Buying or Selling MLB Playoff Contenders

Martin FennFeatured Columnist IJuly 2, 2021

Buying or Selling MLB Playoff Contenders

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    The All-Star break is rapidly approaching, which also means it's time to start preparing for the dog days and pennant races.

    There have been pendulum swings all around baseball throughout the past few months. One such swing occurred on a league-wide scale, with batting averages and OPS marks climbing since MLB cracked down on foreign-substance use by pitchers.

    How are pitchers going to adjust? Will the implementation of foreign-substance checks dramatically alter the playoff landscape? Those are two valid questions heading into the second half of the season.

    Before those questions are answered, though, we need to take a closer look at the stock of playoff contenders. For clarity's sake, we will only analyze teams that were within six games of a playoff spot (division or wild card) entering Thursday. 

    Another clarification: the "buying" or "selling" will be predicated more on the potential for clubs to earn a playoff spot, rather than a rigid prediction as to whether those clubs will actually make the postseason. In other words, it's possible there will be more "buy" teams than the allotted number of playoff spots available.

    Clear enough? Let's do this.

Atlanta Braves

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    The list begins with one of the most unpredictable teams in baseball.

    The Atlanta Braves will hang 17 runs on the New York Mets, like they did Wednesday night, to remind baseball fans of their ceiling. It's only a matter of time, though, before the bullpen blows yet another game.

    Atlanta has lost eight games this season when leading after six innings after going 27-0 in those scenarios last season. The late-game struggles can mostly be attributed to the bullpen, a unit that ranks 23rd in both ERA and xFIP

    The Braves should have the capacity to make a playoff push. They came into Thursday's action just 4.5 games back of the Mets in the National League East, with a plus-14 run differential that ranks second in the division behind the Miami Marlins.

    Freddie Freeman hit .306 in June and Ozzie Albies had a .974 OPS for the month. Guillermo Heredia (.854 OPS) has been a capable outfield option, with Ronald Acuna Jr. (.987 OPS) still playing at an MVP level. The rotation has withstood the losses of Mike Soroka (Achilles), Tucker Davidson (forearm) and Huascar Ynoa (hand) as well, with Kyle Muller possibly becoming a swing figure.

    One has to imagine the Braves take a swing at multiple bullpen arms. They have the young talent to get a deal done and are within striking distance of a playoff spot. It’s hard to stay too dour about this team given the offensive upside and some of the talent on the staff. Atlanta could still chase New York down. 

    Verdict: Buy

Boston Red Sox

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    Elise Amendola/Associated Press

    The Boston Red Sox were the first American League team to 50 wins, thanks largely to an offense that ranks first in runs scored and third in runs per game. 

    All of Xander Bogaerts (.942 OPS), Rafael Devers (.926 OPS) and J.D. Martinez (.918) have been terrific, but another major story is Hunter Renfroe, who hit .306 with 11 homers and a 141 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) value between May and June. 

    The Red Sox could use more starting pitching, especially with Eduardo Rodriguez (5.83 ERA) struggling and Garrett Richards coincidentally imploding since MLB alerted pitchers to the crackdown on foreign substances. Richards had a 7.16 ERA in June. 

    Fortunately, the bullpen has held up its end, ranking sixth in ERA and seventh in expected fielding independent pitching (xFIP). More importantly, Chris Sale is impressing in throwing sessions and rapidly approaching a rehab stint. 

    Boston's got the offense, and Sale's return could have enormous implications for the pitching staff. Expect the Red Sox to add a starter before the deadline, but this team is rolling toward October.

    Verdict: Buy

Chicago Cubs

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Chicago Cubs began June atop the National League Central. They ended the month six games back of the Milwaukee Brewers.

    To say it was a rough month for the North Siders would be an understatement. The Cubs hit .188 with a .630 OPS in June. Kris Bryant (.445 OPS in June) struggled, while an injury to Anthony Rizzo further deprived a lineup already without the much-needed contact-heavy approaches of Matt Duffy (back) and Nico Hoerner (hamstring). Meanwhile, the rotation had a 5.19 ERA in spite of strong performances from Kyle Hendricks and Zach Davies. 

    There's good and bad news for the Cubs. On the plus side, they have a favorable upcoming schedule, as they have 24 straight games against teams that entered Thursday's action with a sub-.500 record. The bad news is the rotation situation feels untenable.

    Jake Arrieta's ERA has risen to 5.57 after a horrendous June (8.31 ERA). Adbert Alzolay had been rolling along nicely until going on the injured list following his June 7 start. He has given up seven earned runs in his last 7.2 innings. Trevor Williams is nearing a return, but he had a 5.36 ERA in 10 starts before going on the IL. There aren't a ton of quality options. 

    Now, the Cubs will assuredly trade for rotation help if they're in the hunt. Still, they hardly have the same level of quality or depth as the Brewers, and Milwaukee is starting to find a bit of a groove offensively even with Christian Yelich still trying to figure things out.

    Chicago needs to take advantage of a soft July, otherwise things will get quite interesting ahead of the trade deadline.

    Verdict: Sell

Chicago White Sox

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Whereas the situation has become slightly grimmer on the North Side of Chicago, the South Siders continue to stay the course.

    The White Sox sustained another brutal loss when second baseman Nick Madrigal went down with a season-ending hamstring injury on June 9. Still, Chicago managed to go 14-11 in June.

    The starting rotation is still driving the success. Carlos Rodon and Lance Lynn (each with 2.06 ERA entering Rodon's start Thursday) are both legitimate AL Cy Young candidates. All of Dylan Cease, Lucas Giolito and Dallas Keuchel have sub-4.00 ERAs, though Giolito had a .777 OPS against in June. The bullpen has been more disappointing than expected, but gets a boost from the return of Michael Kopech.

    Although injuries to Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert have deprived the White Sox of some slugging, they get on base and set things in motion. Chicago's lineup ranks second in the AL in OBP and often finds ways to churn out runs. 

    That's not to say the White Sox don't need more offense. Jon Heyman of MLB Network (h/t 670 The Score) reported they are in discussions for Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Eduardo Escobar. Pittsburgh Pirates utility man Adam Frazier could also make some sense.

    Regardless, the White Sox have the pitching and balance to set the pace in a weak AL Central. It's also worth monitoring possible late-season returns for both Jimenez and Robert.

    Verdict: Buy


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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Cleveland was also decimated by injuries in June, yet is still nipping at the White Sox's heels while just three games out in the AL Wild Card race.

    The offense came alive last month, averaging over five runs per game. Bobby Bradley (.954 OPS) has gotten his career off to a flying start, while Harold Ramirez (.785 OPS) has also made an impact.

    That surge in scoring has been massively important in keeping the team afloat with all of Shane Bieber, Aaron Civale and Zach Plesac on the IL. Cleveland has regrettably had to place its trust in struggling arms like Logan Allen (8.38 ERA) and Eli Morgan (9.37 ERA), yet has still won games.

    This should bode well for Cleveland—assuming the starters get healthy—with Franmil Reyes nearing a return. The question is whether the offense can sustain its momentum. Things were a bit boom-bust last month as is, considering Cleveland scored over 41 percent of its June runs in just five games.

    Unfortunately, this next month is brutal for Cleveland. It has seven games apiece against the Houston Astros (the first of which came Thursday) and Tampa Bay Rays in addition to a three-game set with the Oakland Athletics before wrapping up the month with a series in Chicago against the White Sox.

    Things ease up in August, but Cleveland could find itself too far back given the schedule and the possibility of guys struggling in their returns from injury.

    Verdict: Sell

Houston Astros

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    Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    There is a real argument the Houston Astros are the best team in baseball.

    Houston came into Thursday with the best run differential (plus-127) in the majors. The Astros rank first in runs per game and OPS+. All of Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and Yuli Gurriel rank in the top 30 in fWAR. Yordan Alvarez has an .884 OPS. Michael Brantley has an .875 OPS. Kyle Tucker (.811 OPS) has bounced back after a lackluster April. The offense is loaded.

    The rotation isn't just good, but it's also deep. Luis Garcia (3.14 ERA) is an AL Rookie of the Year candidate, while Framber Valdez has a 2.11 ERA in his first six starts back from injury. Jake Odorizzi had a 2.45 ERA in June and has been rolling since early struggles and injury issues. All those guys are providing quality behind Zack Greinke (3.65 ERA) and Lance McCullers Jr. (2.94 ERA), with Jose Urquidy also being an option once he returns from the IL (shoulder).

    The glaring weakness is in the bullpen, but the good news is the 'Stros should get Josh James, Pedro Baez and Bryan Abreu back from injury in the near future. Houston will also likely address the bullpen ahead of the trade deadline.

    Verdict: Buy

Los Angeles Dodgers

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Dodgers are another team worthy of the "best in baseball" label many slapped on them before the season.

    Los Angeles ranks first in the majors in ERA. The rotation has excelled, as expected, with Walker Buehler (2.35 ERA) having a career year and Tony Gonsolin posting a 2.77 ERA in his first four starts back from a shoulder injury.

    Max Muncy is powering the offense. Muncy has a team-high 17 homers and a .973 OPS, consistently posing a threat in the middle of the order. The same can be said about Justin Turner, who leads the Dodgers with 40 RBI. Los Angeles ranks fourth in runs per game, even with Mookie Betts (.840 OPS) performing below his usual standards and Corey Seager (right hand) still on the IL.

    The Dodgers are an easy buy, but there are a few things to monitor. The first is potential bullpen upgrades, as L.A. relievers rank ninth in ERA but 13th in xFIP. Could that unit use another arm? Additionally, Seager is reportedly struggling to make progress in his rehab. Will that alter the Dodgers' stance at the deadline? What about the ongoing investigation of Trevor Bauer?

    The Dodgers will make it to October, but the next few weeks could have major ramifications for the club.

    The Verdict: Buy

Milwaukee Brewers

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    The Brewers created some separation from the Cubs with a three-game sweep earlier this week. What's more, they're really building momentum.

    Milwaukee's offense posted season-high marks in batting average (.233), OBP (.332), slugging (.422) and homers (39) in June. Willy Adames has an .885 OPS in 37 games since coming to the Brewers. Omar Narvaez (.855 OPS) has stayed hot, with Luis Urias posting an .875 OPS last month.

    These are naturally positive trends, especially considering Christian Yelich (.799 OPS) has yet to truly get it going and Kolten Wong only just came off the IL. The Brewers might trade for a first baseman, but the offense has gradually been coming alive all the same.

    Of course, the strength is in the pitching staff. Brandon Woodruff (1.87 ERA) is one of the NL Cy Young candidates. Freddy Peralta was already one of the most impressive young arms in the game before posting a .418 OPS against and 1.78 ERA in June. Corbin Burnes (2.53 ERA) is still slinging, while Adrian Houser (4.16 ERA) and Eric Lauer (4.50 ERA) have been serviceable as back-end guys.

    Josh Hader is the dominant force at the end of Milwaukee's bullpen, but the group is strong and deep. Newcomers Trevor Richards (3.32 ERA in 19 innings) and Hunter Strickland (zero runs allowed in 7.1 innings) have already made an impact, as well.

    The Brewers have emerged as the favorites in the NL Central because of the staff, and it will be hard for the Cubs and others to chase them down if the offense keeps producing at June levels.

    Verdict: Buy

New York Mets

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    On the one hand, the New York Mets went just 15-15 in June and have allowed other NL East teams to stay in the mix. However, there should be some optimism among Mets fans.

    New York is getting healthier. Jeff McNeil and Michal Conforto are back. Brandon Nimmo could return this weekend. That's all excellent news for a team trying to kickstart the offense.

    Will the Mets pursue an upgrade in center field? Is a back-end starter on the menu ahead of the deadline? What about another bullpen arm?

    All three could well be under consideration. The Mets could really use a dependable fourth starter after Joey Lucchesi was shut down with a UCL tear.

    New York is still in a tough divisional battle. Yet, having Jacob deGrom (0.69 ERA), Marcus Stroman (2.45 ERA) and Taijuan Walker (2.38 ERA) atop the rotation is practically an automatic leg up. The bullpen has also been quite strong in the middle innings. A bet on the Mets is a bet on the offense getting going. Well, it couldn't get much worse, right?

    Francisco Lindor had a more respectable .765 OPS in June. James McCann hit .288 with four homers and an .841 OPS. Those are encouraging numbers for two guys the Mets really need to get going. Perhaps they are also signs of things to come.

    Verdict: Buy

New York Yankees

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    It's all coming apart in the Bronx.

    The New York Yankees went 12-14 in June, wrapping up the month with a three-game sweep at the hands of the Boston Red Sox before losing two of three to the Los Angeles Angels. The offense came alive with a .786 OPS last month. Gary Sanchez (1.035 OPS in June) was terrific. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton also had success, but none of it mattered because of how badly the staff struggled.

    New York's staff had a 4.96 ERA in June and also ranked 22nd in xFIP. Gerrit Cole gave up nine homers in five starts. Domingo German stumbled to a 7.27 ERA. The rotation on the whole has been shaky, and Aroldis Chapman's implosion (17.47 ERA in his past eight appearances) has put a damper on an otherwise strong bullpen.

    The Yankees could use an outfield bat and certainly some rotation depth.'s worth wondering if they simply don't have enough talent to contend in a loaded AL East. The teams above them have pretty big net positives in terms of run differential, while the Yankees came into Thursday's action at minus-three in that category. 

    Verdict: Sell

Oakland Athletics

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    The Oakland Athletics sure have come a long way since a shaky start. They are also coming off their best month yet. 

    Oakland went 17-9 in June. The A's were plus-46 in run differential and averaged well over five runs per game. They were fortunate to have a pretty friendly schedule, and things will get harder in July. Still, there are a lot of positives.

    The rotation has exceeded expectations, with Sean Manaea (2.91 ERA) and Chris Bassitt (3.02 ERA) leading the way. Rookie James Kaprielian (3.06 ERA) has been massive at the back end.

    The big bats have also gotten going. Matt Olson hit .340 with a 1.019 OPS in June, while Matt Chapman had six homers and an .875 OPS. Tony Kemp (.838 OPS) is hardly a "big bat," but has been a critical utility piece.

    Jeff Passan of ESPN reported the A's are unlikely to pursue Colorado Rockies star shortstop Trevor Story, but maybe they try to add a bat such as Nelson Cruz. If not, bullpen depth could be a priority.

    Oakland's relief corps is strong at the back end, but is heavily reliant on Yusmeiro Petit and Deolis Guerra. The group also ranks 27th in xFIP and could use a strikeout arm, though maybe Trevor Rosenthal's eventual return will serve that function.

    The A's are a definite contender if guys like Chapman stay hot and the rotation continues to provide quality starts.

    Verdict: Buy

Philadelphia Phillies

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    There has been lots of disappointment in Philadelphia.

    The Phillies would seem to have the star power to contend in the NL East, but they aren't getting the necessary contributions to make a stronger push. For every good performance, there is one that is every bit as underwhelming.

    Zack Wheeler (2.20 ERA) has been terrific, but Aaron Nola (4.44 ERA) has been a bit disappointing. Bryce Harper is hitting .275 with an .897 OPS, while Alec Bohm has a .613 OPS. The bullpen righted the ship slightly in June, but Philly still ranks 29th in save percentage on the season. 

    It's hard to know what to make of this team. The Phillies appear to need more bullpen depth and perhaps a back-end starter, but those additions might not make a difference if the offense cannot score runs at a higher rate, and Nola cannot find more consistency at the top end of the rotation.

    Maybe the return of Jean Segura galvanizes the offense and bullpen additions really do make the difference. Still, in a three-team race between the Mets, Braves and Phillies (five games back of N.Y.), don't the Mets and Braves look like the stronger teams with bigger upside?

    Verdict: Sell

San Diego Padres

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    Aaron Doster/Associated Press

    The San Diego Padres looked susceptible at the start of June, only to rip off wins in 11 of their past 12 games. That stretch was a glimpse into what the Padres can be.

    San Diego ranks fifth in OPS+. Fernando Tatis Jr. (26 homers, 1.092 OPS) is the headliner, but the supporting cast has picked things up. Tommy Pham had six homers, six steals and a 1.074 OPS in June. Jake Cronenworth had seven homers and a .937 OPS. 

    The Padres also make things difficult in the running game. San Diego leads the majors in stolen bases and ranks ninth in success rate. That combination of power and speed makes the Friars incredibly dangerous offensively.

    That's a big plus, considering the pitching staff ranks third in ERA. Yu Darvish (2.44 ERA) and Joe Musgrove (2.63 ERA) have been terrific offseason additions. Then there's the bullpen group, which ranks first in ERA and second in xFIP.

    It will be worth watching whether the Padres try to add another starter at the deadline. That could be enticing because of injuries and the ineffectiveness of Blake Snell (5.29 ERA), both of which have resulted in San Diego's relievers carrying a fairly heavy burden.

    Verdict: Buy

San Francisco Giants

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Still think the San Francisco Giants aren't for real? Better start believing.

    The Giants rank second in team ERA and sixth in OPS+. The bullpen—a weakness in the first two months—was a strength in June, as San Francisco's relievers had an MLB-best 1.99 ERA for the month.

    For every setback, like an injury to Brandon Belt, the Giants have guys like Darin Ruf (.857 OPS) or LaMonte Wade Jr. (.854 OPS) producing. Buster Posey is hitting .330 with a .978 OPS, while Brandon Crawford has 17 homers. Then there's Steven Duggar, who is hitting .316 with a .951 OPS and six steals.

    The rotation is still steering the ship. Kevin Gausman (1.68 ERA) has been excellent, while Anthony DeSclafani (2.91 ERA) has been a terrific No. 2. Veteran righty Johnny Cueto (3.63 ERA) is still kicking, with left-hander Alex Wood (3.91) giving the Giants innings despite a bit of a shaky June. Both Logan Webb and Aaron Sanchez can start when they come off the IL.

    Plus, the Giants play terrific defense. They are tied for the big-league lead in outs above average (OAA).

    San Francisco could probably stand to add a reliever ahead of the deadline to bolster its bullpen depth. Regardless, this team has erased any and all doubts it can contend. 

    Verdict: Buy

Seattle Mariners

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Credit the Seattle Mariners for hanging around.

    The M's were five games out of the second Wild Card spot ahead of Thursday's action despite holding a minus-47 run differential. That run differential might be slightly deceiving, however. Seattle's offense finally showed life with a .731 OPS. Ty France's return to the lineup made a big impact there, while big months from J.P Crawford (.928 OPS) and Jake Fraley (.841 OPS) also played a role.

    Seattle would seem to have the makings of a dark horse if the lineup can hit, especially with the emergence of Logan Gilbert (2.79 ERA, 23 strikeouts in 19.1 innings last month) in the rotation alongside Yusei Kikuchi (3.18 ERA) and Chris Flexen (3.97 ERA). 

    However, there are still questions about starting depth with Justus Sheffield (5.88 ERA) struggling and Justin Dunn on the IL. More notably, the bullpen had a 5.33 ERA in June and ranks towards the bottom of baseball in save percentage. That unit has really regressed since April.

    The three-team horse race argument can apply to Seattle as well. The M's aren't as talented as the Astros or A's, and it's unlikely they can sneak into the second Wild Card considering how deep the AL East is.

    This organization is in a good place, but the M's are still a year or two away.

    Verdict: Sell

Tampa Bay Rays

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    There's no question Tyler Glasnow's injury hurts the Tampa Bay Rays. A lot. Still, there are some interesting takeaways from June.

    Tampa Bay had a plus-12 run differential despite going 12-14. The Rays lost five games in extra innings and were just 1-6 in one-run games. It seems unlikely Tampa Bay will be that ill-fated going forward.

    The thing is, the Rays are down their ace. Michael Wacha has really struggled the past two months. Rich Hill is still managing to be somewhat effective, but opponents had an OPS over .800 against him in April and June. The rotation is really starting to look thin.

    Fortunately, Tampa Bay is thriving on account of an AL-best 55 stolen bases and a defense tied for the best mark in the majors in terms of outs above average (OAA). The speed and defense are paramount for the Rays.

    There are a lot of questions for Tampa Bay. Will the Rays add a bat, or are they reliant on Wander Franco to give them that production? Can the veteran rotation arms be effective enough to get by?

    This is still a strong club even after Glasnow's injury, but his absence makes things feel just a bit shakier. 

    Verdict: Buy

Toronto Blue Jays

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The Toronto Blue Jays should be in better shape.

    Toronto ranks second in baseball in runs per game and OPS+. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (26 homers, 1.117 OPS) could be the leading candidate for AL MVP. Robbie Ray (3.27 ERA) and Ross Stripling (4.27 ERA) have exceeded expectations in the rotation. Most notably, the Blue Jays had a plus-69 run differential prior to Thursday's loss to the Mariners. 

    Yet, this team is still trying to find its footing, due in part to bullpen issues. Toronto's relief corps compiled a 4.47 ERA in June, with numerous guys struggling to get outs in the middle innings. Jordan Romano (1.21 ERA) has been excellent, but the Blue Jays have hardly been able to protect leads and get him the ball for save opportunities. 

    General manager Ross Atkins has clearly identified the problem. He acquired Adam Cimber from the Miami Marlins, with Jon Heyman of MLB Network reporting the Blue Jays are also interested in Pittsburgh Pirates closer Richard Rodriguez. Toronto figures to add another reliever before all is said and done.

    As confusing and strange as this Blue Jays season has been, it might only just be beginning. George Springer is only just settling in, while the rotation has held its own and might get deeper should the Blue Jays invest in a rental.

    Toronto's been an up-and-down club all season, but it's hard not to buy the upside, especially if the Blue Jays add more impact relievers.

    Verdict: Buy

Washington Nationals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Those pesky Washington Nationals sure do like to make things difficult, don't they?

    The Nats were 19-31 in 2019 before steamrolling to a World Series. This year's version was 26-35 after a loss on June 12, but Washington promptly went 14-3 to close the month and came into Thursday's action just two games back of the Mets in the NL East. 

    Is Washington for real? Kyle Schwarber certainly seems to have found something since being moved into the leadoff spot. He set multiple records with his 16 home runs in June. Schwarber wasn't the only one in a groove, though. Trea Turner hit .345 with a .938 OPS in June, while Josh Bell hit .282 with an .884 OPS.

    The Nationals' big boppers are setting the tone, even if Juan Soto (.835) OPS) isn't quite producing up to his usual capabilities. 

    The issue, however, is the rotation is providing terribly mixed results outside of Max Scherzer (2.14 ERA). Joe Ross had a 1.95 ERA in June and appeared to squash his command issues, and Patrick Corbin had a .637 OPS against and 3.82 ERA. However, Erick Fedde joined Stephen Strasburg on the IL, while Jon Lester had a 5.79 ERA in June, his second straight month with an ERA in excess of 5.00.

    Washington's offense has big upside. The bullpen also boasts decent arms, with Austin Voth (2.79 ERA) and Paolo Espino (2.02 ERA) really helping to bolster the group. Brad Hand has converted 18 of 20 save chances.

    That said, the shakiness in the rotation and lack of clarity regarding Strasburg's health makes it hard to buy Washington's chances, particularly when it has 14 straight games against the Dodgers, Padres and Giants to start the month of July.   

    Similarly, the Nats just don't have the same prospect capital as the Braves or Mets if they want to buy at the deadline and push for a division title.

    Verdict: Sell

    All stats obtained via Baseball Reference, FanGraphs or Baseball Savant, unless otherwise noted. Stats are accurate prior to the start of play on July 1.