With a little over a week to go before the MLB trade deadline, middle-of-the-pack teams have to make decisions to determine whether or not they are going for it all in 2019.
MLB eliminated the waiver trade deadline, so the roster at 4:00 ET on August 1st is the roster that teams will have until the end of the year. We’ve already seen some ancillary moves, like the Red Sox acquiring veteran starting pitcher Andrew Cashner, but what other teams are best-positioned as buyers at this point?
Topping the buyers list is the Indians, a team that pretty much everyone expected would do something in the off-season to solidify their favorite-status in the American League Central, and position themselves for a World Series run. Well, Mike Chernoff and company naively and wrongly assumed the team was just good enough to take the division as-is, and so they made exactly zero impact moves this past off-season.
As of Tuesday, the Indians trail the Twins in the Central by six games, and per FanGraphs’ projections, have only a 10 percent chance to win the division /slow clap.
Cleveland’s offense needs some pop. With a team wRC+ of 91, they rank 11th in the American League. Their 122 home runs are nearly 50 (!) behind the league-leading Twins, and despite a baseball that everyone recognizes is causing more power at the dish, their .419 slugging percentage is in the bottom-third of the AL as well.
One area for improvement is at second base, where Jason Kipnis has been a complete black-hole at the plate. The 32-year-old second baseman has a sub-.300 OBP and a 71 wRC+ in over 300 plate appearances. He has been atrocious against left handed pitchers, posting a .186/.210/.258 slash line in over 100 plate appearances.
One possibility that can help the team, and also keep the penny-pinching front-office happy is the recently DFA’d Eduardo Nunez. Nunez is a right handed batter (though he has reverse platoon splits for his career numbers) who last year gave the Red Sox a nice bump in the postseason. If they prefer the more expensive (though modestly expensive) they can try an inter-divisional deal to land Whit Merrifield.
The Indians had some bad luck this season, with Corey Kluber going down and being shelved for several months, and Carlos Carrasco being sidelined as he recovers from Leukemia. Kluber will likely be back for a potential playoff run and it’s possible Carrasaco comes back this season, but rightly so, baseball is not a priority for him at this point. If Kluber and Carrasco were back for a late-season run, Cleveland’s offense still needs to improve for them to make a run at the division or in the playoffs in general.
Regardless of what the Yankees do this trade deadline, they have positioned themselves brilliantly in the AL East. Despite a myriad of injuries, the Yanks overcame early season adversity to take command of the division, despite having more talent on the Injured List than on the field,
New York is in full-command of the East, with a five game lead over the Rays, who are not likely to do much, if anything at the deadline, and firmly nine games ahead of Boston, which can’t seem to get out of its own way and very likely will not contend for the division this season.
It’s not a shock to hear that the Yankees are looking for an impact starter. With names like Trevor Bauer, Madison Bumgarner, and Marcus Stroman leading the list. They have the depth and talent to put together a decent offer, and money should be secondary to adding an impact starter.
It’s been ten years since the Yankees made it to the World Series, while during that same time, the Red Sox have two World Championships. This can’t sit well with New York fans, but 2019 is ripe for the taking. One impact-starter and the Yankees may surpass the Astros as the American League favorites.
The Nationals got off to a rough start, but since June 1st, they are 25-10 (.714 winning percentage). They sit well-behind Atlanta by 7 ½ games, and currently sit in the top the wild card spot, two games ahead of both the Phillies and Cardinals,.
The division may be lost, but the addition of a strong reliever would be helpful. Perhaps the Giants’ Will Smith fits the bill? Smith is a rental-closer who isn’t going to break the bank at about $4 million. The other thing to consider is that this is a zero-sum game, and if the Nationals don’t acquire Smith, one of their wild card competitors may end up with him.
The Nationals will be taking a major chance going into the playoffs with their current constructed bullpen. They likely need at least two relievers to improve their chances in a short-series, even with Max Scherzer primed and ready for a wild card start.
The Phillies have been going in the opposite direction of the Nationals, since June 1st, they are just 15-22 (.405 winning percentage) in that time. Still, thanks to early season success, they are tied for the second wild card spot with the Cardinals, two games behind the Nationals.
This one is pretty clear-cut, as the Phillies’ starting pitching has been their Achilles Heel all season. They rank 11th in the National League in starer ERA and dead-last in starter FIP. With their currently constructed rotation, they’d be at a major disadvantage against nearly every other National League contender in a short-series.
The Phillies have been linked to Diamondbacks’ starter Robbie Ray, but the aforementioned Stroman or Bumgarner (or Bauer for that matter) could potentially be an option as well. To be a true contender, this team probably needs two starting pitching upgrades, a challenge in this type of market.
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals are right there with the Nationals and Phiillies, playing the role of the third-team vying for two spots. While the Brewers and Cubs bounce between first and second in the division (with the loser right in the thick-of-it for a wild card spot).
St. Louis is right there with everyone else rumored to be in on Will Smith (who wouldn’t be at this stage?). The Cards may have an upper-hand however, since they inquired and laid the foundation for a deal for Smith during the off-season.
The Cardinals also have a clear platoon issue in their pen, as lefty Tyler Webb has given up 15 earned runs in just 30 innings, posting an awful -0.1 fWAR and 2018-trade acquisition Chasen Shreve, who the Cardinals received for current-Yankee-slugger Luke Vogt, has been mired in the minor leagues, only able to break through to the majors a few days ago. Oops!
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox set team records all over the place in their 2018 World Series Championship run. With predominantly the same roster, they have struggled since their first series against the Mariners back in March. At this point, the division is all-but-lost, but if Boston wishes to make a halfway decent postseason run, they’re going to need pitching help.
Adding Andrew Cashner to the rotation is something, but how much something remains to be seen. Cashner is not an impact player, but serves as a number five starter, providing some rotational depth in the absence of currently-injured (and oft-injured) Nathan Eovaldi.
In addition, Boston’s bullpen has been inconsistent, at-best, though help could be on the way as Dave Dombrowski is known to trade away prospects for current value in a heartbeat. Regardless of what Boston does to fix their bullpen, they are not going to win the division, so none of this really matters if Chris Sale continues to give up runs in early-innings and does not return to his dominant-self.
Chicago Cubs & Milwaukee Brewers
The Cubs and Brewers are bucketed together here because both should be buyers, though there are not any indications either team will make a splash. There haven’t been too many rumors connecting any big acquisitions to either club, which is curious, because it’s not out of the realm of possibility that the team that does not end up in first place misses the playoffs entirely.
Both teams are jockeying for first place, and could use any edge they can get, whether it’s back-end rotation support, a reliever, or perhaps one of the Royals’ speedsters that they look willing to part with. Taking a chance on the current constructed roster would be an interesting gamble considering the other option is a one-and-done wild card game, or going home and missing the postseason entirely.
On the bubble buyers
These teams could add, but their fate looks to be mostly sealed
The Twins are the magical and fun story of 2019. Their offense has been historically good, and they are hitting home runs at an unprecedented clip. With a .630 winning percentage, they have outpaced the juggernaut Astros, putting the rest of the division in the rearview mirror for the entirety of the first half of the season.
They’ve received excellent unexpected production from such players as catcher Mitch Garver, complementing their diverse core of young players such as Jorge Polanco and Max Kepler, and veteran Nelson Cruz.
The one place where they may be able to upgrade is at first base, where CJ Cron has been a defensive disaster and a moderate bat. The Twins may end up standing-pat however, as Justin Smoak and Brandon Belt are likely the best players available, and neither one is a clear upgrade over Cron.
It might look odd to put the Diamondbacks on this list with such a crowded NL wild card field, but this team is better than their record shows. First of all, they’re 13-19 in one-run games, a record that could just as easily be 19-13. They also have a run differential that’s better than every team fighting for the wild card spots.
Per Baseball Prospectus’ Adjusted Standings, Arizona has under-performed their 1st, 2nd, and 3rd-order wins, and if things had gone a little differently through sequencing, or in one-run games, they’d have 51/52 wins, and be in the top wild card spot.
2019 presents an opportunity for Arizona to take advantage of an already-sealed NL West, where the Padres, Rockies, and Giants are likely to throw-in-the-towel in the next couple weeks. Arizona also has a pretty soft schedule, where they play over 40 games against teams below .500, including games outside the division against the likes of the Orioles, Marlins, Mets, and Reds.
The Diamondbacks have a challenging 11-game stretch against playoff contenders between July 30th and August 11th, when they play the Yankees / Nationals / Phillies / Dodgers, consecutively, but the schedule gets pretty easy after those games. If they upgrade prior to that stretch, and play .500 ball, they are well-positioned to win a wild card.
We’ll see what transpires over the next ten days, but we should be in-line for some interesting upgrades.
On the plus side, at least we don’t have to relearn how the waiver trade-deadline works!