Each season, a number of teams end up stuck in the middle. The teams that can clearly navigate themselves out of that middle are often rewarded, but the teams that do nothing (looking at you, Philadelphia Phillies) often just remain trapped in their mediocrity. As the July 31 trading deadline begins to appear at the horizon of our road trip through the season, there are four teams that should be looking to be buyers. Here they are, plus lists of the players each should be targeting.
The Nationals are in one of the most difficult positions a team can find itself in. They are a team without obvious holes that hasn’t performed up to expectations, and they don’t have the kind of farm system that looks to cure any wounds, either. Certainly, the Nationals didn’t expect to be in third place this deep into the season, and perhaps they wouldn’t be if Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper had been healthy.
Zimmerman returns this week, although the plan for him doesn’t make a lick of sense. In recent years, Zimmerman has lacked the range for third base. Now, coming off a broken thumb, the team wants him to play some left field. That’s a bad plan to start. It’s even worse because Danny Espinosa has not been that much better than Nate McLouth, so there is really no reason to play Zimmerman — a valuable asset — out of position to accommodate Espinosa. Finally, it’s a short-term move, as Harper should be back around the All-Star break. If you’re going to put that much time and energy into a position switch, it would be nice if it lasted for longer than six weeks or so.
The Zimmerman shenanigans aside, the team does have other spots it can upgrade. Bench play is never a sexy topic, but when Kevin Frandsen and his .236/.299/.315 slash line is one of your primary backups, it’s clear that it’s a situation that needs to be addressed. The team’s catchers are also not hitting. Wilson Ramos has been and should be better, but it might be something worth looking into. The team’s starters on both sides of the ball are fine for the most part, but in Espinosa, McLouth, Frandsen, Jose Lobaton, Greg Dobbs and Tyler Moore, the Nats have a whole mess of non-full-time players who just aren’t hitting. The team still has a chance to reach the postseason, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s stuck in third place. The big move might be hard to make, but the Nats need to find a way to get better.
This isn’t the start the Indians expected. Danny Salazar blew up, for starters. Jason Kipnis missed a chunk of time. Carlos Santana has been a huge disappointment, and Nick Swisher and Ryan Raburn haven’t been any better. The team has been an abomination on the road, and the Indians are looking up at the rebuilding White Sox in the standings.
And yet, hope isn’t lost. Corey Kluber has been a beast, and Michael Brantley is in the midst of a career year. Lonnie Chisenhall is rebounding, as are David Murphy and Trevor Bauer. Despite Kipnis’ absence and the struggles of the others, the Indians have not had any trouble scoring runs. Their wRC+ ranks eighth in all of baseball for the season, and it ranked third in May. If Santana can rebound when he returns from the concussion disabled list, the team might have the luxury of playing him and Chisenhall at the same time on the infield corners and moving Swisher into a bench role.
But the pitching needs some help. Kluber is an emerging ace, and Justin Masterson and Bauer should hold down the second and third spots in the rotation. After that, it’s a whole lot of mediocre. The team’s prognosis would improve greatly if guys such as Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin were responsible for only one of the two final rotation spots rather than both of them. The bullpen isn’t much better. Bryan Shaw and Cody Allen have stabilized things a bit, and Scott Atchison just keeps doing work, and Marc Rzepczynski still gets out lefties aplenty, but it gets ugly after that.
A return to form from Salazar — no matter the role — would be a big help, but that’s not something Cleveland can bank on at this point, and, with no other top pitching prospects expected to graduate, Cleveland should explore the trade market. The Indians might lose Masterson and Asdrubal Cabrera to free agency, and, with many of the team’s long-term position players in their 30s, their time is now.
Come out of the gate strong, peter out in May. Rockies fans have seen this story before. But the team’s play overall is still encouraging. On Friday, Dave Cameron noted that the Rockies have been the fourth-best team in baseball by expected run differential. Their troubles have mirrored Cleveland’s, in that they have hit the ball well but have not necessarily pitched it with aplomb. Unlike the Indians, though, they do have a big hole in the lineup: second base. It isn’t an isolated event. A look at the annals of the Rockies’ second basemen reads basically as Eric Young and a hot pile of garbage. Since the Rockies came into existence, they are the only team to not accumulate 10 WAR at second base.
This year’s second baseman, DJ LeMahieu, just isn’t good enough. He can’t hit, and, although he can field well, he doesn’t field so well that it makes up for his limp noodle of a bat. Josh Rutledge has not been a solution, either, and the team should look externally. As mentioned, the pitching should be better, but Jon Gray and Eddie Butler might be ready to make like Ubaldo Jimenez and Franklin Morales did in 2007 and help rescue a struggling/injured starting rotation in the dog days of summer. Until the team makes a firm decision on whether it is going to push them to The Show this year, they should hold off on acquiring a more seasoned starting pitcher and focus instead on the keystone.
When Mat Latos was acquired, it was because the team was ready for a playoff run. The Reds made the postseason in each of his first two seasons but managed just a 2-4 record, and it would be hard to label either experience “satisfying.” And with Latos set to flee for greener-backed pastures after the season, 2014 might be the last season definitively in Cincy’s window. And that window is slipping quickly from view. The team middled its way to just-below-.500 finishes in each of the season’s two months, and its playoff odds stand at a distant 11 percent as of this writing. With a healthy Joey Votto, Cincinnati still wasn’t hitting very well. With Votto on the shelf, this team can’t punch its way out of a wet paper bag.
For the season, the team ranks ahead of only the Padres, Mariners, Cubs and Royals in terms of wRC+, and in May even the lowly Cubs hit better than did Cincinnati. In Votto’s absence, the team has given the bulk of first-base at-bats to a backup catcher with a career .261/.295/.367 slash line. That would be unacceptable for catcher; for first base, it’s downright criminal. It’s also time to let go of the idea of “Zack Cozart, starting shortstop.” Only seven qualified hitters have posted a worst ISO (isolated power) than Cozart’s. As with LeMahieu in Colorado, Cozart’s glove doesn’t make up for his inept hitting.
At least Cozart does something well, though. The same cannot be said for Ryan Ludwick. Lost in all the hand-wringing about Billy Hamilton‘s offense has been the fact that there are precious few good hitters on this team in general. The Reds need more of them, and fast.
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