Heading into the 2nd half of the season, 19 teams are within 5.5 games of a playoff spot while maintaining a .500 or better record. These are what we call the “playoff contenders” and, as of right now, they are potential “buyers” on the trade market in the coming weeks.
On the other end of the spectrum, those teams with sub-.500 records don’t appear to have what it takes to get back into contention. The Phillies and Rockies aren’t that far behind—they’re six and seven games behind the second Wild Card spot, respectively—and neither is a walk in the park on the schedule for opponents. But at six and eight games under .500, respectively, I’d be surprised if either front office isn’t ready to wheel and deal right now. If not already, these 11 teams will be in selling mode very soon.
Starting with the American League, let’s take a close look at each contending team’s biggest areas of need and some potential trade targets that could help down the stretch.
51-36, 1st Place, +2
The good news for the divison-leading Orioles is that they have the 6th best record in baseball despite having one of the worst starting rotations in baseball. The bad news is that, barring a trade or two, they still have to play 75 games with one of the worst rotations in baseball.
Sure, the O’s are very good at hitting home runs and closing out games. That formula could work in the post-season. But very bad starting pitching will eventually wear a team down, making it very difficult to finish strong and actually make it into the post-season.
Chris Tillman is having a nice season. Kevin Gausman has been very good at times, but doesn’t appear quite ready to be the frontline starter the O’s need to carry them into the playoffs. Yovani Gallardo has been a disappointment. Ubaldo Jimenez continues to be awful. Mike Wright and Tyler Wilson have been serviceable, although both have an ERA over 5.00. Help isn’t on the way, either.
The O’s might not have the farm system to land a controllable top-of-the-rotation starter, but they have enough intriguing prospects—former 1st Round pick Hunter Harvey, Futures Game catcher Chance Sisco and 1st baseman Trey Mancini (.882 OPS between Triple-A and Double-A) all have value—to compete for the top rental available (Rich Hill) or a very good mid-rotation starter with control (Drew Pomeranz, Hector Santiago or Drew Smyly).
Boston Red Sox
49-38, Wild Card (1st-T), +2
The Sox struck early to solidify their bullpen, acquiring Brad Ziegler last week with Craig Kimbrel expected to miss 3-6 weeks. The offense is already one of the best in baseball and, if they choose, could possibly get better with internal options like Andrew Benintendi and/or Yoan Moncada.
Like the Orioles, though, this is a team that’s lucky to be where they’re at considering the state of their starting rotation.
They’re nowhere near as shaky as the Orioles’ starting rotation—David Price has mostly been himself aside from a few bad outings, Rick Porcello has been solid and Steven Wright was a well-deserved All-Star selection—but this is a team that had journeyman Sean O’Sullivan penciled into the No. 4 spot in their rotation before he recently landed on the disabled list.
A handful of young pitchers could potentially step up and help out in the 2nd half—Eduardo Rodriguez will return from Triple-A to start on Friday—but this is a team in desperate need of some stability. With so much minor league talent, the Sox have the means to go after Hill and a controllable frontline starter like Chris Archer or Julio Teheran, although it would be tough to get the Rays or Braves to budge on either of their staff aces without the inclusion of Benintendi or Moncada.
Toronto Blue Jays
51-40, Wild Card (1st-T), +2
LATE-INNING RELIEF PITCHING or STARTING PITCHING
Even with Marcus Stroman having a disappointing season, the Jays clearly have the best starting rotation in the division. And if Stroman’s last two starts are any indication that he’s turning things around (14.2 IP, 3 ER, 8 H, 2 BB, 12 K), the Jays have the potential to overtake the Orioles and run away with the division. The bullpen, however, might not have enough talent to help the cause.
While Jason Grilli has given the ’pen a big boost since his acquisition last month (2.63 ERA, 13.2 IP, 6 BB, 23 K, 4 holds, 1 save), they’ll need another reliable arm to help bridge the gap to closer Roberto Osuna. Drew Storen hasn’t done enough to regain a high-leverage role and Brett Cecil is also no longer a trustworthy option with the game on the line.
The answer could already be on the 25-man roster, but Aaron Sanchez is no longer a lock to move to the bullpen later in the season. Pitching well enough to be named to the All-Star team might have altered those plans. Manager John Gibbons said recently, however, that he still thinks Sanchez will shift to the bullpen at some point to limit his workload.
If the Jays do plan on moving Sanchez back to the bullpen—he posted a 2.39 ERA in 30 appearances last season while limiting opponents to a .178 batting average—they would likely pursue a trade for a starting pitcher. MLBTR’s Jeff Todd wrote about the Trade Market for Starting Pitchers on Wednesday.
New York Yankees
44-44, Wild Card (8th), -5.5
STARTING PITCHING and OUTFIELDER
As difficult as the Yankees are to beat if they can get to the 6th or 7th inning with a lead—see Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman—they’re probably not good enough to do it often enough to make the necessary leap of six teams in order to make the playoffs. In fact, they could join the list of “sellers” if they fall any further back in a week or two.
A lack of good starting pitching has been an issue. Masahiro Tanaka continues to shine despite pitching with a partially torn elbow ligament, but he’s not getting much help. CC Sabathia’s career resurgence has taken a turn for the worse. After lowering his ERA to 2.20 with a quality start on June 16th, the 35-year-old lefty has allowed at least five earned runs in four consecutive starts. Nate Eovaldi and Ivan Nova have ERAs over 5.00. So does Michael Pineda, although his strong peripherals (2.5 BB/9, 10.7 K/9) are encouraging.
If you’re looking at the offense to carry the team, that’s probably not going to happen either. Carlos Beltran, Didi Gregorius and Brian McCann have all been very good. Jacoby Ellsbury has been OK. Everyone else on the roster, aside from maybe backup catcher Austin Romine, has underperformed.
The best internal option who could’ve potentially brought some firepower to the offense was Triple-A outfielder Aaron Judge, who made my “Knocking Down The Door” list a few weeks back. The 24-year-old right fielder is expected to miss 3-4 weeks, however, after suffering a knee injury last week.
While you can’t rule out the Yankees from making a trade now as a last-ditch effort to stay in contention, it’s likely that they go with what they have and hope that someone like Luis Severino, who has pitched much better since a demotion to Triple-A in late May, could light a fire under the team and get them a few games closer to a playoff spot by late July. If that happens, they could look to add one of the several big-name outfielders that could be available (Jay Bruce, Carlos Gonzalez, Josh Reddick), as well as a lower-cost starting pitcher—Andrew Cashner and Jeremy Hellickson come to mind—to help take some pressure off of Tanaka and the bullpen.
***Click below to read breakdowns of all the other AL contenders***
52-36, 1st Place, +6.5
CATCHER and SETUP MAN
If you think the Indians are good now, just wait until they get their best hitter back. Michael Brantley is currently on a rehab assignment and should be back very soon. He’d be joining a lineup that already includes five players with an OPS over .800.
Of the lineup regulars, only catcher Yan Gomes is having a bad season. Actually, it’s a lot worse than “bad.” He has a .516 OPS. Since he’s due close to $20 million from 2017-2019, the Indians might not want to go after Padres catcher Derek Norris, who would be under control through the 2018 season. But maybe they’d pay the price to add Jonathan Lucroy, who has a very cheap $5.25MM club option for 2017.
It would likely cost the Indians one of their top two hitting prospects, Clint Frazier or Bradley Zimmer, but the lineup could be equally as talented as the starting rotation with Lucroy and Brantley hitting in the middle of the order. That could be worth the risk.
Adding Lucroy would be a major splash, but the Indians would also be smart to shore up the back of their bullpen. Cody Allen has been very good and Bryan Shaw has been much better as of late after struggling earlier in the season. Adding another proven setup man to the mix, however, would make their path to the post-season much smoother. Hudson or Madson would be strong additions, although Jake McGee could be a better fit with only one lefty reliever (T.J. House) currently on the roster.
46-43, Wild Card (4th), -4
STARTING PITCHING and SETUP MAN
With recent injuries to Jordan Zimmermann (strained neck) and Daniel Norris (strained oblique), the Tigers’ priority could shift from late-inning relief help to the starting rotation. In reality, they probably need both if they’re going to stick around in this playoff race.
The Tigers’ best pitcher has been Michael Fulmer, who has been dominant as a rookie. The 23-year-old might not be around for the stretch run, though, as young pitchers are typically shut down at some point late in the season. He’s thrown 92 innings so far in 2016 after throwing a total of 124.2 innings in the minors last season. Even with a healthy Zimmermann and Norris, the Tigers could use some help if they’re going to finish the season strong.
Francisco Rodriguez has done his job as the closer and Justin Wilson has also been very good in a setup role. If they’re to make it into the post-season, however, and not have their bullpen be the cause of their playoff struggles, they’ll need another reliable arm to pair with Rodriguez.
A weak farm system could make it difficult to make a significant upgrade, but there are plenty of rentals that should be affordable. Relievers Jim Johnson of the Braves and David Hernandez of the Phillies would be in that category, as would starting pitchers Jorge De La Rosa and Tim Lincecum.
Chicago White Sox
45-43, Wild Card (5th-T)
OUTFIELDER or DESIGNATED HITTER
After back-to-back MVP-caliber seasons to start his MLB career, Jose Abreu’s production has fallen in 2016. He hasn’t been bad. He’s just not carrying a lineup that has probably needed to be carried. White Sox hitters have been, for the most part, underwhelming despite not having multiple players who are having poor seasons.
Replacing Avisail Garcia, who has a .633 OPS while playing on a regular basis as the designated hitter with a lefty slugger to hit between Abreu and Todd Frazier—Jay Bruce would fit well in front of his former Reds teammate—could be the move that jump starts this team.
Or if they don’t have the prospects to pull off a Bruce deal, they would be smart to add another top-of-the-order hitter like Coco Crisp or Jon Jay (if it appears that the latter could return from the disabled list in early August) so that current leadoff man Tim Anderson and his 1-to-37 walk-to-strikeout ratio could hit at the bottom of the order.
Kansas City Royals
45-43, Wild Card (5th-T)
We know that these Royals hitters can turn it on in the post-season. We know that a Royals bullpen led by a healthy Wade Davis—he’s currently on the disabled list with a strained forearm—and Kelvin Herrera can make it very difficult for opposing hitters in a seven-game series. It’s becoming clear, though, that this Royals team probably doesn’t have enough starting pitching to make it to the playoffs.
Danny Duffy, who was supposed to be the left-handed complement to Davis and Herrera in the bullpen, has been their best starter and Ian Kennedy has been about what was expected. But Edinson Volquez has taken a few steps back. Yordano Ventura’s inconsistency remains an issue. Chris Young has been moved to the bullpen after pitching poorly. Kris Medlen is on the disabled list with a shoulder injury and was recently shut down with a new shoulder injury. Dillon Gee and Brian Flynn are not the answers and there is no help on the way. It’s trade market or bust for the World Champs.
54-36, 1st Place, +5.5
STARTING PITCHING and CATCHER
Injuries to Yu Darvish, Derek Holland and Colby Lewis have forced the Rangers to give 12 of their 90 starts to Cesar Ramos, Nick Martinez, Chi Chi Gonzalez and Kyle Lohse. The results are even worse than you can probably imagine.
The Rangers are set at the top of their rotation with Cole Hamels and Darvish, who is expected to come off of the disabled list on Saturday. It’s Lewis’ steady production from the middle of the rotation that they’re missing, though. Ervin Santana could be a capable replacement, although the Rangers could opt for a low-cost rental like Andrew Cashner. The 29-year-old is injury-prone and inconsistent, but he can be very good at times. Maybe a return to his hometown state in the middle of a pennant race would bring out the best in him.
While they’re at it, they might as well make it a package deal and bring Cashner’s battery-mate Norris along for the ride. The 27-year-old catcher, who has an .821 OPS with 11 homers since May 5th, would be an upgrade over the current duo of Robinson Chirinos and Bobby Wilson. Of course, that Lucroy guy is also available and the Rangers certainly have the talent in their farm system to make it happen. Stephen Vogt could also make sense if they could pry him away from the division rival A’s.
48-41, Wild Card (3rd), -2
LEFTY RELIEF SPECIALIST
Does a team that has won 31 of 44 games have needs? Maybe not major needs, but the surging Astros can certainly get better.
The expectation is that they will upgrade their lineup in the near future by promoting Alex Bregman, who has proven in a very short period of time that he is way too good for the Minor Leagues.
The starting rotation hasn’t been as good as expected, mostly due to Dallas Keuchel having an ERA near 5.00, but they’ve been able to stay relatively healthy while No. 6 and No. 7 starters Scott Feldman and Chris Devenski have been solid when called upon. Triple-A starters Joe Musgrove and Brady Rodgers have also been very good and appear ready to contribute. That’s a pretty good recipe for success over a 162-game regular season.
As long as Keuchel continues to pitch well—he has five consecutive quality starts—the Astros are one of the few teams that does not need a starting rotation upgrade.
The bullpen, despite some ups and downs, isn’t a weak link by any means. They might not have had everyone clicking at once, but that should be a scary thought for opponents. What if Will Harris, Luke Gregerson, Ken Giles, Tony Sipp, Pat Neshek and Michael Feliz are all pitching well at the same time in August, September and into the post-season?
The inconsistency of this group, however, even by relief pitcher standards, is a bit concerning. The lone lefty Sipp’s inability to get lefty hitters out (.935 OPS) is a huge concern. I wouldn’t expect Jeff Luhnow to give up very much to acquire another relief pitcher—see Giles-for-Vincent Velasquez—but it wouldn’t cost a lot to add Twins lefty and former Astros reliever Fernando Abad, who has held lefty batters to a .163 batting average.
45-44, Wild Card (7th), -5
SHORTSTOP and CLOSER
Headed in the opposite direction of the Astros with 22 losses in their last 36 games, the Mariners need to do something. All of a sudden, a roster that looked strong in all areas has several holes.
Felix Hernandez is expected back from the disabled list next week. That will help. But not enough.
Taijuan Walker, who has appeared on the verge of a breakout season at times, is now on the disabled list with foot tendinitis. Offseason acquisitions Wade Miley (5.44 ERA) and Nathan Karns (moved to bullpen) have struggled. Ditto for veteran relievers Joaquin Benoit (4.57 ERA) and Joel Peralta (5.40 ERA; released). Closer Steve Cishek has five blown saves. It doesn’t stop with the pitchers. Adam Lind (.699 OPS) and Norichika Aoki (optioned to minors) haven’t impressed. Leonys Martin hasn’t hit since coming off the disabled list last month.
Jerry Dipoto’s first offseason as the Mariners’ general manager has been a disappointment—Dae-Ho Lee has been the lone bright spot—but it’s not too late for him to make up for it. His team is over .500 and still has plenty of talent, even though the players he acquired to surround King Felix, Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz and Kyle Seager haven’t done the job.
While rookie Edwin Diaz is quickly making a case to be the closer, there are a lot of veteran options available on the trade market. While general manager of the Angels, Dipoto acquired Huston Street two seasons ago. He could look to do the same this July, which would enable the Mariners to move Cishek into a role where he can pitch almost exclusively to right-handed hitters (.152 batting average).