Last week, we examined the bottom-five teams in each league, and the parts they may look to sell as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches. This week, let’s look at the top-five teams. Well, at least the teams that enter the week leading either their division or holding onto a wild-card spot. Other teams may be buyers, especially if the second wild-card spot makes more teams into believers. But for the sake of format, we’re sticking with those five spots.
Below are some looks at these teams, and the positions at which they’re receiving sub-optimal production. I’ll also speculate about whether the team would try to make a move to remedy these situations, and I’ll take a look at the positions at which these contenders are hitherto receiving little production. I’ll take a look at whether the clubs have the organizational depth to fill these positions internally, or whether the spot may be an area that they attempt to fill via trade, regardless of whether they have the ammo to do so (or whether such players would become available on the market).
Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox enter Monday tied for the best record in the American League, and Will Middlebrooks has thus far been the weakest link. Among the team’s regular lineup, Middlebrooks is the only one to post a negative bWAR (-0.8). Injury has caused him to miss 20 of the Red Sox’s first 71 games. He does have nine home runs in 208 plate appearances, but he has a .233 OBP, and the defensive metrics suggest he has been a liability in the field.
The Red Sox could eventually allow Jose Iglesias to play more. In addition, top prospect shortstop Xander Bogaerts was recently promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket. Assuming he succeeds there, the organization may ask him to do his best Manny Machado impression in August/September and play third base for the final few weeks of the season.
There aren’t a ton of holes on the offensive side of the A’s roster where the team would need to upgrade. Josh Reddick has been the worst non-catcher member of the Ahtletics’ lineup through 71 games, as his .642 OPS through 170 plate appearances ranks worst among the team’s regular non-catchers. On the whole, right field has been the worst defensive position for the A’s, with men slashing .207/.299/.376 there, which is worse than even the catchers’ .249/.346/.348. However, Reddick has slashed a healthy .309/.367/.491 since returning from the disabled list May 31, so the A’s will probably not panic quite yet.
Brandon Moss has slugged .275 against left-handed starters, but manager Bob Melvin has already successfully implemented a platoon between Moss and Nate Freiman.
The Orioles have enjoyed outstanding production this season from every offensive position. Well, every offensive position other than second base and DH. Brian Roberts has not had more than 230 at-bats in a season since 2009, and his hamstrings have limited him to all of three games in 2013. The Orioles have primarily skated with Ryan Flaherty and Alexi Casilla in his stead, and the club has received a whopping .210/.268/.292 from the position. Flaherty has been adequate in the field, so the Orioles may not need to make a move as long as Chris Davis and the rest of the lineup keep doing their thing. A second baseman by the name of Buck Britton (no apparent relation to Zach) is hitting .303 between Double- and Triple-A, but he’s a non-prospect.
The Orioles’ DH’s may actually only be marginally better than their second basemen. The crew of Nolan Reimold, Steve Pearce, Danny Valencia, Chris Dickerson and friends have hit .193/.260/.387. That’s somewhat concerning when their primary focus is on hitting. Valencia has four home runs in just 14 games after slugging .600 for Triple-A Norfolk, but he pretty much only plays the position when the other team throws a left-handed starter. Travis Ishikawa, who has never shown much power at the major league level, has a .939 OPS in 49 games for Norfolk. The Orioles are reportedly content with their current arrangement, but this could be a slot for a trade if the organization decides a trade is necessary.
The Tigers’ five runs per game rank second in the American League. However, they have under-performed their expected Pythagorean win-loss record by four wins in part because of a shaky bullpen. Their bullpen has put up a collective 3.91 ERA, including a 3.95 in save situations. By comparison, relievers league-wide have a 3.67 ERA and 3.73 in save situations. In addition, Tiger relievers have nearly half a strikeout less per walk than their peers around the league. While these numbers are only slightly worse than the league average, they are only one of the average parts on an otherwise elite team. Expect an infusion of fresh blood over the next few weeks. Bruce Rondon, who received a deserved demotion to Triple-A at the beginning of May, has 11 saves and has struck out 35 percent of batters faced.
On the offensive side of the ball, Alex Avila has been the Achilles’ heel. His batting average has hovered in the .170-.180 range for much of the season, and the man with 19 home runs in 2011 has slugged .288 in 2013. Brayan Pena has given the Tigers 94 good plate appearances, but the Tigers must lack the confidence to transfer him the reins from Avila. There are not any standouts in the farm, and Victor Martinez is not budging from his DH role, so this could be an area for external acquisition. Andy Dirks, and his .635 OPS, could eventually give way to Nick Castellanos, but change does not appear to be imminent.
Elvis Andrus, who is signed with the Rangers through 2022, has so far been the weakest of the team’s batters. His 16 steals helps his value for fantasy purposes, but he enters the week with a 60 OPS+, and he has only been barely above replacement through 67 games (0.9 bWAR). The Rangers don’t appear to be motivated to make a change and give more playing time to Jurrickson Profar. In fact, they don’t even seem that motivated to move him from the top two spots in the lineup.
David Murphy has been the second-weakest hitter in the regular lineup, with a .211/.271/.374 slash through 227 at-bats. The other options in left have not been much better, as the Rangers have only received a .295 OBP from the position. The Rangers do not have much of a financial investment in Murphy, or fellow LF Jeff Baker, so we could see them try to add another outfielder in the next few weeks. Mike Olt has returned from injury at Triple-A Round Rock, but he still needs to prove himself a bit more in the minors before consideration for the major league left field role.
New York Yankees
Of all the AL contenders, the Yankees may be in the worst spot heading into the middle of June. Only three of their regulars have OPS+’s above the average of 100. Early-season heroes like Lyle Overbay and Vernon Wells have reverted to pre-season expectations, and injured stars Derek Jeter, Mark Teixeira, and Curtis Granderson have remained injured.
In terms of OPS, shortstop (.540) and left field (.603) have been the biggest problem areas. Jayson Nix, who has slashed .239/.306/.312 in 109 at-bats figures to be the place-holder at short until Jeter returns sometime after the All-Star break. As long as Jeter’s recovery remains on track, it wouldn’t make sense for the club to address the position from the outside, especially with Robinson Cano holding down the other side of the middle infield. Eduardo Nunez, who was recently transferred to the 60-day DL, will probably not beat Jeter back to health.
Vernon Wells’ demise has been the primary cause for Wells hit .300/.366/.544 in April, but he has slashed .190/.214/.288 since May 1. Thomas Neal had a .426 OBP at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre before the Yankees recalled him over the weekend, and it will be interesting to see if the Yankees give him any at-bats in left. Otherwise, they may be stuck until Curtis Granderson returns.
St. Louis Cardinals
It should come as no surprise that the team with the best record in baseball has very few holes. Of the batters who play every day, only Pete Kozma (73 OPS+) and Jon Jay (86 OPS+) have been below average. Oscar Taveras, who continues to excel at Triple-A Memphis, could be an option later on in the season in center field. However, he has a .517 OPS in his 61 at-bats against left-handed pitching this season versus a .997 against righties. This has been a newfound issue for the Cardinals’ top prospect, as he held his own against lefties last season at Double-A Springfield (.847 OPS, 24:12 K:BB). Hence, the Cards may wait for him to make some adjustments before swapping him in for Jay (and wait on Jay’s bat to rebound).
As far as shortstop is concerned, Kozma’s bat may be decidedly below-average, but the metrics suggest he has played above-average defense at short. Kolten Wong has played like the organization’s second-best prospect this season at Memphis, but he has yet to play an inning of short in his minor league career. The Cards don’t need much offensive production out of the spot given the offense present elsewhere in the lineup, and they may be more likely to give Daniel Descalso at-bats at short than force Wong into an uncomfortable position. Ryan Jackson, who was briefly with the major league club in April, could be an option at some point.
Ryan Hanigan is the weakest batter in the lineup (.288 OBP, .270 slugging), but his reported prowess behind the plate makes him the preferred option to Devin Mesoraco. The Reds have only received a collective .212/.308/.299 out of their three catchers this season (Mesoraco, Hanigan and six games of Corky Miller), but there does not seem to be any rush to change their pitchers’ targets.
Zack Cozart at shortstop has been the lineup’s other laggard, with a 74 OPS+ through 280 plate appearances. However, he still has the admiration of manager Dusty Baker (Cozart continues to bat second despite having the second-worst on-base percentage among regulars), which means a change is probably not afoot. Cozart remains the best offensive option at short within the organization – their stock of shortstops at Triple-A or higher consists of Cesar Izturis, Emmanuel Burriss and Kristopher Negron.
Left field could have been a hole after Ryan Ludwick and Chris Heisey both went on the disabled list, but Xavier Paul and Derrick Robinson have been more than capable fill-in’s.
The Braves have the fourth-best win-loss record in the majors despite carrying two batters (Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton). Uggla compensates for his .188 batting average with a 15 percent walk rate and 13 home runs from the middle infield. Upton, on the other hand, has a -0.9 bWAR, and he has struck out in nearly a third of his 233 plate appearances. Still, with the amount the Braves paid him this offseason, it would be outlandish to think they would acquire another outfielder before season’s end. Andrelton Simmons has a .245 batting average on the season and .270 on-base percentage since the start of May. However, his glove at short has made him a 2.3-win player (best on the team).
The Braves’ bullpen is down one of its biggest cogs in Eric O’Flaherty, so the club could look to add a piece or two here.
If any team is looking to add at the deadline, it should be the Pirates. Sure catching the Cardinals for the Central title may be tough, but even holding onto the second wild card in the National League would mean a lot for a franchise/city that has not seen a winning record since Barry Bonds’ last season in Pittsburgh.
Offensively, their worst position has been shortstop, where Clint Barmes, Jordy Mercer, and the now-departed John McDonald have combined for a .209/.241/.280 line. Putting it mildly, Barmes has not swung well recently. He has not walked since May 11, and he only has two extra-base hits (and seven hits overall) since May 17. Mercer has been stealing some of his starts, but this is a spot ready for a real upgrade (if one were available). Another spot to upgrade would be the back of the rotation if either Gerrit Cole proves to not be ready for an MLB pennett run, James McDonald never returns to the rotation, or the bad Francisco Liriano returns.
Martin Prado and Miguel Montero have been the two least valuable everyday players on the Diamondbacks this season, each weighing in with -0.5 bWAR. However, those probably aren’t the spots the club would look to change. Montero handles the pitching staff well, and his season-long struggles have begun to change in June (.768 OPS since June 1). Prado has already played four different defensive positions for the club, and he has logged more than 20 games at both third and second. The club has received the most meager production from third base, where Prado, Eric Chavez, and Josh Wilson have combined for a .242/.296/.381 line. Chavez has been the strongest of the three, with six home runs in 29 games, but his recovery from an oblique injury has stalled. Matt Davidson has been killing it as a 22-year-old in his first spell at Triple-A Reno with a .514 slugging percentage and .360 OBP.
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