How the 2016 MLB Playoff Races Have Been Reshaped by Trade Season
This changes everything.
That might as well be the official motto of MLB's annual non-waiver trade deadline, which rolls around every summer to tilt the balance of power and upend playoff races across both leagues.
The 2016 edition was no exception, with an array of marquee players swapping uniforms and the postseason picture shifting accordingly.
Oh, and the long-suffering Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians emerged as two of the most aggressive buyers, while the New York Yankees went into full-blown sell mode. Welcome to Bizarro World.
As we try to get our minds around that, let's run through each divisional race and the wild-card scrambles and parse exactly how this season's deadline reshaped the chase for October.
American League East
So, about those selling Yanks.
As difficult as it is to fathom, the American League's biggest spenders opted to jettison multiple impact pieces, restocking their farm system and essentially waving a white flag on 2016.
We'll discuss the players New York shipped out shortly. But for the moment, let's see how the AL East's other contenders fared.
The short answer: not great.
The Baltimore Orioles lead the division by one game entering play Tuesday, with the Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays tied for second place.
All three clubs boast potent offenses but suspect rotations, and all three dipped into a shallow starting-pitching pool.
The Orioles grabbed left-hander Wade Miley (7-8, 4.98 ERA) from the Seattle Mariners, per Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal. The Red Sox got All-Star Drew Pomeranz from the San Diego Padres but have watched him go 0-2 with a 7.53 ERA through three starts. The Jays, meanwhile, acquired Francisco Liriano (6-11, 5.46 ERA) from the Pittsburgh Pirates, per Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Among those names, Pomeranz has enjoyed the most recent success, posting a 2.47 ERA with 115 strikeouts in 102 innings with San Diego.
Liriano, though, is an intriguing dark horse. The 32-year-old southpaw has wobbled with his command, issuing an MLB-leading 69 walks in 113.2 frames. But he's still missing bats, to the tune of 9.2 strikeouts per nine innings. And he put up a 3.38 ERA with 205 strikeouts in 186.2 innings last season with the Bucs.
There's no guarantee a move to the hitter-friendly AL East will right the ship for Liriano, or any of these arms. But any of the aforementioned starters catching fire for the stretch run could decide one of baseball's most wide-open races.
American League Central
The AL Central was largely quiet at the deadline, with only the Indians making serious noise.
First, the Tribe whiffed on All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy, who vetoed a trade to Cleveland. Cleveland, however, quickly engineered a blockbuster deal for Yankees left-hander Andrew Miller, one of the best relief pitchers in the game, for a package of top prospects, per ESPN's Buster Olney.
Miller—who posted a 1.39 ERA and 77 strikeouts in 45.1 innings for the Yankees in 2016—gives the Tribe a top-shelf late-inning arm. And the addition cements their status as division favorites.
The Detroit Tigers are just four games behind Cleveland entering play Tuesday, and the Chicago White Sox and defending champion Kansas City Royals are hanging around the fringes of the postseason picture.
None, however, did anything of note to bolster their rosters or their chances.
Sure, a bat of Lucroy's caliber would have been helpful. But on the heels of the Cavaliers' NBA title and almost 68 years since its last World Series win, Cleveland has cause to dream big.
The Indians gave up key chips to land Miller, including outfielder Clint Frazier and left-hander Justus Sheffield, both top 100 prospects, per MLB.com. But that's the cost of contending, as skipper Terry Francona pointed out.
"You don't get a guy like [Miller] without giving up some really good players," Francona said, per Zack Meisel of Cleveland.com. "It's not like you're going to steal [Miller]. It's costly. But I think our team deserves the chance."
American League West
Everything's bigger in the Lone Star State—including, in the case of the Texas Rangers, the trade deadline.
Texas grabbed veteran Carlos Beltran and his 1.115 career postseason OPS from the Yankees, per Rosenthal.
Then the Rangers succeeded where Cleveland failed, landing Lucroy—along with closer Jeremy Jeffress—from the Milwaukee Brewers.
The first-place Rangers surrendered a raft of minor league talent in the process, but they also charted a course to a second AL West title and might have become the Junior Circuit front-runners.
The in-state rival Houston Astros are 5.5 games back entering play Tuesday, but they failed to make any notable trade splashes. Likewise, the 52-52 Seattle Mariners essentially punted, while the Oakland A's and Los Angeles Angels played the role of basement-dwelling sellers.
The Rangers, as ESPN's David Schoenfield noted, "didn't get the starting pitcher they needed." With a deep lineup and buttressed bullpen, however, they appear formidable.
This was the Rangers' race to lose before the deadline. Now, it'll be a Texas-sized shock if they don't win.
National League East
The Washington Nationals needed a closer with veteran Jonathan Papelbon choking worse than, well, never mind.
So they got Mark Melancon—a three-time All-Star who led MLB with 51 saves in 2015 and owns a 1.51 ERA this season—from the Pittsburgh Pirates, per Chelsea Janes of the Washington Post.
The New York Mets needed a bat to jump-start an offense that ranks third-to-last in runs scored.
So they got outfielder Jay Bruce (.265/.316/.559 slash line with 25 homers) from the Cincinnati Reds, per Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com.
The Miami Marlins needed starting pitching, so they acquired hard-throwing Andrew Cashner from the Padres in the hope that he could improve upon the 4.76 ERA he posted in San Diego.
With the dust settled, the Nats—who lead the Marlins by five games and the Mets by 7.5 entering play Tuesday—remain the favorites. Melancon is a rental, but he's also one of the best late-inning relievers in the game and shores up one of Washington's few glaring weaknesses.
In Bruce, the Mets are hoping to catch lightning in a bottle the same way they did with Yoenis Cespedes last season. But with their vaunted super-rotation rattled by injury, it may not be enough.
As for the Marlins, Cashner isn't a savior. Along with the return of speedy second baseman Dee Gordon from a performance-enhancing drug suspension, however, he could easily keep Miami in the mix.
National League Central
The Chicago Cubs already have an enviable young lineup loaded with talented, versatile hitters. They boast a starting rotation that paces baseball in ERA.
Now, they've got arguably the most dominant closer in the game in Aroldis Chapman, who was acquired by Chicago in a swap with the sell-happy Yankees.
Yes, the troubling matter of Chapman's domestic violence suspension hangs over all of his on-field exploits.
From a baseball perspective, however, the Cubs will slot Chapman and his triple-digit heat into a bullpen that already includes right-handers Hector Rondon and Pedro Strop, replicating the shutdown late-inning formula that won the Kansas City Royals a Commissioner's Trophy in 2015.
The St. Louis Cardinals, who trail the Cubs by eight games, also landed bullpen help, getting left-hander Zach Duke from the Chicago White Sox. Duke is a nice piece and addresses a need for the Cards, but he won't propel them to the top of the division.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, meanwhile, sit 11 games off the pace in the NL Central and went into quasi-sell mode, shipping out Mark Melancon, Jon Niese and Francisco Liriano and bringing in marginal pieces such as right-hander Ivan Nova and lefty reliever Antonio Bastardo, per Bill Brink and Stephen J. Nesbitt of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Long story short: The Cubbies' curse-busting quest remains on track.
National League West
It's an old-fashioned two-team race in the NL West, with the San Francisco Giants leading the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers by two games entering play Tuesday.
The Giants got speedy infielder Eduardo Nunez from the Minnesota Twins. Then they landed lefty reliever Will Smith from the Milwaukee Brewers, per Yahoo Sports' Jeff Passan (save your Fresh Prince jokes, please).
Finally, San Francisco sent a package headlined by third baseman Matt Duffy to the Tampa Bay Rays for left-hander Matt Moore, per ESPN.com.
Nunez will supplant Duffy at third, with Smith fortifying a bullpen that's been shaky in stretches. Moore, though, is the real wild card. An All-Star and top-10 Cy Young Award finisher in 2013, he underwent Tommy John surgery the same year and has been searching for consistency ever since.
If the Giants can sprinkle their even-year magic on him, he could be the most impactful starter to move at the deadline.
That title could also apply to lefty Rich Hill, who went to Los Angeles along with right fielder Josh Reddick in a swap between the Dodgers and Oakland A's, per Andy McCullough of the Los Angeles Times.
The 36-year-old Hill has posted a 2.25 ERA in 14 starts with Oakland but has missed stretches with a groin strain and, currently, a finger blister. Reddick also did time on the disabled list with a thumb injury, but he has eight hits in his last six games, including a pair of home runs.
Hill, when healthy, will attempt to fill the sizable cleats of ace Clayton Kershaw, who is battling a bad back. Reddick, meanwhile, should provide needed punch. Dodgers right fielders, as ESPN.com's Doug Padilla noted, owned a .729 OPS entering play Monday, the fourth-lowest mark in the NL.
Both the Giants and Dodgers made high-risk, high-reward moves, and this looks like it'll be a scrum to the end, provided Kershaw returns at some point.
Fans of the rivalry, undoubtedly, wouldn't have it any other way.
American League Wild-Card Race
Even if we concede that the Rangers and Indians have their respective divisions locked up (as much as anything can be locked up in early August), the AL wild-card slots are up for grabs.
The Astros and Tigers are firmly in the picture, as are all three of the AL East contenders, the Orioles, Red Sox and Blue Jays. Heck, even the White Sox, Royals, Mariners and, yep, those white-flag-wavers from New York can't be counted out entirely.
None of the above did enough at the deadline to gain separation from the pack. Although, to reiterate, a standout performance from any of the starting pitchers who packed their bags for the AL East could tip the scales.
National League Wild-Card Race
The loser of the Giants-Dodgers race should be a wild-card player. The Cardinals can never be counted out.
But the most interesting showdown might be in the NL East. If the Nationals hang on to first place, the defending NL champion Mets and upstart Marlins will likely find themselves battling for a single spot.
The Fish have a strong young offensive core and one of the game's best arms in Jose Fernandez. But their deadline additions were far from sure bets.
This is where Bruce, a 29-year-old slugger in the midst of his prime, could leave his mark, much as Cespedes did a year ago.
Sometimes, after all, history repeats itself.