The trade deadline is still more than a month away. But some of the biggest deals happen weeks before the July 31 non-waiver deadline.
Cliff Lee got that treatment twice, first as a prospect in the to-this-day inexplicable Bartolo Colon trade on June 27, 2002, then as the main attraction as he went to Texas on July 9, 2010. Lee's former Indians teammate CC Sabathia went to Milwaukee in a shocking trade on July 7, 2008. Carlos Beltran went from Kansas City to Houston in a huge three-way deal back on June 24, 2004.
If history is any indication, we might see more trades happen very soon. With that in mind, we'll be breaking down every team's deadline needs over the next few days, one division at a time. We start with a special NL Central-only edition of this column.
It's Week 12 of The 30.
Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.
1. ST. LOUIS CARDINALS
No team in baseball has fewer pressing needs than the Cardinals. Which is to say they have one.
Pete Kozma's 26-game late-season cameo last year, combined with a handful of timely postseason hits, caused (some) Cardinals fans to get giddy over a player who hit .236/.308/.344 in 2,752 minor league plate appearances, with so-so defense. The Cardinals' ever-shrewd management likely wasn't as convinced. But when Rafael Furcal's injury woes popped up again in the form of Tommy John surgery, Kozma became the only obvious alternative. Regression has clubbed him over the head this season, with 2012's .333/.383/.569 shrinking to .249/.294/.317 in a sample of playing time more than three times larger. There's nothing in Kozma's track record, other than that Shane Spencerian guest appearance, to make anyone believe significant improvement is on the way.
This leaves the Cardinals with three options.
First, they could pursue a trade. The problem now is the same one that existed last offseason, last season, and really for most of baseball history: Teams don't trade away great or even good shortstops, except in extreme circumstances. Think about some of the merely decent rent-a-vet options: Jimmy Rollins isn't what he once was, but he'd still be an upgrade over Kozma, and the Phillies badly need to cash in aging veterans for young talent … only GM Ruben Amaro Jr. and his bosses are apparently delusional. The Indians have Asdrubal Cabrera … but they're also fringe wild-card contenders who won't want to sell anytime soon unless a huge losing streak occurs, not to mention the possibility that Cleveland might demand a 2011 price tag despite the decline in Cabrera's stats since then. The White Sox are far more likely to be aggressive sellers … but as with Cabrera and the Tribe, it's hard to see Chicago wanting to sell low on someone like Alexei Ramirez, who was a four-win player just two years ago. And barring a contender with a plus shortstop falling out of the race very quickly, that's about it.
Second, they could promote from within. Ryan Jackson is a 25-year-old shortstop with a better defensive reputation than Kozma's. As with Kozma, the question is whether he can hit. In 2,202 minor league plate appearances, he's hit a respectable but underwhelming .274/.343/.379. There's a glimmer of hope on that front, with Jackson hitting a robust .320/.393/.435 this year. Still, 69 games of supposed gains, stemming largely from results on balls in play, probably won't be enough to make the Cardinals do anything drastic, unless Kozma hits the DL or suddenly goes 2-for-70.
Third, and most likely for now, they stay with Kozma as the cheap option who won't totally kill you, and rely on a loaded offense, one of the best starting pitching duos in the game, and a back-of-the-bullpen combination that has improved by leaps and bounds since the start of the season to carry them on a deep run through the playoffs. Get Edward Mujica and Trevor Rosenthal some reinforcements in the pen, sort out whether Joe Kelly, Tyler Lyons, Michael Wacha, or Carlos Martinez is best suited to fill out the rotation's no. 5 spot — or possibly acquire a no. 4 starter at a reasonable price — and go from there. When your team's biggest problem is one minor weak link in an otherwise stacked lineup, you can live with that.
2. CINCINNATI REDS
They've minimized, though not eliminated, one of their most annoying and persistent problems by shifting out machine Zack Cozart out of the lineup's no. 2 spot, at least some of the time.
Like the Cardinals, the Reds don't have many big problems after that. They're one of the top defensive teams in the league, they're above average on the basepaths, they get on base (Jay Bruce is finally blasting balls out of the park, raising the team's previous mediocre power results), and their starters have allowed fewer runs than any team except the Cardinals. As with St. Louis, this is a team that could use bullpen reinforcements, but who can't? Pull off a moderate-cost version of last summer's Jonathan Broxton deal, get Johnny Cueto healthy and back to full strength, and you've got a prime World Series candidate.
6. PITTSBURGH PIRATES
It's an old trope that's been rolled out time and time again by many teams, especially after they fail to make a big deal: "Calling up Prospect X was our big deadline move," they claim. It's a lame excuse for a couple of reasons. First, it implies that there was a choice to be made between calling up a top prospect and making an impactful trade. Second, it lays a lot at the feet of the kid who's just been called up, virtually none of whom turn into Mike Trout or Bryce Harper in their first run through the majors.1
We don't yet know how the Pirates plan to handle trade season this year. With their last winning season (let alone playoff appearance) coming 21 years ago, they've been sellers far more often than they've been buyers, flipping top players like Jason Schmidt and Brian Giles in July and August. When they have made what you could loosely call go-for-it deals, it's usually been for fringe players. In late-July 2011, within striking distance of both the NL Central lead and a wild-card spot, the Bucs' two big moves were to trade a C prospect for soon-to-be-36-year-old first baseman Derrek Lee, and the old player to be named later or cash bounty for Ryan Ludwick, who was in the midst of a terrible season. Ludwick hit .232 and slugged .330 in 38 games with the Pirates. Lee actually mashed, hitting .337/.398/.584 in 28 games sandwiched around a fractured left wrist; given he had been a replacement-level player with the Orioles earlier that year and has never played a major league game since, you can probably call the relative success of the Lee deal a fluke. Really, the biggest buyer's move the Pirates have made in recent memory was their July 24, 2012, acquisition of lefty starter Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros for a B prospect, a couple of C prospects, and a hunk of cash to cover some of his big contract. Rodriguez gave the Pirates 75 innings of roughly league-average pitching, which certainly has value. Still, if that's the biggest deadline splash you've made in more than two decades, that's not saying a whole lot.
Now here's the charitable view of the Pirates' relative restraint over the years, especially the past few years: They've been waiting for an opportunity like this. Down 6-3 in the ninth on Sunday against a very good closer in Ernesto Frieri,2 the Buccos tallied three to tie the game, scored four more in the 10th, then hung on for dear life to eke out a nervy and unnerving 10-9 win.3 That made it four wins in a row for Pittsburgh, which now sits at 46-30, just a single game out of first place. Not since the glory years of the early '90s4 have the Buccos sat 16 games over .500 on June 24. The Pirates have had a handful of decent records around the midway point of the season over the past few years. But this season feels different given the talent they've assembled. Pedro Alvarez is launching balls at a breakneck pace, Russell Martin is the first reliable offensive option at catcher since Jason Kendall, Jason Grilli has been the best relief pitcher in the National League by a mile, stuffing delicious, cheesy sandwiches down opponents' throats from the moment he took over the closer job, and Andrew McCutchen is such an excellent all-around player that he's an easy All-Star even in a bit of a down year offensively.
Still, the reason you start to get excited about this team more than other recent Pirates clubs is that the future has arrived. Starling Marte's single to left-center proved the key hit on Sunday, completing the ninth-inning comeback; he's now hitting .278/.339/.424, adding excellent defense in left field and elite baserunning. Jordy Mercer has emerged as a respectable replacement for Clint Barmes, who was one of the worst hitters in the league while holding the starting shortstop job. We even got a first look at Tony Sanchez, the team's top catching prospect and no. 4 overall pick in the 2009 draft, when he saw DH duty over the weekend in Anaheim.
You'll note one name not mentioned in that group: Gerrit Cole. The top pick in the 2011 draft, Cole got the call nearly two years to the day after getting drafted. He showed flashes of promise in his first two starts, giving up five runs, 14 hits, and no walks (but just three strikeouts) over 12 combined innings. But we didn't really see the potentially dominant Gerrit Cole we'd been promised until Friday night. In Cole's first two starts, he relied heavily on his trademark fastball and sinker, rarely breaking out his secondary offerings and generally doing enough to get by. Friday against the Halos was a different story. Cole broke out his slider to great effect, throwing 17 of them, including strikeouts of Mike Trout and Albert Pujols on a pair of nasty ones. He threw a 90 mph changeup. Then there's this: Cole hit 101 mph with his fastball. That's the highest velocity reading for any starting pitcher other than Justin Verlander since 2008. All told, Cole went 6⅓ innings, limiting the Angels to two runs on four hits, walking his first batter of the season and striking out five. Though we're not much for obsessing over pitcher wins, this is pretty cool: In the first three starts of his career, Cole went 3-0, beating two former Cy Young winners (Tim Lincecum and Zack Greinke) and one Cy Young runner-up (Jered Weaver).
So yes, in this particular case, if the Pirates do little to nothing more after calling up a potential future (present?) ace in Gerrit Cole, they could probably be forgiven. But there are still weaknesses here, some of which could be addressed without trading away any major pieces for the future. The bullpen gets thin beyond Grilli and Mark Melancon, both of whom rank among the league leaders in appearances and neither of whom has much experience as a top-shelf reliever. It very well might've been a simple case of an isolated bad day, but Grilli looked gassed in nearly blowing the game in the 10th on Sunday, and Pittsburgh could benefit from giving its eighth- and ninth-inning guys some support, something that should be easily affordable assuming it's not targeting someone like Jonathan Papelbon.5 The starting rotation is either loaded or lacking, depending on your point of view. Jeff Locke and Francisco Liriano have been improbably great this year, but it's tough to fully trust Locke's iffy peripherals (though four runs allowed in his past seven starts will certainly make you take notice) or Liriano's shaky, injury-filled track record. Likewise, do you count A.J. Burnett, Rodriguez, and to a lesser extent James McDonald being on the DL as a sign of concern, or a sign that reinforcements will be coming? There are probably enough positives here that you could split the difference: A reliable and healthy innings-eater — like, say, the 2012 version of Rodriguez — could work to cover any downside risk this rotation might have.
The Pirates do have two glaring weaknesses, though, one that might require more than a Band-Aid solution: They lack right-handed power, and their right-field platoon is terrible. When the Pirates face a right-hander starter, their four through seven hitters are Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Travis Snider, a veritable outs buffet for any half-decent lefty reliever in the late innings of close games. Snider, the better half of the team's right-field pair, is hitting .238/.306/.356, in line with the rest of his disappointing career. His current platoon mate is Brandon Inge, who is Brandon Inge. There are a few outfielders out there who could be an improvement on the current crew, without costing an arm and a leg. The Twins' Josh Willingham could be a decent upgrade assuming he's closer to his 2012 form (35 homers, .380 wOBA) than what he's done in 2013 (10 homers, .335 wOBA). The White Sox could end up in full fire sale mode, which could make Alex Rios (fourth in Wins Above Replacement among starting right fielders) a hot commodity for any team willing to pay $18 million to $20 million over the next year and a half, along with some solid prospects, for his services.
There's another theoretical option out there, one that would match any blockbuster deal the Pirates have pulled off in decades, cost the team a king's ransom in young talent, and maybe shift the balance of power in the entire league: They could trade for Giancarlo Stanton. As of now, the thought of acquiring one of the best young power hitters the game has seen in years is little more than the fruit of ESPN SweetSpot writer David Schoenfield and the Internet's speculation machine. But as Pat Lackey of the excellent Bucs blog Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke wrote, trading something like top-25 prospects Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco, along with Sanchez and a relatively minor arm for Stanton, could be both a highly risky venture and one that could completely change the complexion of this team. Stanton could instantly become the best hitter, provide the right-handed power the Pirates desperately need, offer team control through 2016, and maybe even be an extension candidate, if ownership shows it's actually willing to open the vault for someone other than McCutchen.
If they simply stand pat, there might still be enough talent here for a run at contention this year. A midlevel trade could provide a needed boost. And if the team decided to be truly bold for the first time in more than 20 years … Pirates fans might be raising a lot more than the Jolly Roger.
24. CHICAGO CUBS
Does any team have more quality trade chips and more motivation to cash them in than the Cubs? Consider:
Matt Garza: The 29-year-old right-hander spent the first seven weeks on the DL. He mixed good results with bad in his first five starts, including a nine-run debacle against the Reds on June 11. He's looked like the Garza of old in two starts since, striking out 13 batters, walking just four, and allowing just one run and seven hits over 15 innings. Two and a half years ago, the Rays landed two premium prospects and a total of five players in a deal for Garza and two throw-ins. Now he's three months away from free agency and will thus fetch much less in trade. But if Garza keeps pitching like he has in his past two starts, or even approaches what he did in 2011, he'll attract plenty of suitors.
Scott Feldman: Another walk-year starting pitcher, Feldman earned that status thanks to a lack of interest last winter that allowed the Cubs to land him on a dirt-cheap, one-year, $6 million deal. Though he's stumbled a bit lately, Feldman's still on pace for a better-than-average season, sporting a 3.39 ERA and 3.91 FIP, inducing enough ground balls, and showing strong enough control to overcome a lack of swing-and-miss stuff. If Feldman's still a Cub on August 1, someone out there probably didn't try hard enough.
Nate Schierholtz: He's 29 years old, he's raking to the tune of .296/.347/.558, he mashes right-handed pitching, he's an above-average defender, he's only owed about $1.2 million for the rest of the season, and he still offers a year of team control after this one. Though he's by no means a big-name player, you might not find three other players anywhere who'll get dealt at the deadline and make a bigger impact than Schierholtz could.
There's plenty more here, whether it's a relief-starved team buying into Kevin Gregg's unlikely resurrection, Luis Valbuena offering low-cost, high-OBP help to teams who need upgrades at second or third base, or David DeJesus offering a diversified skill set in the outfield, assuming he can come off the DL sometime soon.
With this much available talent and plenty of desire to sell, the Cubs could be the busiest team in the league over the next few weeks.
27. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
The sexiest hypotheticals range from fairly bold (trade Kyle Lohse in Year 1 of a three-year deal) to aggressive (trade Yovani Gallardo) to franchise- or even league-changing (trade Ryan Braun).
But consider what this team has been through this year. The Brewers' top two options at first base (Corey Hart and Mat Gamel) haven't played a single game all year because of injury. Aramis Ramirez, predictably, spent time on the DL. Braun's there now. And Rickie Weeks has been awful, needing a hot past few weeks just to get back up to replacement level. Granted, Carlos Gomez has been by at least one measure the most valuable player in the majors this year, while Jean Segura has pulled off a monstrous breakout. If you're running the Brewers, are you a last-place team with no hope, or a team that won 83 games last year and owns one of the best collections of up-the-middle talent — Weeks's miserable season notwithstanding — in the game?
The bet here is that if Milwaukee sells, it does so by liquidating its bullpen. Francisco Rodriguez just saved his 300th game, has little use on a cellar-dwelling team, and owns a 0.59 ERA and 5-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate in 15⅓ innings; you have to figure he's probably gone for prospects. Looking for a right-handed ground ball specialist? We've got Burke Badenhop. A high-strikeout veteran lefty? Mike Gonzalez.
It's conceivable that the Brewers become more committed sellers at some point. But given how this season has played out, that point may well not occur until this winter.