Don’t look now, but we’re less than three weeks away from the July 31st trade deadline. With the conclusion of the All-Star break on Thursday, general managers will ramp trade negotiations into high gear in anticipation of securing the right deal before the deadline hits. But one complicating factor in prognosticating deadline deals is identifying which teams are buyers and which teams are sellers.
We’ll start by evaluating the AL East, which is one of the most interesting divisions in baseball at the break. The Red Sox have vaulted to the top of the heap and are obvious buyers. The Yankees and Rays occupy both wild card spots and are likely buyers as well. Meanwhile the Orioles and Blue Jays are 4.0 and 5.0 games out of the wild card respectively, which, while not insurmountable, is a tall order to make up with the Twins, Royals, Angels, Rangers and Mariners all above them.
Boston Red Sox (50-39; -1 luck factor)
The Boston Red Sox have been one of baseball’s best teams over the last two months, amassing a 32-22 record since May 12th after a slow start to the season. With a staff anchored by Chris Sale, the consensus 2017 AL Cy Young winner at this point, as well as two former Cy Young winners in David Price and Rick Porcello, the team possesses the front-line starting pitching to make a deep run. Craig Kimbrel is enjoying an all-world season in relief, while no-name arms like Heath Hembree, Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly have provided solid support. The offense, which ranks as slightly above average in terms of runs per game and OPS, has scuffled at times this year due to a lack of power. Third base has been a black-hole all season with a concoction of Pablo Sandoval, Deven Marrero and Josh Rutledge providing generationally bad production.
Playoff Contention: Division Leader
Status: Definite Buyer
Needs: Third Baseman, Relief Pitcher
Hypothetical trade: Boston trades 1B Sam Travis and SP Mike Shawaryn to San Francisco for 3B Eduardo Nunez. The Red Sox need help at third base, but don’t want to commit to a player beyond this season due to the 2018 third base spot being Rafael Devers’ to lose. Luckily, Nunez is a free agent after 2017 and provides enough positional versatility (SS, 2B) to still be useful in case he loses the third base gig to Devers later this season. Sam Travis has displayed impressive minor league production, but is nearing 24 and has no place on the Red Sox with Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland occupying first base. Mike Shawaryn is a solid starting pitcher prospect, but ranks below names like Jay Groome and Roniel Raudes in the universe of Sox pitching prospects.
New York Yankees (45-41; -7 luck factor)
The Yankees have been arguably the unluckiest team in baseball, with a Pythagorean record, 52-34, seven games better than their actual record. The team has also been bit by the injury bug, with first baseman Greg Bird, outfielder Aaron Hicks, pitcher CC Sabathia and a slew of minor league call-ups lost for an extended period. The Yankees’ pitching staff, consisting of Masahiro Tanaka, Luis Severino, Michael Pineda, Jordan Montgomery and CC Sabathia looks fairly set, but the team’s relief pitching has been a mess in recent weeks. Aroldis Chapman and Dellin Betances are terrific bullpen anchors, but seventh inning man Tyler Clippard has been abysmal. The Yankees’ production from first base, which originally featured a now DFA’d Chris Carter and is currently occupied by AAA-journeyman Ji Man Choi, has been the second worst in baseball. Incumbent first basemen Greg Bird and Tyler Austin are both sidelined with injuries and return dates are unknown at this point.
Playoff Contention: Wild Card 1
Status: Definite Buyer
Needs: Relief Pitcher, First Baseman
Hypothetical trade: New York trades 3B Miguel Andujar, CF Dustin Fowler and SP Dillon Tate to Oakland for 1B Yonder Alonso and RP Sean Doolittle. The Yankees address both of their most glaring needs with this trade. Yonder Alonso is having a renaissance season and his lefty power bat would fit nicely with the short porch in Yankee Stadium. He is also a free agent after this season, meaning he won’t clog up the works for a healthy Greg Bird and Tyler Austin in 2018. The injury-plagued Sean Doolittle is finally healthy and might be the most underrated relief pitcher in the game with his 12.9 K/9 rate this season. He would also give the Yankees a competent lefty to balance their righty-heavy bullpen and is signed for peanuts in 2018 as well.
Tampa Rays (47-43; 0 luck factor)
Tampa has been one of the most surprising stories in baseball, currently occupying the second wild card spot in a season where they written off as AL East basement dwellers. The team kept afloat with above average starting pitching as well as surprise performances from a trio of cast offs from other MLB squads: Cory Dickerson, Steven Souza and Logan Morrison. While it is difficult to envision the low-budget Rays in buy mode, they are very real playoff contenders and possess the minor league depth to make some moves to improve the MLB roster. The Rays’ biggest Achilles heel this season has been their moribund bullpen, which features the third highest xFIP in the majors. Closer Alex Colome has regressed significantly from 2016, and while Brad Boxberger just returned from injury, it is difficult to expect someone with 28 cumulative innings pitched since the start of 2016 to provide a significant impact. The Rays’ positional players are fairly well stocked, but they could potentially use an upgrade in left field, where 29-year old late bloomer Shane Peterson is taking a majority of at bats.
Playoff Contention: Wild Card 2
Status: Likely Buyer
Needs: Relief Pitcher, Outfielder
Hypothetical trade: Tampa trades SP Jose de Leon and 1B Jake Bauers to San Diego for RP Brad Hand. Tampa will surely be looking for a bullpen upgrade come July 31st, and Padres lefty Brad Hand is one of the best relievers on the market. Hand will also be one of the most pursued players in the trade deadline sweepstakes, so Tampa will need to pay to get him. Fortunately, the Rays have an abundance of young starting pitchers in Jose de Leon, Blake Snell, Jacob Faria, Brent Honeywell and Yonny Chirinos, so they can afford to deal one. de Leon has suffered through an injury prone season thus far, so Tampa would need to add more. First baseman/outfielder Jake Bauers, the 66th ranked prospect on Baseball America’s mid-season list, should be enough to sweeten the pot for San Diego.
Baltimore Orioles (42-46; +5 luck factor)
The poor roster construction of the Orioles has finally come to roost. Aging batting talent combined with a poorly assembled starting rotation has led to a 42-46 record at the hallway mark, which is actually much better than their Pythagorean 37-51 record. With Manny Machado set to explore free agency after 2018, and with few other young valuable pieces on the roster, Baltimore should embrace a sell-now mentality this trade deadline. Unfortunately for the Orioles, most of their high-priced, aging talent is signed beyond 2017, meaning that Baltimore will need to eat salary to trade players like Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo and Chris Davis. However, most league-wide interest will favor Baltimore’s relief arms, headlined by Zach Britton and Brad Brach.
Playoff Contention: Out
Status: Definite Seller
Needs: High-upside prospects
Hypothetical trade: Baltimore trades CF Adam Jones (30% salary retained) and RP Brad Brach to Washington for OF Juan Soto and SP Jesus Luzardo. Baltimore needs to begin re-stocking their depleted prospect system, and adding a marquee prospect like Soto as well as a tantalizing young arm like Luzardo would be a great start. The 18-year old Soto is raking to the tune of a 170 wRC+ in A ball this year, while the 19-year old Luzardo struck out 15 and walked none in 13 2/3 dominant innings in rookie ball. Neither player will see the majors for quite some time, but both are the high-upside players Baltimore lacks in their system. Washington gets a veteran center fielder in Jones for their playoff run, who they can move to left field for the 2018 season when Adam Eaton returns from injury and Jayson Werth comes off the books, and a true closer-quality reliever in Brad Brach.
Toronto Blue Jays (41-47; +3 luck factor)
Toronto, mired in injuries and down performances from their star players, would like to forget the first half of 2017. And while part of me holds out hope that a healthy Josh Donaldson and Aaron Sanchez can push this team into playoff contention in the back half of the season, the reality is that Toronto’s window to compete peaked from 2014 to 2016 and is quickly slamming shut. Their best positional players, Josh Donaldson, Justin Smoak and Jose Bautista, are all north of 30 years old. Additionally, only two of their starting nine, Devon Travis and Kevin Pillar, are sub-30 years old. The upshot in all of this is that Toronto has two great young starters in Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez, a stud closer in Roberto Osuna, and a host of terrific prospects in Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette. If the Blue Jays successfully execute a triaged tear-down over the next two years, they can be competitive by 2020.
Playoff Contention: Out
Status: Definite Seller
Needs: Near MLB-ready positional prospect talent
Hypothetical trade: Toronto trades SP JA Happ to Chicago Cubs for 3B/1B Jeimer Candelario and RF/LF Mark Zagunis. JA Happ is a quality left-handed starting pitcher who has revived his career with Toronto over the last three seasons. Chicago is a team that, a year after trotting out one of the best staffs in baseball, is now suddenly desperate for starting pitching depth. While the top three slots in their rotation are on lock-down with Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester and Kyle Hendricks, the four and five slots are occupied by an unimpressive triumvirate of John Lackey, Eddie Butler and Mike Montgomery. Toronto receives 23-year old corner infielder Jeimer Candelario, who now has two full seasons of great AAA performance under his belt and and is ready for a full-time MLB role. 24-year old outfielder Mark Zagunis, who has never posted a wRC+ below 123 in the minors, is MLB-ready as well.