With just over a week to go before MLB's July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, teams that haven't already determined their stance for the coming week—either as a buyer or seller—are beginning to do just that.
For the most part, teams out of playoff contention will be sellers, while teams in the thick of the hunt for October tend to be buyers. Depending on who you talk to, the Philadelphia Phillies are mired in one position or the other—with a record continually hovering around .500, their chances and stance at this year's trade deadline remains vague.
The only problem is, the Phillies are as unsure of their own stance as the media and fans are when reflecting upon it. Jim Salisbury of CSNPhilly.com reports that Phillies GM Ruben Amaro, Jr. is still unsure of which route to go within the next week.
Should the Phillies look to buy, which would encompass pursuing a reliever or two and/or an outfielder, either of whom would be under team control for the next few years? Or should they look to trade off players with free agency looming after the season, such as Michael Young or fan favorites Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley?
Regardless of whether they buy or sell, the Phillies must make a trade at this year's deadline. It's an opportunity for them to improve the team in some way, shape or form, whether for the present or future.
If the Phillies do buy, the logical first choice is to pursue a top bullpen arm under team control for the foreseeable future. Someone along the likes of John Axford of the Milwaukee Brewers would be a nice fit to be the Phillies' long-term setup man, but as Amaro noted in the aforementioned article, teams want players in return on the 25-man roster, players Amaro isn't willing to trade.
Should the Phillies go the selling route, the obvious name to deal is Michael Young. He's received plenty of trade interest, according to FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal. Rosenthal notes that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees comprise a total of 12 or so teams that have reached out to the Phillies about Young. Chris Roling of Fansided.com reports that the Cincinnati Reds also hold interest in the Phillies third baseman.
There's no clear-cut answer as to with whom the Phillies should trade Michael Young. And if this was an article about the one player the Phillies must trade, Young would be that guy. But he's not part of the one trade the Phillies must make. It's much simpler than that.
Among other potential trade chips the Phillies possess are ace Cliff Lee and closer Jonathan Papelbon. Lee has been tossed around in trade rumors for ages now, although WEEI.com's Rob Bradford tweeted the following when he asked Lee at the All-Star Game about the possibility of being traded again:
Cliff Lee on potential trade: 'As far as I know, it's not going to happen'
— Rob Bradford (@bradfo) July 15, 2013
That leaves Jonathan Papelbon as a viable trade chip, and there is one dead-on match with the Phillies in a trade: the Detroit Tigers. The Tigers have one of baseball's best teams on paper, but they have dealt with ninth inning woes for most of the season and for a good portion of 2012. They need a bona fide closer, which Papelbon is when he's at his best.
Unfortunately for both Papelbon and the Phillies, he hasn't been anything close to his best in recent weeks. After a dominant April and May, Papelbon began to falter as June and July rolled around. While he has a solid 20 saves on the season, he's also got five blown saves to his name, which is among the worst among not only National League closers, but closers around the majors as well.
His ERA remains a decent 2.27 and his WHIP stands at 0.88, but with an inability to pitch to standard in non-save situations in addition to the blown saves tally, Papelbon may not be as appealing to other teams as he was in April or May.
And let's not forget that he's due a minimum of almost $35 million over the next two and a half years, per Cot's Baseball Contracts.
However, a team like the Tigers is truly desperate for a ninth inning solution, but ESPN's Buster Olney tweeted that they may have another man in mind for their closer role:
There is some hope in the Tigers' organization that when the dust settles, they will be the team that lands Francisco Rodriguez. We'll see.— Buster Olney (@Buster_ESPN) July 20, 2013
Nevertheless, the fit is there. The Tigers have emerged into a big market team with the need for talent to boot. Papelbon fits that bill. And with a payroll that's capable of taking on most, if not all, of Papelbon's contract, the Phillies could find themselves a decent taker without having to eat much salary, if any.
Concerning the potential return in such a deal, the Phillies may make out better with quality over quantity due to Papelbon's contract.
The Tigers have three top prospects that would interest the Phillies: Nick Castellanos, Avisail Garcia and Bruce Rondon. All three entered the 2013 season among Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list, with Castellanos moving up from baseball's 21st-best to 15th-best prospect in the minors after Baseball America's Midseason Top 50 update.
In my opinion, the Phillies could make out in two different ways here. The first option would be to acquire just Castellanos. I don't believe that, if the Phillies want Castellanos, they can receive anything more in return. If they do, it's a steal. Even so, Castellanos by himself would be a nice get.
A third baseman by trade, Castellanos has played in left field for most of 2013 since Miguel Cabrera is entrenched at the hot corner and the Tigers lack a surefire solution in left. Avisail Garcia could find himself in one of the corner outfield spots when all's said and done, but for now, Castellanos is the Tigers' left fielder of the future.
For the Tigers, that may not be such a bad thing. George Sipple of the Detroit Free Press wrote that Castellanos' outfield instincts are starting to come together and that he's made a lot of progress on the defensive side of the ball.
Offensively, Castellanos has always been a stud, and that hasn't changed in 2013. Spending the entire year at Triple-A, Castellanos has batted .284 with an .805 OPS and has hit 12 home runs along with 52 RBI, all in 102 games. Those are pretty good numbers, especially considering that he's as close to the majors as he'll be without actually playing for Detroit.
If the Phillies acquired Castellanos, they would have a slight conundrum on their hands. Castellanos would theoretically take over left field duties, but Domonic Brown is there and would have to move back to right field, which may not be best for his positive development. Third base would be vacant after the season, but Cody Asche and breakout prospect Maikel Franco are both entrenched there.
This would mean that either Brown, Castellanos, or Asche and/or Franco would have to switch positions, and that isn't an ideal situation for the Phillies organization to find themselves.
The other option that's probably more realistic is if the Phillies acquired Garcia and Rondon, and it may make sense for multiple reasons. For starters, the Phillies seek a major league ready outfielder under team control for years to come.
Garcia fits that bill, though he is still a work in progress at the major league level. As for Rondon, he would slide in sooner or later to the closer's role, and with a fastball that easily hits 100 miles per hour, he could become a superstar closer for the Phillies within the next couple of years.
Which prospect return would be better in a Jonathan Papelbon trade to the Detroit Tigers?
Castellanos may be more appealing and would be a fantastic offensive weapon for the Phillies to possess for six-plus years.
As for Garcia and Rondon, the tandem would fill the two holes the Phillies have most. Whether or not they believe that they can make a trade with the Tigers for any of these three players is a different story in and of itself, but either return would be sensible for a team lacking in blue chip prospect depth.
What's holding the Phillies back is their inability to determine if they should buy or sell by next Wednesday, July 31.
Their upcoming road series against the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers should help clear up the fog shielding the answer to the Phillies' situation (and if I had to guess, the Phillies will be selling by the end of their nine-game road trip).
But regardless of what happens within the next week, the Phillies must absolutely pursue and strike a deal with the Tigers involving Jonathan Papelbon and any of Nick Castellanos, Avisail Garcia and Bruce Rondon.
It's a trade that makes sense for both teams for the present and future, and a deal that could position both teams for success, whether in 2013 or beyond.