As Major League Baseball nears the dog days of August, teams with playoff aspirations are fighting to keep their rosters fresh and add a shot of adrenaline whenever possible. It's fitting, then, that July 31 is the non-waiver trade deadline, just in time to fulfill that need.
This year's deadline—unlike the previous two years when every team outside of Houston felt like it had a shot at the postseason—feels different because there are more clubs falling out of contention with big assets to deal.
That makes the rumors and speculation more fun for the audience, though it can also drive you nuts waiting to see if a move will or won't be made. We are here to help you out by offering predictions for the hottest rumors floating around right now, so you don't have to rip those follicles out.
Cliff Lee: Staying in Philadelphia?
No team has more incentive to explore the trade market than the Philadelphia Phillies, whose franchise-wide downward spiral has culminated with a position in the National League East cellar and a $177 million payroll.
Of the big-name players on the roster still capable of putting up good numbers and generating a good return, Cliff Lee seems like the most obvious candidate to be dealt. He may not be one of the best pitchers in baseball anymore, but he is certainly in the top half of arms.
ESPN.com's Jayson Stark wrote about the prospects of a Lee trade and noted that while a July 31 deal may not happen, don't rule out the August waiver period, saying:
"Nobody is claiming that guy," laughed one exec. The Phillies are motivated to move him. But with at least $45 million left on his contract and his recent two-month stay on the disabled list, teams are wary of giving up real prospects, even if the Phillies pay down his deal. "He scares me," said one exec. "Maybe if he was going to be a free agent," said another, "I could see taking a chance. But not with that contract."
Lee's contract is a problem because he's guaranteed $25 million in 2015 and has a vesting option at $27.5 million for 2016 if he reaches 200 innings next year. That's a lot of coin being given to a pitcher who turns 36 on August 30.
However, we are still talking about a guy who prior to this season had thrown at least 211 innings every year since 2008 and never walks anyone. His fastball velocity is down this season (89.7 mph, per FanGraphs) and hitters are timing him to the tune of 11 hits per nine innings, but he's still averaging 7.8 strikeouts per nine innings with a 6.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Given how competitive Lee is, who's to say his stuff won't get sharper in the heat of a pennant race? That's not saying he quit on Philadelphia. It's just an observation of how hard it is to remain on point when you're a veteran player desperately seeking a title and sitting in last place.
As much as the money scares me, if the Phillies put Lee on waivers, it's not hard to see a team like the New York Yankees move in on him.
Again, though, here's where a deal becomes tricky because the Yankees are on the southpaw's no-trade list, so he would have to approve it.
Even though it would be great to see what Lee can do on the postseason stage again, it doesn't seem to be in the cards this year.
Prediction: Lee remains in Philadelphia the rest of this season.
Edwin Jackson Leaving Chicago?
For all the talk about the Chicago Cubs needing to find pitching, they are doing a lot of work getting rid of it at the MLB level. They already traded Jeff Samardzija to Oakland in exchange for prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney.
The next move for general manager Jed Hoyer appears to be moving perpetually disappointing right-hander Edwin Jackson, according to CBSSports.com's Jon Heyman, though the task is easier said than done.
Heyman even acknowledged in the report that the Yankees, who have been "an occasional pursuer of Jackson in the past," aren't showing any signs of biting this time.
There's a reason for this lack of enthusiasm: Jackson has been awful this year. He's got a 5.68 ERA with 131 hits allowed, 14 homers and 50 walks in 115.2 innings. By comparison, last year in 175.1 innings, the right-hander allowed 16 homers and 59 walks.
Even if teams can justify taking a chance on Jackson because he's just 30 years old, the decline phase of his career has set in. His average fastball velocity, according to FanGraphs, has dropped each of the last three years to 92.7 mph this season after topping out at 94.5 mph in 2010.
Opposing hitters have a 25.8 percent line-drive rate against Jackson this season, the worst mark of his career. His 12.5 percent home run-to-fly-ball ratio is his worst full-season mark, trailing only 2004, when he appeared in eight games for the Los Angeles Dodgers.
In this era, where $11 million per year for a starting pitcher can be considered a bargain, Jackson doesn't even pass the smell test. He's been inconsistent throughout his career and has reached a point where what you see is what you get.
What Jackson is right now isn't very good, so the Cubs will have to hope someone takes him in the offseason if they want to move him.
Prediction: Jackson remains in Chicago the rest of this season.
Justin Masterson Getting Checked Out
Cleveland is in a difficult spot leading up to the trade deadline. It's played well enough to stick around .500 and in shouting distance of the second wild-card spot, but a lot of key players have had disappointing years.
Nick Swisher has the lowest FanGraphs' WAR of any AL player (minus-1.2). Michael Bourn has been on the disabled list twice and has racked up a .316 on-base percentage in games he has played. Jason Kipnis has five homers and a .687 OPS. Asdrubal Cabrera has a .308 on-base percentage.
Then there is the question of Justin Masterson. An All-Star in 2013, the tall right-hander was awful in his first 19 starts with a 5.51 ERA and 162 baserunners allowed (106 hits, 56 strikeouts) in 98 innings before going on the disabled list.
A free agent at the end of 2014, Masterson certainly isn't giving Cleveland or any other team around baseball an incentive to sign him. That doesn't mean clubs aren't calling about his availability for the second half, according to Paul Hoynes of The Plain Dealer:
Or is it one of the contenders who have called the Indians inquiring about Masterson's availability? He is a free agent at the end of season following a breakdown of talks on a multiyear deal in spring training.
With the premium on starting pitchers always high, especially when you have names like Samardzija and David Price floating around, both of whom have at one more full year of team control, a lower-tier option like Masterson has to be appealing.
Nothing about Masterson's performance so far this year, combined with the fact he's only under control for two more months, suggests general manager Chris Antonetti will get much back in return.
However, let's say Masterson returns to the big leagues following his second rehab start on Friday and looks more like the guy who was an All-Star and averaged more than a strikeout per inning in 2013. The team can put him on the waiver wire in early August, hoping he goes unclaimed. It can then negotiate deals with anyone for a fair package.
Let's be honest: Terry Francona's bunch isn't going to make the playoffs again this year. Too many key players aren't performing, and the schedule broke so perfectly for them last September.
Masterson won't be back in time to prove he's healthy and strong before July 31, which works out well for Cleveland because it doesn't want to start selling assets when it's this close to a playoff spot and risk alienating an already frustrated fanbase, but an August move wouldn't be a surprise.
Prediction: Masterson remains in Cleveland past July 31 but gets dealt in August.
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