As the trade deadline approaches, there are many teams caught on the fence as to whether or not they should buy or sell. At the end of play July 26, there were seven NL teams within 6 games of the Wild Card-leading Reds. Three more teams are within 8 games, meaning that the only two NL teams safely out of the running are the Cubs and Pirates. Who else can we eliminate from the picture?
Everyone in the NL West is still a contender, although the Rockies (6.5 games back) and Dodgers (7.5 back) are falling dangerously out of the race. I'm tempted to dismiss the Rockies, although they have gotten fine pitching this year. The Dodgers are, on paper, the best team in the division, but it hasn't helped them much thus far. If they don't stop their current slide (1-13 in their last 14), they will most definitely be out of the running.
I'll eliminate the Nationals and the Marlins from contention. Neither team is challenging the Mets in the East; the Nats are 8 games out in the WC race, and the Marlins are 6 out -- with 7 teams in front of them. Neither club has the ability or the front-office wherewithal to make a move at the trade deadline, and neither should they. Both should look to the future and trade away any unnecessary parts. In the latter regard, the Marlins already have, and the Nats most certainly will. I'm also going to lump the Phillies into this category; they're not likely to get any better than they are (6.5 back in the WC race), and already appear to be shopping their players around.
This leaves 11 teams more or less in the NL postseason race -- and that's being very generous to LA, Colorado, and Milwaukee. Of the three division leaders -- New York, St. Louis, and San Diego as of now -- are any of them assured of a postseason spot?
The Mets definitely are. They lead the NL East by 11.5 games over Atlanta. Yes, meltdowns have happened before, but it would take a historic meltdon for the Mets to miss the postseason. I would also say that the Cardinals are a good bet for a postseason shot. Yes, they're "only" 5.5 games up on Cincinnati, but the Reds are a worse team since the Kearns trade, and not likely to get better. The Cardinals, on the other hand, have one of the best traders in the league at GM in Walt Jocketty, not to mention a very good history of producing when they need to. So I'll mark down the Mets and Cardinals as shoo-ins. No such luck for San Diego (2.5 game lead), as a stiff wind could send them down to 3rd or 4th place.
So, in effect, we have 5 teams not good enough to make the playoffs this year, and 2 teams that are pretty much already in, leaving 9 teams on the cusp. Let's discuss these "on the cusp" teams and talk about what trades have been talked about, what trades should be talked about, and an ideal game plan for these hopefuls over the coming week.
Atlanta Braves (11.5 GB in the East; 4.5 GB in the WC)
Thanks to an offensive explosion in July, the Braves have put themselves back into the Wild Card conversation. They're now just 4 games under .500 (48-52), and in 4th place in the WC chase. Any talks of trading away John Smoltz or Andruw Jones have since fallen by the wayside as the Braves look to make another miracle.
Good news: The Braves have a very canny GM, the bargaining chips to get an impact player, and the minor league depth to help replace some losses.
Bad news: The Braves are just too far out of contention. Even if they were to secure a major upgrade somewhere, that wouldn't mean much over 2 months of play. Also, most of the talent available on the trade market is in bats; there is very little out there in terms of pitching, which makes it a seller's market for hurlers. Offense is not Atlanta's problem; pitching is the problem, pitching times 10. The Braves now lead the NL in runs scored with 535, so Alfonso Soriano isn't what they're looking for.
The Braves' problem is their 507 runs allowed, ranking them 11th of 16 NL teams. Their only productive starter has been John Smoltz, and their bullpen is a shambles. They did make a trade to secure Bob Wickman, but since Wickman isn't actually that great anymore (3.77 ERA notwithstanding), it's not enough to turn the ship around. If the Braves want to win 90 games (an estimate of what it would take to win the WC), they would have to finish the season 42-20. In other words, they'd have to find some way to turn their average team into a dominant one. And that just ain't happenin'.
Conclusion: Throw in the towel, Mr. Schuerholz, the run is over. Trade off whom you can.
Cincinnati Reds (5.5 GB in the Central; Leading Wild Card by 1.5 games)
Good news: Since the Reds are leading the Wild Card, they're in the position of just having to maintain what they've done so far. They've got a 53-48 record so far, and they're on pace for an 85-77 record. The worst record EVER by a Wild Card-winner was an 88-74 mark by the '96 Orioles. So if the Reds do win the Wild Card this year, it will simply be by default.
Bad news: This is assuming that the Reds will play as good in the second half as they did in the first. And given the general quality of their pitching, not to mention the awful Kearns trade, that's unlikely. But even if the Reds do finish 85-77, it's quite likely that some team will put together a hot second half and pass them up. I'm inclined to believe that. So many of these teams have been mediocre, that there must be one of them able to put together a hot second half. And I doubt it will be the Reds.
Conclusion: Enjoy it while you can, boys. Your chances weren't that great, and your GM ain't doing you any favors.
Houston Astros (10.5 GB in Central; 5 GB in Wild Card)
Good news: It looks more and more like the Astros could be the surprise NL Wild Card once again. They've got a solid foundation of pitching (although they need Andy Pettitte and Brad Lidge to return to form), meaning that their top priority is hitting, an item which is quite available on the open market. With Bagwell retiring, Biggio soon to follow, and Clemens and Pettite right behind them, the Astros have the ability to add some payroll, even if it's a long-term commitment. I've heard talks about the Astros acquiring Miguel Tejada; this would be a great move, as it doesn't look like Adam Everett is ever going to hit like a big-leaguer (excellent defender though he is). Any impact bat acquired for the outfield would be a major upgrade over the likes of Preston Wilson, Willy Taveras, and Jason Lane. And, as I said before, the Wild Card race is wide open to anyone who can muster 90 wins (or less, perhaps).
Bad news: The Astros may not have the ability to add big money, such as a Bobby Abreu-type contract, given how much they're ponying up to Roger Clemens. And even if they can, they might have a hard time cinching the deal with their bare farm system. Also, even if they were able to get one impact player, that still might not be enough to shore up a truly woeful offense. And, as I said before, this is all contingent on the pitching staff -- namely Pettite and Lidge, as well as Brandon Backe and the middle relievers -- holding up their end of the bargain.
Conclusion: If they can get some offensive help, they just might be the favorites.
Milwaukee Brewers (11 GB in Central, 5.5 GB in the Wild Card race)
Good news: They've got an excellent offense and the young prospects to make trading easier and replacing departed players feasible. They're also getting back Ben Sheets from injury (Tomo Ohka recently made a solid return from the DL), which is great news for their starting rotation.
Bad news: Their pitching is terrible, and it may be too late to save it, Sheets notwithstanding. Chris Capuano has been excellent, and Ohka is a solid #3, so if they get Sheets back (and healthy), they'll at least have a solid front three. But that leaves two more rotation spots and an awful bullpen to fix.
It also just might be too late. Yes, they're just 5.5 out of the Wild Card race, but there are 5 teams in front of them, one team tied with them, and 3 teams a mere game behind them. It's very tough odds that the Brewers will come out of that group on top.
Conclusion: What I hope (and what I imagine will happen) is that the Brewers decide they aren't in it, and plan for next year. This is a tough decision, especially on the PR front, but there is no pressure for the Brewers to contend this year, and it would be a hopeless waste to sacrifice the future for such an unlikely present. I have faith that GM Doug Melvin will come to a similar conclusion.
San Diego Padres (2.5 game lead in the NL West)
Good News: The Padres have a lead (bare though it is), and have been there before, just last year. They've got a GM who is willing (and financially able) to make an impact trade.
Bad news: Most people may not realize that good though the Padre pitching staff is, it's not quite as good as Petco makes it look. But top priority should, indeed, be upon the offense. The entire infield has been disappointing, with second and third base especially open for an upgrade. The trouble with picking any winner in the NL West is that the five teams are all so close that even Nostradamus would have a hard time making a good guess.
Conclusion: They're probably the favorites in the West -- at least for now.
San Francisco Giants (3 GB in the West; 2 GB in the Wild Card)
Good news: The Giants are closer than most anybody else, and they're still in the race for both postseason spots. They've got a GM who isn't afraid to trade and has certainly never blinked at taking on a high-paid old geezer to help in the short run. Barry Bonds seems to be heating up a bit, and the team has already made a decent trade, acquiring Shea Hillenbrand to fill the 1B hole.
Bad news: Their problem is pitching, and the market is bare. This is the main reason why I resist calling the Giants the favorites in the West. Jason Schmidt has been very good, and the team is hoping that Noah Lowry has some more second-half miracles in his sack, but the truth is that it will take more than that to turn around a woeful staff.
Conclusion: Giants miss the playoffs by a hair -- for the third straight year. Barry Bonds and Jason Schmidt file for free agency, and GM Brian Sabean is officially on the hot seat.
Arizona Diamondbacks (2.5 GB in the West; 1.5 GB in the Wild Card)
Good news: The Diamondbacks have the best young among all the teams mentioned here, meaning they could offer top-notch packages to acquire their free agents. They could also even trade away some of their own high-priced talent to free up money (Shawn Green, Luis Gonzalez, Eric Byrnes, Craig Counsell) and replace them with rookies who could match or even exceed their production.
Bad news: Same as above: the D-Backs need pitching, and help is not forthcoming. Most of their young prospects are position players. Not only that, but Arizona's pitching problems couldn't just be solved by one pitcher; it would take more. Hitting-wise, their main weakness is their infield, which is tough, since most of the hitters available are corner-outfielder types.
Conclusion: Don't bet the farm away (not that I think GM Josh Byrnes will). They'll come close and be a in a better position to contend next year than most of their division-mates.
Colorado Rockies (6.5 GB in the West; 5.5 GB in the WC)
Good news: I don't know if enough attention has been paid to the amazing transformation undergone by the Rockies this year. They have allowed just 457, the least in all of the National League. Think twice about what I just said and how unbelievably unlikely it sounds. It's like finding out that George Bush had an 85% approval rating among African-Americans; it's just not POSSIBLE. Counter that with the fact that the Rockies have scored just 466 runs, 14th of 16 NL teams.
Bad news: This means that not only are their pitchers much better than they seem -- thanks too Coors Field -- but their hitters are even worse. The Rockies have gotten good production from Todd Helton, Garret Atkins, Matt Holliday, and that's it. The Rockies aren't in any position to acquire players via trades (nor should they), and they're another team that's unlikely to perform as well in the second half.
Conclusion: No postseason appearance, but a great leap forward for the franchise.
Los Angeles Dodgers: (7.5 GB in the West; 6.5 GB in the WC)
Good news: The Dodgers are,on paper, the best team in the NL West.
Bad news: The games aren't played on paper, and for whatever reason -- injuries, mostly -- the Dodgers don't really have a prayer to make the postseason.
Conclusion: Check Chavez Ravine for any disgruntled spirits.
Of course, all of the above should be viewed in context of my previous blog; that although a good trade-deadline acquisition can help the team, their impact is overrated, and therefore GMs should be reluctant to give up top prospects to complete them.
Not only am I the one making this argument. Rob Neyer made it on espn.com, Steve Treder made it over at The Hardball Times, and Baseball Prospectus writer Dayn Perry made it in his fine book Winners: How Good Baseball Teams Become Great Ones (And It's Not the Way You Think). It's also been a constant topic of discussion for former Baseball Prospectus writer and current espn.com columnist Keith Law. So, ha ha! My colleagues (and I use that term with trepidation) agree with me!
I'll be back tomorrow to discuss the American League, although it's thankfully a shorter discussion. There are many similarities; the Tigers, like the Mets are coasting into the postseason, and the Western division is a mess with no certain outcomes. However, in the AL, the list of Wild Card contenders is much shorter -- three or four. Although that won't stop it from being a thrilling race; as of July 26, there were 3 AL teams within 1/2 game of the Wild Card lead.
Later, kiddies. Say no to drugs, and apparently to Harold Reynolds as well . . .