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Every MLB Contender's Biggest Weakness

Rick WeinerFeatured ColumnistJune 19, 2014

Every MLB Contender's Biggest Weakness

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    There's no such thing as a perfect team.

    Every one of baseball's 30 franchises has at least one significant area of weakness that it would like to improve upon, regardless of what is said publicly.

    With baseball's trading season set to get underway—the non-waiver trade deadline arrives in six weeks—now is as good a time as any to take a look at what weaknesses the teams in contention are dealing with—and some possible fixes that could become available.

    The easiest (and fairest) way to determine which teams are contenders is to eliminate any club that has a double-digit deficit in its division.

    The problem in doing so, however, is that only five teams are at least 10 games out of first place, leaving 25 teams—more than 80 percent of MLB—believing that they are in contention. That doesn't give us a large pool of potentially available players to use as potential trade candidates.

    Still, it's an exercise that we're going to revisit more than once between now and July 31, so we might as well take our best shot at it, right?

    Here's a look at every contender's biggest weakness—and for many, a player or two that each team could target as the trade deadline draws near. 

Atlanta Braves: Middle Relief

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    Associated Press

    When David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently wrote about Atlanta's need to bolster the bullpen, specifically pointing to the team's seventh-inning woes, I wondered whether the situation was being blown out of proportion.

    After all, this is the Braves we're talking about, a first-place team with one of the game's best starting rotations and, arguably, the best closer that money can buy. The team's bullpen ERA of 3.58 is respectable, slightly above the National League average (3.46) but below the MLB median (3.63).

    How bad could things possibly be? 

    Really bad, it turns out. Take a look at Atlanta's pitching splits for the seventh and eighth innings: 

    Stats7th Inning8th Inning
    ERA5.223.26
    WHIP1.541.32
    H (HR)80 (7)68 (4)
    ER4025
    BB2623
    K5567
    Opp. BA.292.253
    Opp. OPS.780.657

    That's a massive disparity and an untenable situation that the team needs to look outside of the organization to rectify. Luis Avilan (pictured) is clearly no longer a viable option.

    Luckily for the Braves, a number of teams are expected to sell as the deadline nears. Veteran relievers with track records of success in the seventh inning could become available.

    Possible targets include Arizona's Joe Thatcher and Brad Ziegler, Chicago's James Russell and Wesley Wright and Houston's Chad Qualls. 

Baltimore Orioles: Starting Pitching

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    Maybe it's because he believes it will be far easier to acquire a reliever than a starter, but rather than bolster Baltimore's starting rotation, Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette told ESPN's Jim Bowden on Sirius/XM Radio that the team was focused on upgrading the bullpen.

    While the bullpen hasn't been great, the rotation has been worse.

    Only five teams have seen their starters log fewer innings than Baltimore, which, as a result, has seen the bullpen get worked early and often, resulting in the ninth-most relief innings in the majors. 

    After Wei-Yin Chen and Kevin Gausman, who has been a revelation since rejoining the rotation earlier this month (3 GS, 3-0, 0.95 ERA, 1.00 WHIP, 5 BB, 14 K), Baltimore's starters have been underwhelming. None has been more disappointing than Ubaldo Jimenez (pictured), the team's big offseason addition to the group.

Boston Red Sox: Center Field

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    David Maxwell/Getty Images

    While the Boston Red Sox put an end to the Grady Sizemore experiment, the defending World Champions still have a gaping hole where a center fielder is supposed to be.

    Only the Chicago Cubs (.587) have seen their center fielders post a lower OPS than Boston (.589), and with Jackie Bradley Jr. still looking lost at the plate, the club has no choice but to look elsewhere for an upgrade.

    Arizona's Gerardo Parra, while he's primarily played in the outfield corners, has experience playing center and could be an attractive alternative. Boston has a plethora of young pitching that could be of interest to the Diamondbacks, should they begin to sell off some of their veteran pieces.

Chicago White Sox: Starting Pitching

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The problem with the Chicago White Sox sitting in contention is that they're stuck between deciding whether to make a run at the playoffs or stay true to their rebuilding efforts.

    In order to strengthen the starting rotation, which after John Danks, Jose Quintana and Chris Sale needs help, the team would need to move its most valuable trade chips, such as shortstop Alexei Ramirez (pictured) and designated hitter Adam Dunn.

    Doing so would remove big pieces from the lineup, however, and likely not result in the club having enough firepower to stay in contention down the stretch.

Cincinnati Reds: Shortstop

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    While Zack Cozart has established himself as one of the game's premier defensive shortstops, he provides hardly any offense for the Cincinnati Reds, who have struggled badly to score runs. Only Atlanta and San Diego have sent fewer baserunners across home plate.

    Only two everyday shortstops—San Diego's Everth Cabrera and Seattle's Brad Miller—have posted a lower OPS than Cozart's .584 mark. It stands to reason that if the Reds plan on hanging around the playoff race, they'll need to address the lack of offense from a premium position.

    Whether it's making a move for one of Arizona's three young shortstops (Nick Ahmed, Didi Gregorius or Chris Owings) or looking toward a veteran in the last year of his deal on a contender that may wind up selling, such as Cleveland's Asdrubal Cabrera, the Reds should be exploring other options at the position.

Cleveland Indians: Defense

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    As Paul Hoynes of Cleveland.com noted in his latest column when answering a question from a fan about Cleveland's defense, fixing what ails the Indians isn't easy to accomplish:

    I agree, the defense won't support a playoff team. Right now it can't support a .500 team, but are you suggesting that the Indians go out and trade for "defense' at the deadline?

    Swisher and Santana were supposed to be major offensive contributors. Chisenhall has been the biggest offensive surprise of the season. I don't think the roster is balanced enough to trade one of them strictly for defense.

    You could make a case for bringing up Francisco Lindor to play short and trade Asdrubal Cabrera, but he certainly hasn't helped his trade value and is Lindor ready to play every day in the big leagues?

    Lonnie Chisenhall (pictured) and Carlos Santana have been massive defensive liabilities at third base, while Nick Swisher has been only slightly less inept when he's healthy enough to play across the diamond at first base.

    It's not just that trio that has disappointed, however, as the Indians rank 29th in baseball with a minus-13.7 UZR/150, dead last by a wide margin with a minus-48 DRS.

    The problem is that the defensive-minded players who will be available as the deadline nears aren't likely to offer much offensively (think Brendan Ryan), and as Hoynes alluded to, the Indians can't afford to take one of their big bats out of the lineup on a daily basis.

    How general manager Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona go about fixing this is anyone's guess, but clearly something has to be done if the Indians have any chance of making their second consecutive playoff appearance.

Colorado Rockies: Starting Rotation

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    In what comes as a surprise to nobody, Colorado's starting rotation has once again done its best to undermine one of baseball's most dangerous and productive lineups.

    Colorado has used 10 different starters thus far and gotten pretty miserable results. Rockies starters have pitched to baseball's highest ERA (4.89) and second-highest WHIP (1.44) while throwing fewer innings (401.1) than any other rotation.

    The "ace" of the staff (I use that term lightly)—Jorge De La Rosahas pitched to a 4.75 ERA and 1.35 WHIP, delivering quality starts in only seven of his 15 appearances. While the Rockies have some highly touted young arms, many are not yet ready for the majors, as Eddie Butler proved in his short stay.

    If the Rockies hope to stay in contention, they're going to have to try and acquire a starter who can keep the ball on the ground.

Detroit Tigers: Late-Inning Relief

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Detroit's bullpen is on track to make history this season.

    The problem is that it's not the kind of history that anyone associated with the team wants to make. Tigers relievers have pitched to a 7.22 ERA in the ninth inning this season, a number that, if the season ended today, would be the highest ERA in the final frame by any team since 1914.

    Much of the blame lies with veteran closer Joe Nathan, he of the 6.57 ERA, 1.62 WHIP and four blown saves. While that last number may not seem so bad, consider that from 2011 to 2013 he blew a total of nine saves. He's nearly halfway to that mark just over two months into the season.

    While the Tigers can't completely bail on him, they can't continue to trot him out to the mound in his current state. Whether they look to add an established closer to supplant Nathan (San Diego's Huston Street, for example) or a setup man with closer potential, the Tigers can't afford to sit pat.

Kansas City Royals: Third Base

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    Duane Burleson/Getty Images

    Mike Moustakas is fooling everyone again. With him hitting .278 with three home runs, 10 RBI and a .909 OPS over his last 10 games, some may be fooled into believing that the 25-year-old has finally figured things out and will continue to produce at a high rate for the rest of the season.

    The problem, of course, is that we've seen him go on these impressive stretches before, only to follow up with even longer stretches of ineptitude. Counting on him to keep this up is like counting on a piece of cardboard to hold a bowling ball.

    It's going to come crashing down rather quickly.

    In a recent column for ESPN (subscription required), Dan Szymborski opined that the Royals should look to acquire either Arizona's Aaron Hill or San Diego's Chase Headley to man the hot corner.

    Of the pair, Hill, who hasn't played third base in years, would be the more consistent run producer and likely the cheaper option (in terms of prospects) for the Royals to target.

Los Angeles Angels: Late-Inning Relief

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    The baseball gods have forsaken Ernesto Frieri.
    The baseball gods have forsaken Ernesto Frieri.Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

    While the Los Angeles Angels have inquired about Chicago's Jeff Samardzija, as reported by USA Today's Bob Nightengale, GM Jerry DiPoto should be focused on improving the bullpen, not the rotation.

    No bullpen has been more inept when the game gets late than the current group of Angels relievers, who have pitched to a 5.05 ERA and 1.44 WHIP from the seventh inning through the ninth, blowing 10 saves along the way. The ninth has been especially brutal, where their ERA rises to 6.71 and their WHIP to 1.55.

    While closer Ernesto Frieri shouldn't shoulder all the blame, he's been brutal in the ninth. Teams are hitting him to the tune of a .310/.362/.632 slash line with seven home runs over 21 innings, which makes his 7.71 ninth-inning ERA seem lower than it should be.

    When DiPoto is done chasing the dream of adding Samardzija (the Angels can't contend with some of the packages that other teams will be offering the Cubs), he should reach out to Josh Byrnes (or whoever is running things in San Diego at that point) and see what it would take to bring Huston Street north.

    Adding Street, who looks as good as he ever has (1.04 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 10.04 K/9, 18-for-18 SV) would significantly improve the Angels' chances of making a successful run at the AL West crown.

Los Angeles Dodgers: Middle Relief

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    In mid-May, when the Los Angeles Dodgers were 22-20, a scout for a National League club pointed out the team's issues to MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince: "They're underperforming, relative to their payroll, and they're underperforming for three key reasons. The bench is awful, the bullpen is fringy at best, maybe below average, and there's no situational hitting."

    A month later, those same issues remain. 

    While the bullpen has been significantly better in June (2.77 ERA, 1.38 WHIP) than it was in April and May, not all of the team's relievers have followed suit. Chris Perez (pictured) continues to struggle, pitching to a 7.71 ERA and 2.14 WHIP in June. Brian Wilson's ERA on the month (1.59) equals his WHIP.

    That's not good.

    Whether it's by dipping into the farm system or looking for help elsewhere, finding a replacement for Perez, at the very least, should be a priority. As teams drop out of contention, the Dodgers will have multiple relievers to choose from. 

Miami Marlins: Rotation Depth

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    Denis Poroy/Getty Images

    It's pretty remarkable that we're talking about the Miami Marlins as contenders, especially after the team lost ace Jose Fernandez (pictured) to Tommy John surgery in mid-May.

    But the Marlins are right in the thick of things, and as MLB.com's Joe Frisaro notes, the club isn't opposed to looking outside the organization to bolster its starting rotation for the stretch run. The addition of top prospect Andrew Heaney should help, but the back end of the group needs some help. 

    Fellow prospect Anthony DeSclafani has delivered a mixed bag (one good start, two mediocre ones), while the magic that Tom Koehler had had early has disappeared, with the 27-year-old pitching to a 6.99 ERA and 1.52 WHIP over his last five starts.

    As Frisaro notes, the Marlins are only interested in pitchers who are under team control past this season, and they won't include DeSclafani, Heaney or Justin Nicolino in any potential deal. But the Marlins still have a number of young trade chips that could be attractive enough to bring back the starter the team needs.

Milwaukee Brewers: First Base

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Mark Reynolds has provided Milwaukee with power and fantastic defense at first base this season, which has made his .206 batting average and .286 on-base percentage bearable.

    Lyle Overbay (pictured), who began the year as part of a platoon with Reynolds, has offered none of those things. In a perfect world, the Brewers will be able to find a full-time replacement for Reynolds and cut ties with Overbay.

    That would give manager Ron Roenicke a powerful pinch hitter to call upon late in games. It's never a bad idea to give your manager more options to choose from.

    But the Brewers don't have much room in their budget to add salary, which could further limit what figures to be a relatively light market when it comes to first basemen.

Minnesota Twins: Starting Rotation

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Phil Hughes has been phenomenal, while Kyle Gibson has been very good; they give Minnesota a pair of 20-something starters to build its rotation around.

    The problem is that those surrounding the duo haven't been adequate, much less good.

    Ricky Nolasco (pictured), the team's biggest offseason expenditure, has been downright awful, delivering only five quality starts in 14 chances and sitting with a 5.66 ERA and 1.57 WHIP on the season. Kevin Correia and Samuel Deduno haven't been much better.

    The Twins have a number of quality relievers who could be of interest to contenders, but it's questionable as to whether any of them (with the exception of closer Glen Perkins) would bring back a starter who is any better than what the Twins currently have.

New York Mets: Shortstop

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    As was the case heading into the season, shortstop remains a gaping hole on New York's roster, one that incumbent Ruben Tejada continues to prove he's incapable of filling.

    Only six teams have gotten less production at the plate from their shortstops than New York, who despite sitting eight games below .500 are only six games back in the NL East.

    Mets GM Sandy Alderson recently told SiriusXM's Jim Bowden that the team has the ability to be buyers as the trade deadline approaches, noting that starting pitcher Jon Niese will not be dangled as trade bait.

    If the team is truly in buying mode, then Alderson should be on the phone with one of his old pals, Arizona's Tony La Russa, whom he worked with years ago in Oakland.

    The Diamondbacks have a trio of intriguing young shortstops—Nick Ahmed, Didi Gregorius and Chris Owings—who would all be upgrades, both offensively and defensively, over Tejada. Even without including Niese in a deal, the Mets have the pitching it would likely take to pry away one of the three.

New York Yankees: Starting Pitching

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    Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

    The New York Yankees have gotten by so far this season with a mixed bag of starters after the incredible Masahiro Tanaka, but the Bombers are going to need reinforcements if they hope to return to the playoffs after missing out on the fun in 2013.

    Chase Whitley has been a pleasant surprise, but he's never thrown more than 91 innings in any of his five professional seasons. Whether he can continue to be this effective as he racks up the innings is a legitimate question and concern. 

    The Yankees have no clue what they'll get when CC Sabathia returns from the disabled list, while Michael Pineda has shown flashes of brilliance but remains so injury-prone that he can't be counted on. David Phelps and Adam Warren have been serviceable when called upon, but both are best suited in the bullpen.

    They need to bring in another starter.

    USA Today's Bob Nightengale says the Yankees are one of the teams in on Chicago's Jeff Samardzija, but the club lacks the young pitching that the Cubs are likely to be seeking in return. Same goes for Tampa Bay's David Price, if and when the Rays make him available.

    That said, expect to see the Yankees linked to nearly every veteran arm that becomes available as we inch closer to the trade deadline.

Oakland Athletics: Starting Pitching

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The problem isn't the level of talent in Oakland's starting rotation, which owns the American League's lowest ERA (3.08) and trails only St. Louis (3.00) for the MLB lead. It's that the A's don't have enough talent to weather the storms that will come their way over the next three months.

    Drew Pomeranz's (pictured) bone-headed (and bone-breaking) decision to punch a chair in frustration has left the back end of Oakland's rotation in disarray. Already without the services of A.J. Griffin and Jarrod Parker and having called upon insurance policy Tommy Milone long ago, the A's are short one starter.

    The A's aren't likely to get involved with the bidding on Chicago's Jeff Samardzija or Tampa Bay's David Price (if and when the latter officially goes on the block), but Samardzija's teammate Jason Hammel—or another veteran starter on a short-term deal from a not-yet-identified seller—could be of interest.

    Adding another arm would allow the A's to either bump Milone from the rotation or, upon Pomeranz's return, put him back in the bullpen where he thrived early in the season, pitching to a 1.98 ERA and 1.24 WHIP.

    Whatever the A's do, rest assured that they're going to do something. As Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal noted in a recent edition of his Full Count video series, Oakland GM Billy Beane rarely lets the trade deadline pass without making a move to improve his team.

Philadelphia Phillies: Left Field

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    Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

    I don't believe for a second that the Philadelphia Phillies are a contender, but going by the rules I laid out at the beginning of this exercise, they qualify as one, so here we are.

    The more we see of Domonic Brown (pictured), the more apparent it becomes that his torrid first half in 2013 and subsequent All-Star berth were flukes.

    Among left fielders with at least 200 at-bats, the 26-year-old has the lowest OPS (.610) by a wide margin, trailing New York's Brett Gardner (.723) by more than 100 points for the next-to-last spot in the rankings. That he's been mediocre defensively only compounds the issue.

    Finding an upgrade over Brown could help Philadelphia's postseason chances, but whether the Phillies have the trade chips to acquire that player without seriously altering the makeup of the team remains to be seen.

Pittsburgh Pirates: Starting Rotation

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    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Pittsburgh's starting rotation, which was a strength for the club a season ago, has become its biggest liability.

    The starters have thrown fewer innings (408) than only one other National League club (Colorado), while the group has delivered only 31 quality starts, tied with Baltimore for the 25th fewest in baseball.

    Last year's reclamation project, Francisco Liriano (pictured) has been terrible and currently resides on the disabled list, where he's joined by Gerrit Cole, the de facto ace of the rotation, and Jameson Taillon, the team's top prospect.

    That's why the Pirates are now rolling with a rotation that, after Charlie Morton, features the likes of Jeff Locke and Vance Worley.

    As Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review notes, the Pirates don't have the internal options to improve the group and are unlikely to be willing to pay the price, both in salary and prospects, that it would take to obtain reinforcements from outside the organization.

    That doesn't bode well for Pittsburgh's chances to remain in contention in a hotly contested National League wild-card race.

San Francisco Giants: Second Base

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Brandon Hicks (pictured) has been fine defensively in place of the injured Marco Scutaro but offers San Francisco nothing when he steps to the plate.

    Of the 23 second basemen in the majors who have taken at least 150 at-bats, Hicks' .637 OPS ranks 21st, and his .175 batting average ranks 22nd. If and when Scutaro returns, he's expected to be limited to utility duty, according to the The Boston Globe's Nick Cafardo. That means the Giants are going to have to shop around for an upgrade.

    One potential target could be Arizona's Aaron Hill, though the two division rivals don't normally deal with each other. Four times the two clubs have done business together; the last time was in 2005 when the Giants traded reliever Matt Herges and cash to the Diamondbacks for outfielder Doug DeVore.

Seattle Mariners: Back End of the Rotation

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    According to Gordon Wittenmyer of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Seattle Mariners aren't wasting any time in trying to upgrade the starting rotation.

    The Mariners have checked in with the Chicago Cubs on both Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija, with one industry source telling Wittenmyer that he expects Hammel to wind up in Seattle. While the team's lack of consistent offense remains an issue, bolstering the rotation makes sense.

    After Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the rotation has a lot of moving, interchangeable pieces. Brandon Maurer and Erasmo Ramirez have been mediocre at best, while Roenis Elias lacks experience and Chris Young is always one pitch away from yet another stint on the disabled list.

St. Louis Cardinals: Second Base

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    Jeff Curry/Getty Images

    While Kolten Wong (pictured) may be the second baseman of the future in St. Louis, he, along with Daniel Descalso, Mark Ellis and Greg Garcia, simply isn't contributing enough at the plate.

    Only San Diego (.155 BA, .460 OPS) has gotten less production from its second basemen than the Cardinals (.207 BA, .547 OPS). For a club that has struggled to put runs on the board, the Cardinals can't afford to continue without seeking an upgrade at the plate—at least for the short term.

    If the team is committed to Wong for the long haul, landing an upgrade figures to be more difficult, as the best options expected to be available, such as Arizona's Aaron Hill, have multiple years (and significant salary) left on their deals.

Texas Rangers: First Base

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Take your pick of problem areas for the Texas Rangers, who have been decimated by injuries as if GM Jon Daniels and manager Ron Washington owed money to the baseball gods, who in turn have directed their wrath at the organization.

    If you want to call the starting rotation the biggest weakness, you'd get no argument from me, but I'm going with first base, now that the club has lost both Prince Fielder and Mitch Moreland (pictured) for the season.

    Things have gotten so bad that the Rangers signed Carlos Pena, who hasn't been relevant since 2011, to a minor league deal. One possible option, while not ideal, would be to make a move for Chicago's Adam Dunn if the White Sox fall out of contention.

    While Dunn is a defensive liability, he has historically hit well in Arlington (.281 BA, 1.037 OPS, 6 HR in 17 G) and would help to fill the void left by Fielder and Moreland's absence.

Toronto Blue Jays: Starting Pitching

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    Can Toronto count on Marcus Stroman down the stretch?
    Can Toronto count on Marcus Stroman down the stretch?Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    Noncommittal would be a good way to describe Toronto GM Alex Anthopoulos' answer to being asked where he'd like to upgrade the team at a press conference on Tuesday, via MLB.com's Gregor Chisholm:

    That I can sincerely answer and say we’ve talked about every spot. I was just on the phone with someone that, if they have a player available [and] we have a good player at that spot but that player’s an upgrade, we’d look to do it. And at the same time you don’t want to disrupt the clubhouse or disrupt the flow of the team, but we’re really open to anything.

    While it's always good to keep one's options open, Anthopoulos seems to be focused on bolstering his starting rotation. USA Today's Bob Nightengale tweeted that the Blue Jays were one of the teams to express interest in Chicago ace Jeff Samardzija. 

    The last time the Blue Jays and Cubs discussed a potential deal for Samardzija, the Jays balked at Chicago's asking price that, according to Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal, included starter Drew Hutchison and either Aaron Sanchez or Marcus Stroman (pictured), the team's top two pitching prospects.

    While Mark Buehrle has pitched like an ace, Toronto would benefit from adding a front-of-the-rotation arm like Samardzija to complement him—and take pressure off the likes of Hutchison, J.A. Happ and R.A. Dickey, who have shown flashes of both brilliance and inconsistency.

Washington Nationals: Leadoff Hitter/Center Field

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    Jeff Curry/Getty Images

    As a team, Washington ranks 24th in baseball with a .309 on-base percentage from the leadoff spot, far too low for a contender with such a potent lineup.

    The major culprit has been center fielder Denard Span, whose .314 on-base percentage sits tied with Philadelphia's Ben Revere (his former teammate in Minnesota) for the 12th worst mark among the 16 leadoff hitters who have taken at least 200 at-bats.

    Span's .269 batting average and .700 OPS aren't awful, but his defense has been mediocre at best. If the Nationals are able to find a center fielder who is capable of reaching base (and making plays) more consistently than Span, it's a move that GM Mike Rizzo has to make.

     

    *Unless otherwise noted, all statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and are current through games of June 18.

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