With two and a half weeks to go until the trade deadline, teams are already frantically making deals. Well, two teams are anyway. For the other 28, the time between now and Aug. 1 could offer plenty of insight on the rest of this season, and beyond.
So let's take a look at how every major league team is positioned, and what they might do in the days and weeks ahead. We start with the American League. Early next week, check back for some hot National League action.
No contender has a more glaring need than the Orioles do in their rotation. Chris Tillman has defied some so-so peripherals to post some flashy bubble-gum card stats. Kevin Gausman has struck out nearly a batter an inning, though he's also surrendering a home run every five innings, and has yet to fulfill his considerable potential. After that, the rotation is a disaster, with Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jimenez ranking among the worst acquisitions by any team in years and no clear plan for a fifth starter.
You could play devil's advocate and argue that no dramatic move is needed. After all, the Royals won the last two AL pennants with thin rotations, and the O's lead their division at the All-Star break with an even worse starting five than KC had, thriving on a blizzard of home runs, improved on-base skills and a terrific bullpen. But the Blue Jays are red hot and starting to look like the world beaters of 2015, while the Red Sox aggressively upgraded their roster in the past week. Rich Hill, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore and others are out there; if general manager Dan Duquette doesn't find a quality starter soon, third place might be Baltimore's fate by season's end.
When the Red Sox hired Dave Dombrowski to be their new team president, they signaled to the baseball world that they were all in to win now. Trader Dave has built a reputation as someone who makes specific roster-building plans, then goes out and executes them. We saw that over the winter with the big-ticket acquisitions of David Price and Craig Kimbrel.
And we've seen it again more recently, with Dombrowski and GM Mike Hazen pulling off four trades in eight days. When the Sox needed organizational depth, they picked up infielder Michael Martinez from the Indians. When Kimbrel hit the disabled list, they nabbed Brad Ziegler mere hours later to fill the temporary closer role and to give Boston an augmented bullpen when Kimbrel returns. Needing infield help and a right-handed bat, they scooped up Aaron Hill from the Brewers. Then came the coup de grace: Desperately needing starting pitching help, the Sox snagged talented lefty Drew Pomeranz from the Padres.
Some questions remain. Pomeranz moving from the National League and pitcher-friendly Petco Park to the American League and hitter-friendly Fenway Park could chip away at his effectiveness. The fifth starter spot remains a question mark. And Boston traded 18-year-old right-hander Anderson Espinoza to get Pomeranz, in the process surrendering one of the top pitching prospects in the game. Ask Dombrowski, and he'll have answers for all of the above: Clay Buchholz was a walking apocalypse on the mound so pretty much anyone's an improvement. The Sox think Eduardo Rodriguez was tipping his pitches and that he could improve now that they've recognized the problem ... plus they can either trade for another starter or roll with what they have, knowing you only need four in the playoffs. Finally, Espinoza becoming a theoretical All-Star in 2022 doesn't matter when you have the best offense in the league, one of the top defenses in the league and a mandate to win now. While most other teams ponder, the Red Sox have already checked every item off their wish list, giving them a head start on the rest of the league and a leg up in an AL East battle that could become baseball's most compelling playoff race.
When was the last time so many Yankees fans rooted so ardently for their team to lose? A decent first-half finish hoisted the Yanks to .500, raising fears that the Tampa-based arm of the organization might not adequately cash in on their opportunity to sell veteran contributors for much needed young talent, due to delusions that they might actually contend for the pennant.
The guess here is that barring something like a 10-game winning streak to start the second half, free-agents-to-be Carlos Beltran and Aroldis Chapman get dealt to contenders in exchange for quality prospects. But this still an old ballclub on the position player side, with every lineup regular other than the double-play combo 32 years or older, little elite talent on the roster, and a World Series run in 2017 an extreme long shot. CC Sabathia, Andrew Miller, Brian McCann, Starlin Castro, and others could be attractive to other teams, and not prime candidates to be top players by the time the Yankees get really good again. A big losing streak out of the gate in the next week could prompt a more pronounced effort to sell, which could prove to be a great move in the long run.
This is the worst team since the abysmal Devil Rays days, with injuries, uncharacteristically sketchy defense, Chris Archer's mysterious implosion, and multiple other factors torpedoing what figured to be at least a respectable season. The Rays have always sought to load up on younger talent, understanding both baseball's age curve and their impossibly long odds of signing premium free agents. Pitchers like Odorizzi and Moore do offer multiple years of inexpensive team control. But with the Rays not only looking beyond 2016 but also 2017 and maybe even 2018, that pair of arms, along with any reliever not bolted to the floor, could be wearing different uniforms very soon.
On May 18, the Jays sat at 19-23, in fourth place, seven games out of first place and at their lowest point of the season. They've gone 31-17 since then, looking a lot like the world-beating team that grew red-hot after a slow start, rolling to a division title. Thing is, the Jays might actually have more talent on the roster now than they did at this time a year ago. Troy Tulowitzki is already there and he's back to raking after a rough first couple of months. Moreover, the starting rotation has fared better than many expected after Price's departure, with J.A. Happ looking a lot more like the stone-cold killer he was in Pittsburgh than the bum he was his last time in Toronto, and Aaron Sanchez quietly emerging as one of the best young pitchers in the game.
They're still at least one pitcher short though, with the Drew Storen experiment and the Jays seemingly eager to limit Sanchez's innings. Acquiring a starter and sliding Sanchez to the pen would make a bigger impact, while finding a quality reliever would likely be considerably cheaper. One intriguing rumor that recently made the rounds: Acquiring Jay Bruce a few months after an attempt to trade Saunders for him failed, slotting Bruce into right field, moving aging, low-range outfielder Jose Bautista to DH, sliding Edwin Encarnacion to first base, and pushing weak-hitting Justin Smoak to the bench.
We human beings are suckers for the recency effect. To wit: If the White Sox had started the season 22-33, then turned around and gone 23-10, we might say that they have momentum, and that they should thus try to load up at the trade deadline. But because the South Siders did the opposite, many are ready to write them off. Thing is, the Sox probably aren't as good as their blazing start might suggest, nor as bad as their ugly fall since then would suggest. In a rugged AL wild-card field in which they'd need to leapfrog four teams and make up 4 1/2 games just to taste the second wild-card berth, flipping top prospects for rent-a-vets doesn't make sense. But there's real talent here, and the possibility of another big run can't be discounted -- especially if their 2015 number-one pick Carson Fulmer impresses on the mound now that he's on his way to the big leagues.
With that in mind, post-2017 free agents Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera, and Brett Lawrie are worth shopping, though there's no urgency to move any of them if the offers are weak. Trading cornerstones like Chris Sale would be downright insane, no matter how many fake trades other cities' local talk radio shows might concoct.
Hey, it's an AL contender that doesn't need starting pitching help! With the best rotation in the junior circuit, the focus shifts to the starting nine. Fans clamoring for outfield help earlier in the season have been pleasantly surprised by the playable performances of converted infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez at the corner outfield spots, and downright ecstatic at rookie Tyler Naquin's massive .314/.374/.591 start to his career, not to mention Michael Brantley inching closer to a return.
The more fruitful move might be to make a run at Brewers catcher Jonathan Lucroy: Incumbent receiver Yan Gomes is batting a horrific .166/.201/.315 following a lousy 2015 campaign, while Lucroy's one of the best two-way catchers in the game. He's controllable for next season too, which fits the Indians' goal of trying to build a sustainable winner around their great young(ish) rotation.
On one hand, they're in the same boat as the White Sox and Royals, a merely decent team with a negative run differential facing a sizable deficit in both the divisional and wild-card races. On the other hand, owner Mike Ilitch is about to turn 87, and spends money like his mind has been consumed by Cheesy Bread. So they're definitely not selling, and a splashy move to replace one of the three members of the rotation not named Justin Verlander or Michael Fulmer can't be ruled out. They haven't had a better-than-average offensive performance from a catcher since Alex Avila's spike year and could benefit immensely from replacing the listless James McCann, so this could be another logical destination for Lucroy.
A third straight AL pennant is a long shot, thanks to a rash of injuries to lineup mainstays and a terrible rotation. KC has zero notable players eligible for free agency after this season, but with nearly the entire core (Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Wade Davis, Alcides Escobar, Kendrys Morales, Luke Hochevar, and others) able to test the open market post-2017. With the window for success thus potentially closing soon, acquiring players who are controllable through next season (if not longer) would make the most sense...kind of like a "wait 'til next year" buying jag.
They're the worst team in the American League and have a small but exciting group of young players starting to make hay, which makes shopping just about every veteran on the roster the obvious move. Or it would be, if the Twins had much to offer beyond first-time All-Star Eduardo Nunez and capable lefty reliever Fernando Abad. Good luck getting premium prospects for Joe Mauer and his $23 million-a-year contract, perennial sixth starter Tommy Milone, injured vets like Phil Hughes and Trevor Plouffe, or mediocre eight-figure starters like Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco. So while a shakeup could help a lot, we'll more likely see the Twins come close to standing pat, while dreaming on a Miguel Sano/Byron Buxton/Max Kepler/Jose Berrios-led future.
The AL's hottest club has gone 24-12 since June 1, and has shaved a seemingly insurmountable AL West lead down to 5 1/2 games. There are still plenty of opportunities to upgrade, though, with Carlos Gomez and Evan Gattis struggling mightily, and the rotation improving lately but still lacking a hammer with Dallas Keuchel regressing sharply after his Cy Young season. GM Jeff Luhnow jumped on Houston's Cinderella last season and grabbed Scott Kazmir and Gomez at the 2015 deadline, so we know the Astros are willing to take the plunge when given an opportunity. Still, with so many prospects either cracking the Show or getting dealt since last spring, and 2015 top pick Alex Bregman approaching a callup after laying waste to Double-A and Triple-A pitching in the first half of this season, it's possible the Astros might opt for smaller deals this time around.
Few teams' immediate future looks uglier than what lies ahead for the Angels...no mean feat for the team that employs the best player in baseball. The good news is that a bunch of albatross contracts will soon come off the books: The megadeals given to C.J. Wilson and Jered Weaver expire after this season (freeing up nearly $41 million in 2016 salary), while Josh Hamilton's nightmarish deal mercifully comes off the books after next year. Whether the Angels have enough elite prospects to fill those and other holes remains the bigger question, as does owner Arte Moreno's ability to show restraint and avoid more foolish contracts to fill the voids to come. One thing the Halos did right? Acquiring Yunel Escobar, who's batting .317 this year, is owed just over $10 million through 2017 (assuming his employer picks up the cub option at the end of his deal), and could upgrade multiple teams looking for infield help.
The AL team most likely to make a bunch of sell moves, Oakland has something for everyone. Want a rocket-armed outfielder with a good batting eye who won't clog your payroll in the future since he's just two and a half months from free agency? Josh Reddick's your man. Want an incredible comeback story who's grown into one of the AL's best starters this year? Thirty-six-year-old pending free agent Rich Hill is standing by. Upgrade your bullpen with Ryan Madson and Marc Rzepczynski. Get a jolt of power from Khris Davis. Add a versatile and surprisingly dangerous bat in Danny Valencia. The A's could soon become a one-stop deadline shop.
Yet another squad sitting in the AL's vast middle, the M's have struggled to hang on without Felix Hernandez, and might be one losing streak away from becoming dogged sellers. If they do opt to sell, there are options here: Walk-year players Adam Lind and Joaquin Benoit have struggled, but multiple players with affordable 2017 club options -- Seth Smith, Hisashi Iwakuma, Chris Iannetta -- could prompt a few other teams to sniff around. The best bet here might be Franklin Gutierrez, a colossal steal at just $1.5 million this year who's a potent platoon option and a defensive asset.
Losing nine of the past 12 games would look like a bigger deal, if the Rangers hadn't slapped a stranglehold on the AL West lead earlier in the season. Things are tightening up now, and the Rangers' wish list is surprisingly long for a first-place team. Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland simply aren't good enough to hold down power positions for a first-place team; playing Jurickson Profar more and recalling Joey Gallo could potentially solve one or both problems, though it wouldn't be a shock to see a big bat (Bruce?) arrive. Catcher has been a problem for a while now, so consider Texas another potentially smart landing place for Lucroy.
And none of that actually addresses the Rangers' biggest need, starting pitchers. Yu Darvish, Derek Holland, and Colby Lewis all sit on the DL, and even the team's seemingly more effective pitchers own ERAs that look suspiciously low compared to those pitchers' iffy peripheral stats. Moore's name has come up as a possibility more than once, but really, any available starter with a pulse is probably a candidate.