Decision Day is two weeks away.
With baseball’s decision last off-season to do away with August waivers the hard and fast trading deadline occurs July 31. As is often the case a handful of what can best be termed minor deals have started to take place in advance of that deadline.
Over the weekend, Boston fortified its starting rotation with its trade of prospects to AL East Division rival Baltimore for established veteran Andrew Cashner. Oakland, most likely a Wild Card rather than AL West Division contender, acquired starter Homer Bailey in a trade with Kansas City.
As teams are in the final stages of evaluating their chances of making the post season and thus deciding on whether to be buyers or sellers over the next two weeks the situations involving the two leagues could not be more in contrast.
In the American League, there are five, and potentially six, teams that are all but out of the race for a Wild Card berth. Through Monday Seattle, Toronto, Kansas City, Detroit and Baltimore are each at least 15.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot and the Chicago White Sox were nine games out.
That leaves nine AL teams vying for five playoff spots. The three Division leaders — the Yankees, Minnesota and Houston — had leads of five, six and 5.5 games respectively. Tampa Bay had a two-game lead for the first Wild Card with Cleveland and Oakland in a virtual tie for the second spot. Boston was just three games out of the second spot with Texas three back and the Angels 4.5 games out.
Each of those teams figures to be buyers and the acquisition of just one key player can provide the needed talent to make the difference. Starting pitching and bullpen fortification should be the major priorities as run prevention becomes even more critical as the season winds down. Roughly 70 games remain to be played.
In stark contrast to the junior circuit only one team in the National League — Miami — is more than 5.5 games out of the second Wild Card spot. Even the woeful New York Mets, sporting the second worst record in the NL at 42-51, is only a two-week hot streak away from narrowing that gap to just a couple of games.
Of course there are 10 teams between the Mets and the second Wild Card but most non-interleague games they will play will be against teams they are chasing and not trailing by much in the standings.
This is not to make a case for the Mets but rather to suggest the available pool of National League talent that might be involved in trades may be severely limited.
One of the biggest names mentioned all season as a potential if not likely player to be traded is San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner. MadBum has an outstanding record in postseason play and was a key cog in the Gaints winning three World Series in a five-season span of 2010 through 2014.
Despite their 45-49 record the Giants began play Tuesday just three games out of the second NL Wild Card. And the gap between the two Wild Cards is just two games with the Nationals holding that edge over St Louis and Philadelphia who were effectively tied for that second berth.
Only the Dodgers have a comfortable Division lead with their 15 game edge over Arizona in the NL West. Atlanta has a 7.5-game edge over Washington in the NL East but the Nats have been playing their best baseball of the season since late May and will have a chance to cut into that lead when they play a four-game series in Atlanta this weekend.
The worst thing a franchise can do is signal early defeat to both its fans and players. Barring a downturn in fortunes over the next 10 days, a number of National League teams considered borderline contenders for a Wild Card — based on the overall mediocrity of most of the league based on their records — teams considered to be certain sellers a month ago may be reluctant to send that message.
Teams that do trade away their top talent will sell their fans they are looking towards the future. Fans are more concerned with the present when the distance to a playoffs berth is slight with two months to play.
It will be interesting to see which groups of ownership/management are willing to take the chance of alienating their fans and all but give up on this season.
Here are thoughts on a pair of weekend series:
Nationals at Braves: Both teams have been red hot for the past month or so and, in fact, through Monday each had won 29 of its prior 40 games. These NL East rivals have met in just five games this season with the Nationals winning three. Interestingly, the road team has won four of the five.
Washington’s offense has been equally as productive on the road, averaging an identical 4.9 runs per game. Atlanta has averaged nearly a run more per game at home (5.8 rpg) at home than on the road (5.0). But Washington has a huge edge in starting pitching with its trio of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin.
Scherzer was placed on the IL last week with a mid-back strain but will be eligible to return this weekend and could get a start against the Braves, who have seen 21-year-old Mike Soroka emerge as their best starter. Dallas Keuchel is rounding into shape through his first five starts, all of which have stayed under the total. Atlanta’s third and fourth starters, Max Fried and Julio Teheran, are on a par with Washington’s fourth starter, Anibal Sanchez.
My preferred plays in this series will be under totals of 8 or higher in matchups of Scherzer, Strasburg or Corbin against Soroka or Keuchel.
I will look to play the Nationals as underdogs of any price or as favorites of -125 or less in starts by their top trio with two exceptions. If the Braves are underdogs of +110 or more in starts by Soroka or Keuchel I would look first to the home underdog.
Athletics at Twins: In their only prior series Oakland took two of three home games against Minnesota at the start of July. Despite averaging a combined 10 runs per game two of the three stayed under the total. Jose Berrios has been Minnesota’s most effective starter and has plenty of upside at just 25 years old.
Oakland has been hot for the last month, winning 18 of its last 25 games (Minnesota is just 13-12 over that same stretch). Look to back Oakland as underdogs of +125 or more throughout this four-game series except against Berrios in which case the take should be +140 or more.