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The ultimate Trade Deadline guide: who should buy and who should sell?

MLB is full of middle of the pack teams that appear to be stuck at a crossroads. I made their decisions for them.

Houston Astros v Seattle Mariners Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

It feels like yesterday that I was just celebrating the beginning of 2017, but here we are, now past the halfway point of the calendar year. The month of July is one of the most significant months during the baseball season, ranking second behind October. It determines which teams will be set for October by including just one date: July 31, the non-waiver trade deadline. We are just three weeks away from the deadline, and yet there is still a lot that must be decided. As of this writing, 10 teams are within four games of .500 in either direction: the Rays, Royals, Twins, Cubs, Angels, Braves, Cardinals, Mariners, Orioles and Rangers.

I have taken on the daunting task of determining which teams are for real and which teams are giving us a nice charade by sorting all 10 teams into two buckets: buyers and sellers. I will begin with the buyers, ranked in descending order from “should definitely buy” to “lean towards buy.”

The buyers

The Chicago Cubs (42-42, +17 run differential)

While the Cubs have been as streaky as they come this season, there is no reason to believe that a World Series-type roster does not exist somewhere among their 25 men.

It’s just been hard for Chicago to fully click this season, and some of that may be attributed to key performers not playing up to their potential. Kyle Schwarber stands out as a perfect example of a player who was supposed to produce more value. Luckily for them, no team has run away with the National League Central (yet), so they may still have an opportunity to get a home playoff series with good play the rest of the way. For this reason, they should try and make said run.

The Cubs have not had to deal with many injuries this year. Regression has been their biggest issue, especially in the rotation. Jake Arrieta, Kyle Hendricks and John Lackey have not pitched as well in 2017 as they did in 2016. The back half of the rotation, which was populated with a more-than-capable arm in Jason Hammel, has seen Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery handle most of the duties.

I think you know where I’m going with this. The Cubs need starting pitching. They could shoot for the moon with a player like the AthleticsSonny Gray, or they could go with a more Cubs-style player like Dan Straily. It’s their call, but if/when this team clicks, they still are a force to be reckoned with. Buying should be a no-brainer.

The Texas Rangers (41-44, +19 run differential)

Texas remains in an interesting position. Unlike last year, the Rangers are actually under-performing their run differential. But, they are playing in a AL West division that is all but decided at this moment in time. The Astros currently have a 16 game lead on the next-closest team in the division, which isn’t even the Rangers. Texas has been plagued with injuries — their 18 disabled list trips ranks fifth in the Majors — and a poor bullpen. Despite this, they are still close in the AL Wild Card race, and a few additions and some returns from injury could certainly help the team make a real run down the stretch.

There are rumors that catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who is a free agent after this season, may be available in a trade, but at the very least, the Rangers should see how they perform over the next few weeks before making any rash decisions. With all the mediocre teams in the American League, there could be an opportunity for them to pull away if the time is right.

If the Rangers do decide to buy, a relief arm would be at the top of their wishlist. A few good fits for Texas could include Sean Doolittle, Justin Wilson, Kelvin Herrera or even Brad Hand. Pat Neshek could also be a low cost option for Texas. Offensive upgrades could come in the form of depth, as the team is currently only carrying three bats on the bench.

The Seattle Mariners (41-45, -9 run differential)

General manager Jerry Dipoto just likes to make moves. With that in mind, we can expect the Mariners to be busy on trade deadline day, as they usually are wont to do. Seattle is also well out of the AL West race, but they had a decent June (15-12) amidst injuries, including one to ace starter Felix Hernandez, who did not rejoin the team until the 23rd. The Mariners’ streakiness can be summed up in just two games. On June 12, in Minnesota against the Twins, the Mariners handedly won, 14-3. The next day, June 13, Seattle found themselves on the losing end of a 20-7 game. Their total run differential for those two lopsided affairs? Just -2.

The Mariners have gotten excellent production out of Jarrod Dyson in the outfield, and Ben Gamel is having a breakout year, posting a 134 wRC+ to date. The Mariners have nine different batters with 1.0 or more fWAR, and their position players rank fourth in the AL with a 11.8 total fWAR. On the flip side, Mariners’ pitching is bad. Outside of James Paxton (2.2 fWAR), no Mariners pitcher has eclipsed the 1.0 fWAR mark.

A trade for a starter (or multiple) seems inevitable if the Mariners want to make noise in the American League wildcard race. If the A’s decide to move him, Sean Manaea could be a great option for Seattle, considering he is a young, controllable starter that could pitch alongside Paxton and Hernandez for years to come.

The Tampa Bay Rays (44-42, +15 run differential)

The Rays generally are not a team that makes a huge trade in the “buy” column en route to a postseason run, but they already indicated that they are looking to trade for talent this trade deadline season with the acquisition of Adeiny Hechavarria at the end of June. The team is still in the running for both a Wild Card spot and the division title, as they currently are in a two-way tie for the second Wild Card and are only five games out of the AL East race. Interestingly, some have suggested that Tampa Bay could still consider moving longterm pieces like Chris Archer as the deadline gets closer, but the Hechavarria trade may signal otherwise. Tampa has rarely made huge splashes during deadline season, so this trade represents a big move for them.

The Rays’ biggest additions from here on out may just come internally. Matt Duffy, Kevin Kiermaier, and Brad Miller are all injured. Brad Boxberger was just activated from the 60-day disabled list. The team could easily see an uptick in play just from these players, so any more outside additions may not be necessary.

Regardless, the team could still look to trade for a reliever to serve in front of closer Alex Colome. If they made such a move for a low-cost middle reliever, it is likely that they would not need to ruin their prized farm system in the process. So, the Rays may serve as “buyers” in name only as July 31 approaches.

The St. Louis Cardinals (40-44, +4 run differential)

In 2016, the Cardinals missed the playoffs for the first time in five years, but they are right back in the mix this year at just 5 ½ games out of the division lead. Of my ‘buyers’, the Cardinals are right in the middle. They could definitely justify trying to make a run; the team has received solid production from different spots in the order this season. Jedd Gyorko, for one, has been phenomenal value for them.

The rotation is not a problem in St. Louis. Carlos Martinez has pitched very well. Mike Leake has been a pleasant surprise. Michael Wacha and Lance Lynn have both been capable options. Adam Wainwright has had good peripherals that may signal a rebound is in the works. The Cardinals have the pitching to take them to the playoffs.

While the Cards would certainly be reluctant to blow out their farm system up in order to try and make a postseason run, J.D. Martinez could be an intriguing fit for them in the outfield if the price isn’t too steep. For now, though, the Cardinals probably need to see how well the team performs over the next few weeks before making a final decision.

Now, here are the sellers, ranked from “should definitely sell” to “could go either way.”

The sellers

The Baltimore Orioles (40-44, -83 run differential)

The Orioles were 22-10 on May 9, reminding fans once again why the Major League Baseball season is a marathon, not a sprint. Can you imagine that we were once discussing a Nationals-Orioles Beltway World Series? Since they peaked on that date, Baltimore is 18-34, second-worst in the Majors. Of this group, no team appears to be more set on selling than the O’s, making them an easy choice to put at the top of my list.

The question becomes: how bad will it be? In my mind, this is the year that the team dangles Manny Machado in a deal. Unfortunately, he’s struggled to produce at the same offensive levels as he once did, making his value ever-so-slightly lower than it was just a year ago. It may be better for Baltimore to move him in the offseason. But, the advantage of trading him now is that Machado’s future team gets a year-and-a-half of his services, as opposed to just a rental. That’s going to be a tough decision for the Orioles, and they can only hope he heats up over the next few weeks.

Otherwise, Seth Smith, Ubaldo Jimenez and Chris Tillman are the Orioles’ only impending free agents after this year (Welington Castillo has a $7 million player option), and none of them would likely warrant an excellent return. This July could be the time when the Orioles decide to go into a full-on rebuild for the future.

The Minnesota Twins (43-41, -55 run differential)

The Twins have played very well this season, but they have not turned the corner necessary to compete in the tough American League. After winning just 59 games last season, the team is keeping their record above the .500 threshold all the way into July.

Unfortunately, they’ve also been one of the luckiest teams in baseball, and their pythagorean record suggests that they should be a much worse 37-47 instead.

One cannot discount their first half performance, though. Minnesota has played well, and Miguel Sano, Byron Buxton and Max Kepler all appear to be legitimate long term assets. The future is very bright for this team, but attempting to make a run now would be a mistake.

With all the youth, though, makes it hard to find pieces for the Twins to dangle at the deadline. They have just four players — Hector Santiago, Brandon Kintzler, Craig Breslow and Matt Belisle — that will be free agents after this season. Kintzler could fetch them their largest return; he has a 2.41 ERA and a 24:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio this season in 37 ⅓ innings out of the bullpen, collecting 22 saves in 25 opportunities.

The Atlanta Braves (40-43, -54 run differential)

Like the Twins, the Braves have gone from being one of the worst teams in Major League Baseball to a much more respectable close-to-.500 team. Perhaps the most interesting story-line out of Atlanta this season was the Matt Adams trade, which prompted them to move Freddie Freeman to third base due to Adams’ superb offensive output and his inability to play anywhere else but first. Still, one thing is for certain: the Braves are headed in the right direction, but like Minnesota, they have a ways to go.

Adams, who will be a free agent next offseason, makes for an interesting flip candidate for teams that are short on first base depth. Essentially, Atlanta could deal Adams mere weeks after acquiring him and get a far superior return than the 19-year-old Single A pitcher they gave up. Of course, they could always keep Adams, but his value has never been higher. Brandon Phillips and Jaime Garcia, both free agents after this season, may be better trade options than Adams. Neither player has been fantastic, but they could be useful low-cost options for a contending team.

While I do have the Braves listed as a seller, I could envision a scenario in which they do both — buy and sell. They have been connected to long-term options, and if the Rays do decide to sell, Chris Archer may be a prime target for them. Though, it is probably more likely that a big splash for the Braves occurs during the offseason.

The Los Angeles Angels (44-45, -12 run differential)

I struggled to find a place for the Angels because their run differential isn’t that bad, but it isn’t good enough to suggest a run is imminent. My biggest issue was that the Angels began to play their best baseball after Mike Trout got injured, so they remain in a cloud of uncertainty as to how well they will play once he returns. Even still, it may be too little, too late, as Trout may only have two weeks to show the true Angels before decision day comes.

Judging from the amount of actual talent the Angels have on their roster, they look a lot more like sellers than buyers. Trout is the only position player on their roster with an OPS+ above 110. Their starting pitching is a collection of below-average arms. The only thing the Angels truly have going for them — outside of having the best player on the planet on the roster — is their bullpen. Bud Norris, Yusmeiro Petit, Blake Parker and David Hernandez all have thrown 25+ innings with an ERA below 3.00, all while averaging more than one strikeout per inning. The Angels have the fourth-best record in one run games in the Majors, and this is the main reason why.

Since it’s hard to find bullpen success that carries over from year-to-year, the Angels should strongly consider dealing any of those guys. Parker may be the only pitcher from that group worth keeping considering the amount of team control he offers, but at 32, he may be in the midst of a performance he’ll never be able to repeat. The Angels have an opportunity to cash into a market where many teams are starved for relievers.

The Kansas City Royals (44-40, -18 run differential)

The Royals are playing well right now, so it seems a bit curious as to why I placed them in the “seller” category. The team is 22-10 since June 1, good for best in the American League. Yet, according to FanGraphs, the team has just a 35.0 percent chance to make the playoffs and just a 0.9 percent chance to win the World Series. And, although my boss Henry Druschel wrote just a few days ago about why the Royals should buy, citing entertainment, I would respectfully disagree.

Kansas City must pull the trigger now in order to avoid falling into a multi-year rut of ambiguity. Core players Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar (though he’s having a pretty awful year) are all free agents this winter, and in my mind the team’s market size isn’t big enough to keep any more than just one of them. To add insult to injury, there are two Boras clients in the bunch in Hosmer and Moustakas who are very likely walking away fro KC when their contracts expire.

This team needs to restock the farm, and they don’t have the qualifying offer rules to help them out under the new CBA, either. In February, Minor League Ball rated the Royals’ minor league system as the 25th-best in the Majors. Kansas City needs to focus on acquiring talent that is able to help them out in two to three years when they begin to build their next core.

It’s hard to believe that we are more than halfway through the 2017 Major League Baseball season, but for these 10 teams, the next two weeks could determine their organizational fates for a long time to come.

Stats current through games played on Wednesday, July 5.

Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @DevanFink.