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Five teams on buy-sell bubble

Image: Philadelphia Phillies pitcher Jonathan Papelbon (Howard Smith/USA Today Sports Images)
Jonathan Papelbon is one of the few bright spots in a struggling Phillies bullpen.
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Ken Rosenthal

Ken Rosenthal has been the FOXSports.com's Senior MLB Writer since August 2005. He appears weekly on MLB on FOX, FOX Sports Radio and MLB Network. He's a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Follow him on Twitter.

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Buy? Sell? A little of both? None of the above?

These five bubble teams, in particular, are waiting to determine their directions as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches.

Phillies (43-46, 7½ games out, NL East)

The Phils, who started a pivotal 10-game homestand by winning two of three from the division-leading Braves over the weekend, now play four against the Nationals, the other team they are chasing in the East.

One scout says, “They can’t get back in it with that bullpen,” but the Phillies will not concede easily. And even if they do sell, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. reiterated to me Friday that he is not inclined to trade pieces who could be part of the club’s future, specifically mentioning left-handers Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, closer Jonathan Papelbon and second baseman Chase Utley.

The Phillies’ bullpen ranks last in the NL with a 4.58 ERA, prompting Amaro to say, “If we make a run, that’s the area we have to improve.” For now, Amaro insists that he is staying open-minded on all fronts — and that counter to the perception of some, “I’m not a stubborn guy.”

Giants (40-47, 6½ games back, NL West)

Difficult to believe the defending World Series champions are this bad.

The Giants have lost 16 of 21 and averaged 2.3 runs per game since June 1, worst in the majors. At one point during their recent 1-8 trip, second baseman Marco Scutaro, third baseman Pablo Sandoval, shortstop Brandon Crawford and outfielder Gregor Blanco were a combined 5 for 94 (.053).

In no particular order, the Giants need a starting pitcher, a right-handed hitting outfielder, a reliever and bench help. But they can’t justify trading prospects for veterans when they’re A) thin on prospects and B) playing so poorly. Hence, they passed on right-hander Ricky Nolasco, who went to the Dodgers, and outfielder Scott Hairston, who went to the Nationals.

Reliever Santiago Casilla is expected back from a knee injury this week, and righty Ryan Vogelsong hopes to return from a broken hand by Aug. 1. The Giants are highly unlikely to sell given their strong fan support. And money would be a significant impediment if they ever dangled their two most attractive potential free agents, right-hander Tim Lincecum ($22 million) and outfielder Hunter Pence ($13.8 million).

Rockies (42-47, 5½ games back, NL West)

Big week leading to the break. The Rockies, after getting outscored 22-2 while being swept in three games at Arizona, continue their trip with three games in San Diego and four in Los Angeles.

The question is which of their players will be healthy?

Right-hander Roy Oswalt is headed to the disabled list after injuring his left hamstring Sunday, and left fielder Carlos Gonzalez injured his right middle finger in the same game. The good news: Shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and center fielder Dexter Fowler will begin rehabilitation assignments Monday and could return against the Dodgers.

The Rockies made an offer for Nolasco, but their bigger needs are a back-end reliever and perhaps another bat. They’ll figure out their rotation: Right-hander Juan Nicasio is showing improved secondary stuff at Triple-A, and Double-A righty Chad Bettis, who threw 92 to 97 mph Wednesday in his first start coming off rotator-cuff inflammation, also could be a factor in the second half.

Padres (40-49, 7½ games back, NL West)

What a collapse: The Pads, who have lost nine straight and 11 of 12, need to regroup in their seven-game homestand against the Rockies and Giants leading to the break.

Rival executives have described the Padres as eager to buy. The team, perhaps seeking to make a statement under new ownership, made a play for Nolasco and also has pursued Cubs righty Matt Garza. But now what?

It’s difficult to stop losing streaks with a rotation that ranks next to last in the NL in ERA — and this, despite the advantage of playing at pitcher-friendly Petco Park. The Pads also lost catcher Yasmani Grandal to a potential season-ending knee injury seemingly moments after activating All-Star shortstop Everth Cabrera.

If the Padres sell, right-hander Edinson Volquez and closer Huston Street would be the most likely to go, though the team would stay open-minded on both players. A trade of third baseman Chase Headley would seem unlikely; he is batting .229 with a .685 OPS, and the Padres would be selling low.

Blue Jays (43-45, 10 games out, AL East)

So much for the Jays getting back into contention after their 11-game winning streak. They’ve since lost nine of 14, and as FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi recently pointed out, it might be time for them to point toward 2014.

Still, while the Jays are in last place in the East, they’re a mere 5½ games back in the race for the second wild card. What’s more, they can make up ground this week when they visit two teams ahead of them in the wild-card standings, the Indians and Orioles.

Another reason the Jays won’t give up: Both right-hander Brandon Morrow and lefty J.A. Happ are expected back in August. The club will monitor their recoveries and also monitor Garza and the other starters available via trade.

Depending upon where everything stands, the Jays could be active in the final days before July 31.

WILL THE CARDINALS JUMP?

The Cardinals are in a fascinating position as they approach the deadline. Their plus-122 run differential is the best in the majors and well ahead of the Reds’ plus-50 and Pirates’ plus-42 in the NL Central. That’s good news, because run differential often reflects a team’s underlying strength.

On the other hand, the Cardinals know right-hander Shelby Miller could wear down in his first full season, that Lance Lynn struggled in the second half of last year and that righty Jake Westbrook is unlikely to sustain his 2.78 ERA in his first 11 starts.

The return of righty Chris Carpenter would help, but the Cardinals can’t count on that. Youngsters such as righties Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez could spell Miller and others in the second half, but that’s a lot of responsibility to place on inexperienced pitchers.

All signs point to the addition of a veteran starter, but who? Well, the Phillies’ Lee would be perfect, and the Cardinals could open up a slot for his $25 million salary by parting with Carpenter and right fielder Carlos Beltran at the end of the season.

Problem is, the Phillies give no indication that they are willing to trade Lee, who signaled that the Cardinals appeal to him when he left them off his no-trade list, according to FOX Sports’ Jon Paul Morosi.

Well, what if the Cardinals tempted the Phillies by, say, offering third baseman David Freese and a package of prospects for Lee and third baseman Michael Young?

The idea is pure speculation — in fact, I concocted it with a player over the weekend. Young could play third for the rest of the season. The Cardinals could move Matt Carpenter to third next season and install prospect Kolten Wong at second.
And, ahem, they’d still have Lee.

A MINOR DEAL THAT PROVED SIGNIFICANT

It was a trade that got little notice at the time. But two years later, the Dodgers are the clear winner of a three-team, six-player deadline deal that sent left-hander Erik Bedard from the Mariners to the Red Sox.

The Dodgers’ three-player return included right-hander Stephen Fife and catcher Tim Federowicz, who formed the team’s battery Saturday against the Giants (minor league righty Juan Rodriguez was the third player in the trade).

At the time, some criticized the Dodgers for sending outfielder Trayvon Robinson to the Mariners. Robinson, however, batted only .215 with a .602 in 319 plate appearances with the M’s before he was sent to the Orioles for infielder Robert Andino. Robinson is now back in Double A.

The original Bedard trade, according to major league sources, was an outgrowth of the Red Sox’s failed attempt to acquire right-hander Hiroki Kuroda from the Dodgers.

Kuroda refused to waive his no-trade clause, and on the day of the deadline, former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein called Dodgers GM Ned Colletti and said that he was trying to put together a three-way deal for Bedard but needed Robinson to make it happen.

The Dodgers badly needed a catcher, and Federowicz had been part of the Kuroda discussions (the Sox were reluctant to part with Ryan Lavarnway, who had more offensive potential). Colletti also wanted two minor league pitchers, and Dodgers scout John Sanders recommended Fife, praising his competitiveness.

Federowicz, a catch-and-throw specialist, has thrown out nine of 18 runners attempting to steal in 30 major league games. The Dodgers rushed him to the majors but believe he can develop into an everyday catcher.

Fife, meanwhile, faced Roy Halladay, Matt Cain, Patrick Corbin, Adam Wainwright and Mat Latos in his first five major league starts last season — and posted a 2.70 ERA. This season, he has been about as good, producing a 2.76 ERA in eight starts.

A STEAL FOR THE CUBBIES?

Several Dodgers hitters, at least, think the Cubs did quite well to acquire right-hander Jake Arrieta, who arrived from the Orioles along with reliever Pedro Strop in a trade for right-hander Scott Feldman last week.

The Dodgers faced Arrieta on April 21 at Camden Yards, and a number of their players said his stuff was comparable to that of Mets righty Matt Harvey, whom they saw three days later at Citi Field.

Arrieta turned in one of his typical major league outings, pitching four strong innings before imploding in the fifth. But almost three months later, the Dodgers are still talking about him.

“The stuff he threw up at me was stuff I haven’t seen all year — the sharpness of his pitches, the way his fastball darted out of the zone,” catcher A.J. Ellis said. “He has really high upside. I thought it was an awesome trade by the Cubs.”

Arrieta threw 93 to 98 mph with a 90-mph cutter in his first outing at Triple A for the Cubs on Friday night; the game was suspended in the second inning due to rain. If he fails as a starter, the Cubs could always try him as a hard-throwing reliever.

FOUR OUTFIELDERS, THREE SPOTS

The Dodgers’ Jerry Hairston joked, “We need a DH,” before Matt Kemp injured his shoulder Friday night, but a rotation among the team’s four outfielders actually could work.

Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier bat left-handed, and Yasiel Puig right-handed. And Kemp and Crawford, coming off hamstring injuries, will need occasional breaks.

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Kemp has been on the disabled list three times in the past 14 months with hamstring trouble, Crawford has been sidelined twice this season with his own hamstring issues.

According to Dodgers trainer Stan Conte, research has shown that one out of five players coming off such injuries re-injure their hamstrings within a year, just as Kemp did last season. The Dodgers plan to monitor each player’s exertions — in the outfield, on the bases — before determining their lineups each day.

AND ANDRE?

One other note on the Dodgers’ outfield: Andre Ethier has gotten a kick out of playing center and is impressing club officials with his willingness and ability to handle all three outfield spots.

Ethier, 31, said he grew up admiring Ken Griffey Jr., and played center in little league, high school, at Arizona State and in the low minors with the A’s.

He has enjoyed his return to that position.

“It sparked a little more passion ... kind of woke me up,” Ethier said. “You get a different point of view. Sometimes with the monotony of going out to one position, you take it for granted.”

BRUUUU-CE!

Reds right fielder Jay Bruce might be the biggest “victim” of the campaign to make the Dodgers’ Puig an All-Star (one which I would endorse). Puig, the Dodgers’ Adrian Gonzalez, Giants’ Pence, Braves’ Freddie Freeman and Nationals’ Ian Desmond appear on the final-man ballot — voted on by the fans — but Bruce does not.

Well, Bruce could become only the 18th player to produce 50 doubles, 35 homers and 100 RBI in the same season — he is on pace for 48 doubles, 33 homers and 108 RBI. Those would be better “counting” numbers than he finished with overall in the past two seasons, and he was an All-Star in each of those years.

The knocks against Bruce would be his .319 on-base percentage and ratio of 105 strikeouts to 25 walks. His power, though, is undeniable: Bruce’s 41 homers off lefties since the start of 2010 are the most by a left-handed batter off left-handed pitching, according to the Reds’ media-relations department.

REDS LACKING TRADE AMMO?

The Reds, who want to add a right-handed bat, actually lead the NL in OPS against lefties, with four of their eight regulars — Brandon Phillips, Joey Votto, Bruce and Todd Frazier — above .800.

One problem for the Reds if they want to acquire a bat or a left-handed reliever such as the White Sox’s Matt Thornton: They’ve made a number of successful trades in recent years but thinned out their talent base in the process.

The Reds moved lefty Travis Wood to get lefty reliever Sean Marshall, shortstop Didi Gregorius to get outfielder Shin-Soo Choo and catcher Yasmani Grandal and first baseman Yonder Alonso to get righty Mat Latos.

Baseball America ranked the Reds 15th in its organizational talent rankings entering the season.

STATE OF THE BRAVES

The Braves’ lead over the Nationals is down to four games, and keep in mind that Atlanta might be better built for the regular season than the playoffs — the Braves lack a true No. 1 starter, and only the Astros strike out at a higher rate.

Injuries to three reserves — catcher Evan Gattis, outfielder Jordan Schaefer and infielder Ramiro Pena — have hurt the Braves’ depth. The bullpen, however, leads the NL in ERA even without injured lefties Jonny Venters and Eric O’Flaherty, and All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel isn’t the only reason.

Lefties Luis Avilan and Alex Wood and righties David Carpenter, Jordan Walden and Anthony Varvaro all have made strong contributions. The pending return of righty Brandon Beachy from Tommy John surgery could force a starter to the bullpen, or lead to a trade.

AROUND THE HORN

• The Rangers and Yankees are among the clubs that have expressed interest in trading for Marlins outfielder Justin Ruggiano, according to major league sources.

Ruggiano, a right-handed hitter who is batting .260 with a .763 OPS, would make a good platoon partner for David Murphy in Texas.

The Marlins can replace Ruggiano with top prospect Christian Yelich, who is on a rehabilitation assignment as he completes his recovery from a strained abdominal muscle.

• Don’t be surprised if right-hander David Herndon ends up helping the Yankees in the second half.

Herndon, 27, is completing the final stages of his recovery from Tommy John surgery, and touching 94 mph on his rehabilitation assignment in the Florida State League.

The Yankees claimed Herndon off waivers from the Blue Jays last Nov. 6, then re-signed him after he exercised his right to become a free agent. Herndon will earn a pro-rated portion of $750,000 if he returns to the majors and would be postseason eligible if he joined the Yankees before Aug. 31.

• Sounds like the Mariners aren’t too interested in trading right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen, who is not eligible for arbitration until 2015. A rival club recently inquired about Wilhelmsen, and the Mariners responded by saying they would want that club’s top pitching prospect in return.

Tagged: Orioles, Red Sox, White Sox, Yankees, Mariners, Rangers, Blue Jays, Braves, Cubs, Reds, Astros, Dodgers, Nationals, Mets, Phillies, Cardinals, Padres, Giants, Rockies, Marlins, Carlos Beltran, Michael Young, Chris Carpenter, Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt, Erik Bedard, Brandon Phillips, Carl Crawford, Cliff Lee, Scott Hairston, Matt Thornton, Matt Cain, Andre Ethier, Ricky Nolasco, Matt Kemp, Matt Garza, David Murphy, Tim Lincecum, Carlos Gonzalez, Brandon Morrow, Justin Ruggiano, Hiroki Kuroda, Jay Bruce, David Freese, Jake Arrieta, David Herndon, Ian Desmond, Mat Latos, Brandon Beachy

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