Each MLB Contender's Must-Solve Crisis Before Trade Deadline Expires

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2019

Each MLB Contender's Must-Solve Crisis Before Trade Deadline Expires

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    Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    With the MLB trade deadline rapidly approaching, every contender has at least one pressing issue weighing on its mind.

    Whether it's a roster flaw that needs to be addressed, the status of an in-house player or a potential trade that could change the landscape of the franchise, each team in position to make a playoff run has something to address.

    Ahead we've highlighted the must-solve crisis facing each MLB contender.

    In order to be included in the article, teams had to have at least a 10 percent chance of reaching the playoffs, according to the latest projections from FanGraphs. The teams are ordered from lowest to highest by their current playoff chances.

    Let's get to it.

Arizona Diamondbacks (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 15.0 Percent)

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    Robbie Ray
    Robbie RayNorm Hall/Getty Images

    The Crisis: No clear direction

    The crisis for the Arizona Diamondbacks is pretty straightforward. Do they buy or do they sell?

    General manager Mike Hazen offered up the following while talking with reporters earlier this month: "We're going to have to make a complicated decision. It just doesn't appear that it's going to be an easily defined decision. ... I don't think it has to be as drastic as buy/sell. Like in this offseason, there may be some creative things we need to do to help us now and in the future, and I think those possibilities exist."

    That sounds an awful lot like someone who has no idea what his club is going to do.

    If they decide to sell, left-hander Robbie Ray, outfielder David Peralta and closer Greg Holland are all potential trade chips. If they decide to buy, they face a steep uphill climb to seize a wild-card spot, with the Los Angeles Dodgers firmly in the driver's seat in the NL West.

    In the end, the right decision might simply be to stand pat.

Philadelphia Phillies (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 22.4 Percent)

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    Nick Pivetta
    Nick PivettaKevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    The Crisis: A sketchy starting rotation

    The Philadelphia Phillies recently signed veteran left-hander Drew Smyly after he opted out of a minor league deal with the Milwaukee Brewers. Despite being shelled to the tune of an 8.42 ERA in 51.1 innings for the Texas Rangers earlier this year, he was immediately slotted in the big league rotation while Nick Pivetta moved to the bullpen.

    That should tell you all you need to know about the current state of the Philadelphia rotation.

    If the Phillies are going to punch their ticket to the postseason, Smyly can't be the only addition made to the starting staff this summer.

    With a 3.77 ERA, Aaron Nola is the only starter with an ERA under 4.00, and even he has been a shell of the pitcher who finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting a year ago.

    After their all-in approach to the offseason, the Phillies now have to decide how aggressively to pursue a frontline arm.

Oakland Athletics (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 30.3 Percent)

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    Sean Manaea
    Sean ManaeaBen Margot/Associated Press

    The Crisis: A lack of quality pitching depth

    Oakland Athletics vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane spelled it out pretty clearly.

    "We're hoping we're active," he told Tim Kawakami of The Athletic (h/t Jessica Kleinschmidt of NBC Sports Bay Area). "We're looking for pitching—we don't have a lot of depth there, it would be nice to add relievers and/or a starter would probably be the area that we're looking at."

    The team has already added veteran Homer Bailey to the rotation, and it has some in-house options to consider, as well. Sean Manaea is on the rehab trail, while top prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk could both be factors down the stretch.

    As Kleinschmidt wrote:

    "Manaea would continue to have a starting job once he finishes his rehab assignment. He will start for the High-A affiliate Stockton Ports on Thursday night.

    "Puk will more than likely take a bullpen role once he is with the big league club. And when it comes to Luzardo, it could be similar for the A's No. 1 prospect. Beane hopes all three of them will be in an Oakland uniform by August -- it's just a matter of when during the month we will see them."

    The A's could consider deploying Luzardo and Puk similar to how the Milwaukee Brewers used Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff as multi-inning weapons and even bulk relievers behind an opener last season.

    Regardless, the Oakland front office will need to decide if their in-house reinforcements will be enough or if another outside addition needs to be made.

St. Louis Cardinals (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 30.4 Percent)

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    Marcell Ozuna
    Marcell OzunaScott Kane/Getty Images

    The Crisis: A need for offense without a clear spot to upgrade

    The St. Louis Cardinals are in an interesting position with a clear need to add a bat and no obvious position at which to do so.

    Once everyone is healthy, they'll have Yadier Molina behind the plate, Paul Goldschmidt, Kolten Wong, Paul DeJong and Matt Carpenter across the infield with Tommy Edman and Yairo Munoz in utility roles and some combination of Marcell Ozuna, Dexter Fowler, Harrison Bader, Tyler O'Neill, Jose Martinez and Lane Thomas in the outfield.

    On paper, that has the potential to be a great offensive group. Molina, Goldschmidt, Wong, DeJong, Carpenter and Fowler are all signed to long-term deals, while Ozuna has been the team's biggest power threat when healthy.

    So how do they approach improving the lineup?

    That's still unclear. But with an offense that ranks 21st in runs per game (4.53) and 23rd in OPS (.720), something needs to be done.

Milwaukee Brewers (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 44.5 Percent)

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    Brandon Woodruff
    Brandon WoodruffDylan Buell/Getty Images

    The Crisis: A shaky pitching staff

    The Milwaukee Brewers are playing sub-.500 baseball since the beginning of June, which raises some question of whether selling might be the right option at the trade deadline.

    However, in a wide-open NL Central race and with a core built to win now, buying remains the more likely approach.

    So what exactly should they be buying?

    Whether it's finding a starter to anchor the rotation or adding a few bullpen arms to once again make the relief corps the backbone of the staff, something needs to be done to solidify their pitching situation.

    The starting rotation ranks 18th in the majors in ERA (4.68) and 28th in quality starts (25), while the bullpen has seen its ERA climb from fifth in 2018 (3.47) to 14th this year (4.47).

    Outside of budding ace Brandon Woodruff and closer Josh Hader, there's been a clear shortage of reliable arms, and Woodruff is now headed for the injured list after leaving Sunday's game with a strained left oblique.

    Either by landing a proven veteran starter or by securing a few late-inning bullpen pieces, the Brewers have to address their pitching staff if they have any hope of returning to the postseason.

Boston Red Sox (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 47.6 Percent)

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    Andrew Cashner
    Andrew CashnerBillie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

    The Crisis: Lack of prospect talent, payroll flexibility

    The Boston Red Sox are in a tough spot where it will be tricky to do anything besides stand pat at the trade deadline.

    As Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe explained:

    "The Sox are too good to give up and not good enough to merit trading more prospects from a farm system that has just started getting back on its feet. 

    "Plus the payroll is largely inflexible considering they’re already close to $246 million, the level that triggers the harshest financial penalties of the luxury tax and a loss of 10 spots in the draft."

    They already made one trade, acquiring veteran starter Andrew Cashner from the Baltimore Orioles in exchange for a pair of low-level prospects.

    Will that be enough?

    The return of Nathan Eovaldi also helps, especially if he proves capable of handling the closer's role after pitching some big innings in relief last October. Brandon Workman has emerged as a reliable late-inning option, as well.

    At this point, it looks like the defending champs well need to win with their current roster unless team president Dave Dombrowski finds a way to get creative at the trade deadline.

Tampa Bay Rays (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 58.9 Percent)

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    Emilio Pagan
    Emilio PaganMike Carlson/Getty Images

    The Crisis: Too many blown saves

    The Tampa Bay Rays have no shortage of high-octane arms in their bullpen, and the relief corps as a whole ranks second in the majors with a 3.75 ERA, thanks in part to strong work from the "bulk relievers" who follow their openers.

    However, they have suffered 16 blown saves and have converted just 59.0 percent of save chances, which ranks 23rd in the majors. They are also 8-12 in one-run games and 3-7 in extra innings, which speaks to the back of the bullpen's inconsistency as much as anything.

    Jose Alvarado (30 G, 7/9 SV, 5.06 ERA, 1.69 WHIP) and Diego Castillo (37 G, 7/8 SV, 3.49 ERA, 1.27 WHIP) were supposed to serve as a two-headed monster in the closer's role, but they've both been inconsistent and struggled to limit base runners.

    Instead, Emilio Pagan has handled ninth-inning duties of late. He has a pristine 2.06 ERA and 0.86 ERA with a .173 opponents' batting average and 12.4 strikeouts per nine innings, but he's converted just six of his 12 save chances.

    The pieces are there for this to be a good relief unit. They just need a proven veteran to step in and handle the ninth inning, pushing everyone up the ladder in the process.

    Toronto Blue Jays closer Ken Giles might be their best option.

Cleveland Indians (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 65.3 Percent)

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    Trevor Bauer
    Trevor BauerJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    The Crisis: What to do with Trevor Bauer

    The Cleveland Indians have been on a nice roll of late with a 12-3 record in July and a 29-12 record going back to the beginning of June. If the season ended today, they would make the playoffs and host the Wild Card Game.

    Most teams would be talking about adding pieces and gearing up for a playoff push if they were in the Indians' position. Instead, the prevailing story is still what will happen with Trevor Bauer.

    The Indians shopped Bauer during the offseason and made it no secret they were trying to cut costs. They ended up trading off Edwin Encarnacion, Yan Gomes and Yonder Alonso while avoiding any major spending beyond a handful of minor league free-agent signings and a new contract for Oliver Perez.

    Despite their current standing in the playoff race, trading Bauer remains a distinct possibility.

    The 28-year-old is making $13 million this season, and that figure could push $20 million next year in his final run through the arbitration process.

    If they find a team willing to meet their steep asking price, dealing him now could be the preferred move, despite what it would do to the club's short-term outlook.

Washington Nationals (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 79.4 Percent)

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    Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

    The Crisis: A porous bullpen

    It's not that the Washington Nationals didn't attempt to improve their relief corps.

    In fact, the hard-throwing duo of Trevor Rosenthal and Kyle Barraclough was added to the mix during the offseason and expected to be the primary setup options to closer Sean Doolittle.

    Rosenthal posted a 22.74 ERA with 15 walks in 6.1 innings before he was released, and Barraclough struggled to a 6.39 ERA before getting hurt and optioned to Double-A. Not only have those two big additions failed to live up to expectations, but no one else has stepped up in their place.

    Doolittle has once again been solid in the ninth inning, and Fernando Rodney has pitched well since he was plucked from the scrapheap in June. But the rest of the bullpen remains an inconsistent mess.

    With a 5.86 ERA on the year, the Nationals have the 29th-ranked bullpen in the majors—just ahead of the Baltimore Orioles (5.94), who have the worst record in baseball.

    This team is destined for another early postseason exit or a late-season collapse if it doesn't shore up the pen.

Chicago Cubs (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 85.6 Percent)

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    Kyle Schwarber
    Kyle SchwarberJonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    The Crisis: The Whit Merrifield question

    The Chicago Cubs have not had a true leadoff hitter since Dexter Fowler left town.

    They have also received middling production from their second basemen all season, with the position producing a .223/.309/.385 line for a .694 OPS that ranks 18th in the majors.

    After signing Craig Kimbrel, they don't have much in the way of financial flexibility to make any other impactful deadline moves.

    Enter Whit Merrifield.

    He's the prototypical leadoff hitter with speed and on-base ability, he's a second baseman by trade and he signed an absurdly team-friendly four-year, $16.25 million extension with the Kansas City Royals during the offseason.

    Check. Check. And check.

    The question is whether the Cubs are willing to pay the price.

    Bruce Levine of 670 The Score wrote: "That conversation is a non-starter unless the Royals receive three MLB-ready players who could help them right now, sources said."

    Are the Cubs willing to part with multiple players from the group of Kyle Schwarber, Albert Almora Jr., Ian Happ, Victor Caratini, David Bote and Adbert Alzolay? Are they also willing to sweeten the pot with a top-tier prospect like Miguel Amaya since that group is largely underperforming?

    That's what it's going to take to acquire Merrifield. That's the decision the front office is facing.

Minnesota Twins (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 95.8 Percent)

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    Trevor Larnach
    Trevor LarnachBrace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    The Crisis: A shift in philosophy?

    The Minnesota Twins have done as good a job as any team turning top prospects into homegrown MLB contributors.

    Eddie Rosario, Jose Berrios, Jorge Polanco, Max Kepler, Byron Buxton, Kyle Gibson, Taylor Rogers, Miguel Sano, Mitch Garver and Tyler Duffey are among the current players making an impact for the big league club who were developed in-house.

    Now they're faced with a golden opportunity to win their first division title since 2010. In order to do so, they may need to deviate from that homegrown philosophy.

    Landing one of the top starters on the market or an impact bullpen arm won't come cheap, especially with so many contending teams vying for so few trade chips.

    In order to get a deal done, the Twins might have to part with someone from their headlining prospect group of Royce Lewis, Alex Kirilloff, Brusdar Graterol, Trevor Larnach and Jordan Balazovic. Are they willing to do that in order to improve their short-term outlook?

    There's no question they have the prospect capital to make a game-changing addition before the deadline passes. It boils down to whether the front office is bold enough to pull the trigger.

Atlanta Braves (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 98.0 Percent)

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    Mike Foltynewicz
    Mike FoltynewiczScott Taetsch/Getty Images

    The Crisis: Will Mike Foltynewicz or Kevin Gausman return to form?

    Mike Foltynewicz and Kevin Gausman were fronting the Atlanta Braves rotation down the stretch last year as the team pushed toward a division title.

    This year has been a different story. Gausman has struggled to a 6.21 ERA while making 13 starts and battling injury. Foltynewicz was optioned to Triple-A after posting a 6.37 ERA in 11 starts.

    Can they be counted on for anything down the stretch?

    The first four spots in the Atlanta rotation will presumably be occupied by Mike Soroka, Dallas Keuchel, Julio Teheran and Max Fried, who is currently on the injured list with a blister.

    Bryse Wilson (4 GS, 7.13 ERA) and Kyle Wright (4 GS, 9.72 ERA) have both struggled in spot-start opportunities, so unless Gausman or Foltynewicz can hold down a spot, the Braves will have to seriously consider adding to the starting staff.

    Luke Jackson has locked down the closer's role, and the team has a wealth of setup options allowing it to just play the hot hand. Adding to the bullpen is not as pressing as it seemed earlier in the year.

    The rotation is now a far bigger question, and it all goes back to the two guys who were initially counted on to lead the staff.

New York Yankees (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 99.5 Percent)

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    Luis Severino
    Luis SeverinoJim McIsaac/Getty Images

    The Crisis: Luis Severino's status

    For much of the season, it's been easy to point to the New York Yankees' starting rotation as an area they could stand to improve. Multiple starters have battled injury—including ace Luis Severino, who has been sidelined all season—and the in-house replacements have failed to impress.

    Yet here we are approaching the trade deadline, and the Yankees rank 11th in the majors with a 4.14 ERA from their starters.

    The five-man group of Masahiro Tanaka, James Paxton, Domingo German, J.A. Happ and CC Sabathia is finally all healthy at the same time, and Severino has resumed baseball activities as he sets out on the rehab trail.

    In the end, Severino's progress in the next week could determine whether the Yankees look for another starter, and a lot of that will be guesswork on their part since he's still a long way from game action.

    The Yankees have a chance to legitimately contend for a title this season, but they've also worked hard to rebuild their farm system. The ultimate decision about whether to add an impact starter or stand pat will have an impact on 2019 and beyond.

Houston Astros (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 99.8 Percent)

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    Rogelio Armenteros
    Rogelio ArmenterosTim Warner/Getty Images

    The Crisis: An unexpected lack of starting pitching depth.

    The Houston Astros will be able to use a four-man rotation until Aug. 2 thanks to a smattering of off days the next few weeks.

    With only Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Wade Miley locked into spots on the staff, they will have to be careful not to overwork that veteran trio.

    At this point, manager A.J. Hinch is counting on Rogelio Armenteros or Jose Urquidy to "step up and take" the No. 4 spot on the staff, according to Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle. The No. 5 spot will then presumably go to Brad Peacock once he's activated from a stint on the injured list for shoulder discomfort.

    For a team with legitimate title hopes, it's a precarious situation, one it didn't expect to find itself in at the start of the year.

    However, Collin McHugh flopped in his return to the rotation, Corbin Martin was lost for the season to Tommy John surgery, Josh James has been used exclusively in short stints, Forrest Whitley has unraveled in the minors and, to this point, no one else has stepped forward as a reliable rotation option.

    Suddenly, what looked like a strength has become the team's biggest weakness.

    If the Astros miss out on adding a quality starter at the deadline, it could be a real wrench in their October plans.

Los Angeles Dodgers (FanGraphs Playoff Odds: 100.0 Percent)

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    Kenley Jansen
    Kenley JansenRob Leiter/Getty Images

    The Crisis: A bullpen Achilles' heel

    The Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen ranks ninth in the majors with a 4.10 ERA.

    That's incredibly deceiving.

    Julio Urias has posted a 1.62 ERA in 33.1 innings out of the bullpen in a multi-inning role, and that has skewed the overall numbers a bit. As a team, they are tied for second in the majors with 19 blown saves and have only converted 59.6 percent of their save chances, which ranks 20th in baseball.

    Closer Kenley Jansen has nailed down 24 of his 28 save chances. But even he has struggled at times, posting a 3.63 ERA in 39 appearances.

    With the starting pitching and offensive firepower to win a World Series, the front office owes it to this current group to not let the bullpen be its downfall.

    If the Dodgers enter October counting on Pedro Baez and Joe Kelly to protect leads in the seventh and eighth innings, it will be a massive failure on the part of the front office.

          

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs, unless otherwise noted.