The Biggest Question Mark for Every MLB Team Right Now
The 2021 MLB season is seemingly traveling in hyperspace.
Excitement is only building as more and more fans return to stadiums around the country. Before we know it, the best players will be in Denver for the All-Star Game. Then the trade deadline will be right around the corner on July 30.
As the season hurtles toward the midway point, we should take time to look through the lenses of all 30 clubs and examine some of the biggest question marks each team must grapple with.
These questions might be more literal, such as an on-field reason for concern. Other teams will be more interesting to analyze in context of how they could proceed at the trade deadline or certain players who could spark intrigue.
Let's get right to it.
Arizona Diamondbacks: How Much Will They Sell?
The Arizona Diamondbacks have the worst record in baseball after going 2-24 between May 16 and June 13. They are going to be sellers. The question is, how much will they sell?
Executives told Jayson Stark of The Athletic infielder Eduardo Escobar could gather interest ahead of the deadline. Escobar is likely to be dealt given he is on an expiring contract. Meanwhile, Robert Murray of FanSided reported the D-backs have already made outfielder David Peralta—under contract through 2022—available in talks.
Escobar and Peralta are likely headed elsewhere in the near future. Veteran infielder Asdrubal Cabrera and Kole Calhoun (hamstring) are other names to watch. However, the most intriguing trade candidate is Ketel Marte.
The 27-year-old has a .935 OPS and can play multiple positions at a high level. He would fetch a fairly big haul on the open market but also has team-friendly options for 2023 and 2024. Does Arizona move Marte, or keep him as a potential cornerstone? That question will hang over the franchise for the next month-plus.
Atlanta Braves: Desperate for Bullpen Depth
The Atlanta Braves need bullpen help, and fast.
Atlanta's bullpen ranks 27th in ERA and 25th in expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP). Manager Brian Snitker doesn't have many guys firmly entrenched in his circle of trust.
A.J. Minter can look downright dominant at times, but he just doesn't have it on other days and seems to fall apart when runners reach base. The same is true of Tyler Matzek, who has 36 strikeouts in 25 innings but also has 15 walks. Sean Newcomb has a 5.94 ERA and 13 walks in 16.2 innings.
Some bullpens can mitigate walks by stranding runners, but Atlanta is struggling in leverage spots. Braves relievers rank 26th in percentage of runners left on base. The power arms tend to struggle with traffic, but soft-tossers like Josh Tomlin have not been the solution, either.
The starting rotation hasn't exactly been superb, but it ranks 15th in ERA and has scrambled without Mike Soroka and Huascar Ynoa. Atlanta's offense ranks ninth in runs per game.
It's the bullpen that will make or break this club.
Baltimore Orioles: Arm Talent in the Pipeline
Nobody really expected the Baltimore Orioles to contend, but even the rebuilding clubs want to see some reasons for optimism.
The Orioles' position group has indeed been encouraging. Cedric Mullins (.914 OPS) should be an All-Star and is a franchise building block. Trey Mancini (47 RBI) has been tremendous in his role as a run producer. Ryan Mountcastle homered three times in his first nine games in June and has looked better every month. Not to mention, top prospect Adley Rutschman is waiting in the minors.
However, the arms have mostly disappointed. John Means had a 2.28 ERA before landing on the injured list (shoulder), but O's starters rank 29th in ERA. Dean Kremer had a 6.87 ERA before being optioned. Bruce Zimmerman has given up 12 homers in 54 innings.
Left-hander Keegan Akin has looked decent since moving into the rotation, and the O's have a couple of top pitching prospects in Grayson Rodriguez and DL Hall. Still, it hasn’t exactly been thrilling to see guys like Kremer, Zimmerman and Jorge Lopez struggle.
Boston Red Sox: How Will Chris Sale's Return Impact Rotation Additions?
The Boston Red Sox rank 19th in rotation ERA. Eduardo Rodriguez (6.03 ERA) has really struggled after a strong first month-plus. Most of the rotation has held its own, but the group is middling in terms of xFIP and xwOBA.
Adding to the rotation seems obvious, unless of course the Red Sox are confident Chris Sale can be the guy to bolster the starting group. Sale threw on Friday and appears to be nearing a return in his recovery from Tommy John surgery.
If the Red Sox are banking on Sale in the rotation, do they then look to increase their bullpen depth? Or is starting depth still a priority? The latter is interesting considering Sale's injury history and the league-wide premium on deep rotations this season.
It should be interesting to see how Sale's eventual return changes the dynamic.
Chicago Cubs: Back-End Rotation Help
The Chicago Cubs do not have a Chris Sale working back to health. They need to address the starting rotation as they fight for the National League Central title.
Chicago's rotation ranks 21st in ERA and 24th in xFIP. Youngsters like Kohl Stewart (5.68 ERA in three starts) have struggled to fill in for injured starters. Adbert Alzolay recently went on the IL with a blister issue. Jake Arrieta pitched well against the San Diego Padres last week but has a 5.72 xERA. Trevor Williams was having issues before landing on the IL (appendectomy).
The Cubs are unlikely to make a major splash, but Chicago is nonetheless a candidate to pursue possible buy-low starting pitchers like Michael Pineda or Jon Gray. Another arm to watch for the Cubs is veteran right-hander Kyle Gibson.
Chicago White Sox: Will Injuries Force Them to Make Moves?
The Chicago White Sox have proved just how resilient they are throughout the season.
Eloy Jimenez (pectoral) went down before the season started. Luis Robert (hip) also went on the shelf early in May. Yet, the White Sox kept trudging along and were tied for the second-best record in baseball entering play Sunday.
However, it's worth wondering if the latest injury—a proximal hamstring tear for Nick Madrigal—could force the team's hand.
The White Sox are likely to ride internal options like Danny Mendick and Leury Garcia (who can also play in the outfield) so long as they keep winning. Still, it's possible general manager Rick Hahn feels all the more obligated to add a bat in light of another injury to a key player.
Cincinnati Reds: Add or Subtract?
The Cincinnati Reds' greatest question mark, on the field, is the bullpen. That's been fairly obvious all season, as the unit ranks last in ERA. The relief unit looks even worse with Tejay Antone (forearm) being placed on the IL.
That said, Cincy's need to make bullpen moves ultimately depends on whether it buys or sells.
The Reds went into Sunday's game with the Colorado Rockies offense ranked fourth in runs per game, and the rotation ranked 16th in ERA and 12th in xFIP. Yet, the bullpen issues have cost Cincy quite a few games, resulting in the Reds being five games back of the Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs in the NL Central.
If the Reds add, they will look for bullpen arms. However, if they slide further down the standings, it's worth wondering whether they field calls on some of their big names. This might include NL MVP candidate Nick Castellanos, who can opt out of his contract at the end of the season.
Cleveland: As Usual, More Offense Needed
Interestingly, Cleveland's biggest question mark could just as easily be its starting rotation.
Starting pitching is usually a strength for the organization, but Cleveland ranks 22nd in ERA. Shane Bieber (2.96 ERA) and Aaron Civale (3.17 ERA) have been terrific. The rest have struggled, with Triston McKenzie bouncing between the minors and the bigs and an assortment of arms struggling to fill in at the back end with Zach Plesac still nursing a broken thumb.
Rotation depth is a concern. Yet, the more evident issue is, as usual, an offense that struggles to score runs. Cleveland ranks 25th in OPS+ (87) and 20th in runs per game. The outfield is 25th in weighted runs created plus (wRC+).
It doesn't help that designated hitter Franmil Reyes has been out (oblique). Cleveland also averaged close to six runs per game in its first eight matchups in June. Still, there needs to be more production in the lineup.
Cleveland might be on the hunt for outfield or catching help.
Colorado Rockies: When Will They Trade Trevor Story?
The Colorado Rockies are almost certainly going to trade Trevor Story, it's just a matter of when they elect to do so.
Patrick Saunders of the Denver Post reported Story does not plan to re-sign with the Rockies at the end of the season, when he can become a free agent. Colorado is likely to get value from its star shortstop, at some point.
However, it's possible the Rockies wait until the deadline. Colorado is hosting the All-Star Game. Jayson Stark also reported earlier this month the Rockies were showing hesitancy in moving Story, even though rival executives noted the price for rentals seems to fall every year.
The Rockies have other players who could be on the market, such as Jon Gray, reliever Mychal Givens and first baseman C.J. Cron. None of those guys measure up to Story in terms of gravitas.
Detroit Tigers: Just How Good Is Casey Mize?
Casey Mize is a former No. 1 overall pick. That label carries a lot of pressure, and it's not always easy to live up to the distinction. Just ask Mark Appel.
Well, Detroit Tigers fans have to be absolutely thrilled with Mize's season thus far.
The 24-year-old made his debut last season, posting a 6.99 ERA in seven starts. He then struggled in April, with opponents notching an .836 OPS as Mize had a 5.06 ERA in five starts. It seemed the right-hander could be in for another tough season.
Mize changed the narrative in a hurry. He held opponents to a .490 OPS in May, posting a 1.74 ERA in five starts. He has gone at least six innings in seven of his last eight starts. Is the No. 1 pick becoming the future ace the organization likely envisioned he could be?
There are reasons to pump the breaks a bit. Mize ranks in the 34th percentile in whiff rate and 26th percentile in xwOBA. However, his ground-ball rate has soared from under 40 percent in 2020 to 51.3 percent this year.
Mize will be fun for Tigers fans to track throughout the course of the season.
Houston Astros: Need More Quality in the Bullpen
The Houston Astros could use an upgrade in center field given Myles Straw has a .621 OPS. However, the Astros also rank first in baseball in runs per game, so it's not exactly the most pressing matter if they fail to make a move there.
The bullpen is an area that does need addressing. Houston's relievers rank 18th in ERA and 23rd in xFIP. Much as is the case in Atlanta, Astros relievers have command issues and struggle with runners on base. They rank 22nd in stranding runners.
Houston could be expecting to get a boost from the eventual returns of right-handers Josh James and Pedro Baez, but Chandler Rome of the Houston Chronicle reported "neither appears close to a return."
The Astros will need internal options to step up in the meantime, unless they plan to make a move in the near future. Houston could probably stand for more reliable left-handed options.
Kansas City Royals: When Is Bobby Witt Jr. Coming Up?
The Kansas City Royals are fighting to stay around .500, but they could use a boost from a lineup that ranks 21st in OPS and is exhibiting caution with Adalberto Mondesi's hamstring issues given his injury history.
So...when is Bobby Witt Jr. getting the call?
Witt was a candidate to break camp with the Royals after an excellent spring, and he is making his case to come to the bigs in the near future. The 2019 No. 2 overall pick has an .828 OPS in Double-A, with 10 homers and eight stolen bases.
Kansas City would very likely prefer Witt get more seasoning in the minors and possibly spend time at Triple-A before joining the big league club. Still, Witt's status is something to watch.
Los Angeles Angels: Is There Suddenly Incentive to Buy?
The Los Angeles Angels were trending in the "sell" direction after opening the month of May at 7-15. The Halos were without Mike Trout and the starting rotation was in shambles.
However, Los Angeles has clawed its way back into relevance. The Angels are 14-5 since May 23, including 9-2 in June. They are four games back of a playoff spot.
Left-hander Patrick Sandoval (3.62 ERA prior to Sunday's quality start) has given the rotation a major boost. Left-hander Andrew Heaney has a 2.41 ERA in his last three starts. Shohei Ohtani (2.85 ERA) continues to dazzle when he takes the bump.
Guys like Justin Upton and Jose Iglesias have stepped up offensively as of late, with Ohtani and Jared Walsh still anchoring the lineup without Trout. The Angels might be due for even better offensive fortune if Anthony Rendon (.687 OPS) can figure things out at the dish.
Los Angeles could look to move guys like Heaney, Dylan Bundy or relievers such as Raisel Iglesias, Steve Cishek or Tony Watson if it sells. Yet, the Angels are fighting to give management reasons to add to the roster come deadline season.
Los Angeles Dodgers: Bullpen Depth
The Los Angeles Dodgers have an offense that ranks second in runs per game and has balance from both sides of the plate, while the rotation is fourth in ERA and third in xFIP.
The Dodgers have the look of a championship team, but the group that appeared most vulnerable in the preseason is looking a bit shaky now.
Manager Dave Roberts leans quite heavily on the quartet of Kenley Jansen, Blake Treinen, Victor Gonzalez and Jimmy Nelson. It makes sense, considering they've been the most effective relievers. However, that usage also puts a lot of stress on those guys. The Dodgers also rank second in blown saves.
The Dodgers could probably benefit from adding a late-game option who excels in high-leverage situations and keeps walks down. Minnesota Twins lefty Taylor Rogers would be an interesting target if the Twins look to move him.
Miami Marlins: What to Do with Starling Marte?
Starling Marte is the ideal trade asset for the Miami Marlins.
Marte is on an expiring deal. He has a 1.011 OPS, five homers and seven steals through his 29 games and plays a premium position in center while also being capable of playing either corner spot. The Marlins could surely get strong assets for the veteran even though he's a rental.
Here's the thing, though: Marte wants to stay in Miami. The 32-year-old told Craig Mish of SportsGrid and the Miami Herald he wants to sign an extension and finish his career with the Marlins. Meanwhile, Marlins general manager Kim Ng said there have yet to be extension talks.
The fact there have yet to be extension talks suggests the Marlins could still move Marte. Yet, perhaps it makes sense to at least discuss a new deal if the Marlins believe they have the makeup to contend within, say, the next three seasons. Then again, Miami could trade Marte with the hope he simply re-signs in the offseason.
Milwaukee Brewers: Corner Infield
Willy Adames has been terrific for the Milwaukee Brewers since they acquired him toward the end of May, hitting .292 with an .856 OPS in 20 games.
Adames has given Milwaukee much-needed production in the lineup, but the Brewers could also look to address the corner infield spots, especially third base.
Travis Shaw has a dislocated shoulder. The Brewers have often gone with Luis Urias in Shaw's stead, though Urias has a mediocre 99 OPS+. Daniel Vogelbach has shown signs of heating up in June (1.107 OPS in eight games), but Milwaukee could use another option against left-handed pitching.
The Brewers added some bullpen depth by acquiring Hunter Strickland and could go after another arm or two at the deadline, but an offense ranked 26th in OPS needs to be infused with production. The best way to do that would be to look for upgrades at the corners and hope Christian Yelich rediscovers his MVP form.
Minnesota Twins: Likely Sellers, but to What Extent?
The Minnesota Twins are 11 games out of a payoff spot and very likely to sell come deadline season.
Expiring contracts such as starters Michael Pineda and J.A. Happ could be moved, as well as shortstop Andrelton Simmons. Designated hitter Nelson Cruz could appeal to rival AL clubs. What about the stars?
Center fielder Byron Buxton and right-hander Jose Berrios will be free agents after the 2022 campaign, as will left-handed reliever Taylor Rogers. Do the Twins move one or more of those guys, or do they just deal the guys in contract years and try to regroup next season?
Minnesota could have a pretty drastic impact on the deadline depending on which assets it chooses to trade.
New York Mets: Back-End Rotation Arms
The New York Mets rank 26th in runs per game but are averaging five runs per game in June and are still waiting on a bunch of impact position players to return. Plus, they really just need Francisco Lindor and Dominic Smith to give them better production.
Interestingly, New York's biggest question might be at the back end of a rotation that ranks first in ERA and xFIP.
Jacob deGrom (0.56 ERA) is at the peak of his powers. Marcus Stroman (2.33 ERA) and Taijuan Walker (2.07 ERA) are both having terrific years. However, the Mets need more from the No. 4 and No. 5 spots.
David Peterson has a 6.32 ERA in 11 starts. Joey Lucchesi had a 1.46 ERA in his last three starts heading into Sunday's outing, but he doesn't eat innings.
Carlos Carrasco's status is sort of up in the air, and Noah Syndergaard might not be ready until August or September. The Mets claimed Nick Tropeano, but he likely doesn't give them much of a solution considering he hasn't made a start since 2019.
The Mets could be sneaky players for a buy-low rotation arm especially depending upon Carrasco's status.
New York Yankees: Shortage of Left-Handed Bats
The New York Yankees led the AL in runs scored and OPS in 2020. They rank just 25th in the majors in runs per game thus far.
New York lacks left-handed options in the lineup. Rougned Odor has a .659 OPS. Brett Gardner has a .647 OPS. Those are hardly scary numbers, especially for two guys who have gotten fairly regular playing time.
Ketel Marte (a switch-hitter) would be an ideal target for the Yankees, but it remains to be seen whether the Diamondbacks will trade him. Actually, all of Arizona's usual starting outfielders could be targets. Kole Calhoun would be interesting, if he's healthy. David Peralta should at least be a consideration.
Realistically, the Yankees could just stand to get more athletic. However, the shortage of left-handed options is becoming more noticeable by the day.
Oakland Athletics: Prioritize Shortstop Upgrade or Bullpen Depth?
So, the A's are looking for shortstop upgrades, right? Well, yes, but they might prioritize bullpen additions.
Oakland is similar to the Dodgers in that it relies heavily on its top four relievers. In this case, that group consists of Yusmeiro Petit, Lou Trivino, Jake Diekman and Deolis Guerra. It wouldn't hurt the A's to add bullpen depth.
That said, Oakland might be content knowing Trevor Rosenthal could be back later this summer. Perhaps the A's show greater interest in the shortstop upgrade, especially since Elvis Andrus ranks in the 12th percentile in outs above average in addition to having a .547 OPS.
Philadelphia Phillies: Need Reliable Closing Option
The Philadelphia Phillies should be in the market for relief help, but it's especially important they find a guy who can lock down the ninth inning.
Philadelphia ranks tied for third in blown saves and ranks 28th in save percentage. Hector Neris and Sam Coonrod, the Phillies' two most effective relievers, have combined to blow seven saves. Neris has blown consecutive save opportunities, including Saturday night against the Yankees.
How will president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski proceed? Is he going to place trust in Neris and settle for guys who work in the middle innings, or might he pursue a closer type such as an Ian Kennedy or Richard Rodriguez?
Pittsburgh Pirates: Who Goes No. 1 Overall?
The Pittsburgh Pirates are building for the future. They have the No. 1 pick in the 2021 MLB draft. Thus, it's only right their impending decision is the focus here.
Bleacher Report's Joel Reuter just recently mocked Texas prep shortstop Jordan Lawlar to the Bucs, citing reports Pittsburgh is focused on either adding a shortstop or possibly selecting Louisville catcher Henry Davis.
Other prep shortstops like Kahlil Watson and Marcelo Mayer could figure into the mix. Or perhaps the Pirates decide Vanderbilt right-hander Jack Leiter is too electric to pass up. Teams can never have enough pitching.
Regardless, the Pirates have an interesting decision ahead.
San Diego Padres: Are They Being Too Passive at the Plate?
The San Diego Padres have managed to scratch runs across because they get on base at a decent clip, lead all of baseball in stolen bases and execute some of the fundamentals.
However, Friars hitters have been quite passive in the batter's box. San Diego has the lowest swing rate of any team in the majors. That's not necessarily the worst thing in the world. After all, the two teams just above them are the San Francisco Giants and Los Angeles Dodgers.
The difference, though, is the Giants and Dodgers are hitting the ball out of the yard. Conversely, the Padres rank 23rd in homers and 28th in slugging. They also rank 19th in xwOBA.
Is it time to switch up the approach at the plate? The Padres need to find ways to get more production and results from a lineup that is too deep and talented to be putting up such pedestrian offensive numbers.
San Francisco Giants: Bullpen Depth
The San Francisco Giants share the same major question mark as the Phillies. Bullpen depth is needed, particularly in the later innings.
San Francisco ranks tied for third in blown saves. Giants relievers have been more efficient (63 percent) than Phillies arms (50 percent) in converting saves. Still, it's hard to really say San Francisco has a shutdown arm at the back end of the bullpen.
Tyler Rogers has been tremendous (1.65 ERA) but also has four blown saves. Jake McGee fits the mold as a strikeout arm, but right-handed hitters have a .734 OPS against him this season.
The Giants are very likely to go after at least one impact reliever ahead of the deadline.
Seattle Mariners: Would They Trade Mitch Haniger?
Although the Seattle Mariners came into Sunday's action just four games below .500, they had a minus-66 run differential. It's unlikely the M's can hover around the .500 mark given that expansive gap.
Thus, it's time to start considering some of the guys Seattle could dangle at the deadline. Right-handed reliever Kendall Graveman and third baseman Kyle Seager might be the more obvious trade candidates, but it's also worth wondering whether the M's would consider trading outfielder Mitch Haniger.
Haniger (.828 OPS) has been the team's best hitter. That's not insignificant given Seattle's struggles at the plate in recent seasons. However, this could be the Mariners' best chance to maximize value from Haniger, who will be a free agent after 2022.
It's entirely possible executive vice president and general manager Jerry Dipoto holds off on trading Haniger until the winter or next season. Then again, he could move Haniger for more pieces now, knowing youngsters such as Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Taylor Trammell are likely the future of the franchise in the outfield.
St. Louis Cardinals: Rotation Needs Are Urgent
No team has a more urgent need for starting pitching than the St. Louis Cardinals.
Ace Jack Flaherty is out for an extended period with an oblique issue. Miles Mikolas went back on the IL after his forearm issue flared up. Kwang Hyun Kim is dealing with a back issue.
Carlos Martinez had given up 15 (!) earned runs in his last 4.2 innings entering Sunday's outing against the Chicago Cubs. Johan Oviedo—who figures to see a lot more time in the rotation—looked good through the first four innings of his start against the Cubs before imploding. He's still just 23 and has dealt with command issues in the past. Speaking of command issues, John Gant leads the majors in walks and handed out five free passes in one inning Saturday.
Bringing hometown kid Max Scherzer back to St. Louis would probably be ideal, but the Washington Nationals might not be overly keen on moving him. The Cardinals don't necessarily need an ace, but they do need an impact arm to account for all the rotation issues.
Tampa Bay Rays: Will They Add a Right-Handed Bat?
The Tampa Bay Rays have the inverse problem of their American League East rival.
Whereas the Yankees lack options from the left side of the batter's box, the Rays could use a right-handed slugging type in their lineup.
Mike Zunino is slugging .500 with 12 homers. He's the only right-handed hitter really putting up big power numbers, though. Randy Arozarena has a 116 OPS+ but is slugging just .402. Yandy Diaz has a .395 OBP but is slugging .305 with just one homer.
Will the Rays add a right-handed slugger? Nelson Cruz could be a good fit, though it would force Tampa Bay to move Austin Meadows to the outfield full-time and likely detract from the team's defense. Tampa Bay might be more content to rely on its internal talent pool.
Texas Rangers: The Impending Joey Gallo Decision
The Texas Rangers have a few different trade assets, but will Joey Gallo be among them?
There appears to be no shortage of suitors when it comes to Gallo. Dennis Lin of The Athletic reported the Padres remain interested in the Rangers outfielder after expressing interest last season. Yet, it's very possible Texas again keeps Gallo through the deadline.
Gallo himself has previously said he wanted an extension and said again late last month he would "love to be" in Texas, though he acknowledged there had yet to be contract talks. General manager Chris Young also said in mid-May the team was pleased with Gallo.
How will Young and president of baseball operations Jon Daniels proceed? Gallo will be a free agent after the 2022 campaign, so this might be the best opportunity to add to the farm.
Toronto Blue Jays: Add to the Bullpen or Rotation?
The Toronto Blue Jays could use another arm in the rotation so they are not overly reliant on youngsters like Alek Manoah or the health of Nate Pearson. Having said that, bullpen upgrades might be of greater consequence to this team.
Maybe a deeper bullpen would take some of the onus off the starting group. Alternatively, the Blue Jays will eventually get Julian Merryweather back and could possibly opt to bring Pearson out of the bullpen to ease him back into the swing of things. That might place a greater emphasis on acquiring a top starter.
One way or another, the Blue Jays need pitching.
Washington Nationals: What to Do with Max Scherzer?
The Washington Nationals could be sellers at the deadline, meaning there will be intense focus on the team's handling of Max Scherzer.
The three-time Cy Young Award winner will be a free agent at the end of the season. He has a 2.21 ERA and 0.82 WHIP in 77.1 innings and would be an enormous get for any number of teams looking to add starting pitching before the deadline.
Will the Nationals swallow their pride and move him? They desperately need assets in the farm, and dealing Scherzer is the best route to obtaining those assets. Washington could also simply look to re-sign Scherzer in the winter, given he and Nats GM Mike Rizzo have a pretty established relationship—Rizzo drafted him.
Having said all that, Washington is often hesitate to trade its stars (see: Bryce Harper in 2018), and ownership might feel the opportunity cost in dealing Scherzer is minimal considering even he would still only garner a somewhat lighter return as a rental.