as your fifth. I won't go into unnecessary detail, but Martinez hasn't been good, and he's not projected to be good, either. If you can make it to the playoffs with this kind of rotation, the fifth starter is no longer an issue, but that's still a big if.

...

So those are my predictions. I expect them to be colossally wrong, because that's what happens to predictions, but trading season is fun, and anticipating and planning for it is fun, too. Enjoy the All-Star Game, if that's your thing. See you on the other side, when the real fun begins.

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Henry Druschel is an Editor of Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @henrydruschel.