The month of July brings every general manager in baseball the same heartfelt question: Are we for real? If you’re running the Astros, and you’re fifteen games up, it’s not a tough question to answer. Similarly, the Phillies know where they stand, and their only decision is whether to unload all of their veterans or just those that will be free agents next winter.
But for the bulk of the remaining teams in the MLB, that question is much more complicated. If you’re the Twins, in the second wild card slot but with a run differential more suited to a 90-loss team, do you continue building toward a bright future or sacrifice some of your good prospects to make a run this year? After all, once you get to October, anything can happen. In fact, at the moment, seven teams are within three games of the second wild card spot in the American League, and three others are within 5 ½ games. Oakland is the only team in the league that can safely punt on the season.
When you’re one of ten teams in contention, how much are you willing to risk? It’s a decision with many factors, foremost among them, your margin of error. If the Yankees, for example, decide to give up a few prospects to fortify their rotation, they know they will be able to fill any gaps that are caused simply by spending money. Tampa Bay, on the other hand, would normally be thinking of trading Alex Cobb before he walks as a free agent after this season, but doing so might knock them out of a shot at the playoffs. Do you hold on to Cobb for a long shot playoff bid, knowing that you’ll lose him for nothing, or do you get something while you can? The Rays have historically done a good job of moving veterans on the verge of free agency for players who can actually help right away, but that may be more difficult when so many potential trading partners are in the same position.
These decisions would be a lot simpler if the teams that look like flukes found their proper level. The Angels have the sixth best ERA in the league with Ricky Nolasco as their most consistent starter. That can’t possibly last, but when exactly does such a thing change from a fluke to a trend. The Mariners have stayed on the fringe of the race despite a devastating run of injuries to their pitching staff. Does the law of averages make them believe that they will have better health in the second half, or do they just have a staff full of injury-prone guys? Whether the Mariners can contend or not may simply come down to whether Felix Hernandez has another run of greatness in his right arm. If you could answer questions like that you should be gambling for real money.
Of course, this could all become clearer by the trade deadline, which means there may be very little action until the last minute. Here are the ten quasi-contenders and their outlook for trading action:
Tampa Bay: The Rays look at the big picture; they don’t generally sacrifice the future for a short term run. That probably means Cobb will go, especially because they seem to have his replacement in the rotation ready to go in Jacob Faria. The Rays will move Cobb for a bat who can help them now and is under control for a couple of years.
Baltimore: The Orioles just plod along. Their rotation sucks, Manny Machado is having a bad year, their run differential is second worst in the league, and the division they’re in means that they get fewer easy games than any other wild card contender. They’re also 9-2 in extra-inning games, a stat that cries out for regression to the mean. But most of that was true about the Orioles last year, and they went to the playoffs.
Toronto: The Jays know that they have a rotation capable of leading a good run, so the five games separating them from a wild card spot isn’t as large as it would be for some teams. Still, the only way this team is a real threat is if Josh Donaldson and Troy Tulowitzki play like stars.
Kansas City: Possibly the toughest call. A month ago, this was a last-place team with half the lineup headed for free agency, so the call would have been easy. But they had a great June, and they know how to win in the postseason if they can find a way to get there. Still, their only decent starter is Jason Vargas, who has never pitched close to this level ever before. If he reverts to his normal level in the second half, the Royals are in trouble.
Chicago: The White Sox started tanking before the season started. It would be embarrassing to reverse course now, especially with Quintana shipped across town.
Detroit: The Tigers have a bunch of contracts nobody wants, and a bunch of players on the way down. There’s not a clear path to a rebuild, so their best course might be to hope they guys have one more run left in them, then tank. Unfortunately, some of those contracts run into the next decade, which could make the Tigers the first team to tank with an above average payroll.
Los Angeles Angels: They’re in the thick of the race with Mike Trout missing more than thirty games. If he is healthy when the second half starts, why not go for it? The Angels don’t have a lot of prospects to deal for immediate help, so it’s hard to say if they can actually add anything, but the good news is that any pitcher with both arms securely attached to his body has a chance to be an upgrade.
Seattle: See above. Given their 16-year playoff drought and veteran core, the Mariners are probably the most likely team to go all in if they are close enough to a playoff spot to faintly smell it.
Texas: I just don’t see it. The Rangers have more reasons to keep their fingers crossed than any other contender; lots of old guys, lots of guys with injury histories, lots of guys who are having bad years and need to rebound. They traded away a lot of prospects to get Cole Hamels and Jonathan Lucroy last year, so they might not have much to trade this time.
Seattle, Tampa Bay, or Kansas City are probably my picks for the wild cards right now. Don’t ask me why.