Should MLB's bubble teams buy or sell?

Should MLB's bubble teams buy or sell?

Published Jul. 12, 2012 11:34 a.m. ET

Let’s come right out and say it: The second wild card is fool’s gold.

If you’re the general manager of a team on the fringe of contention, you shouldn’t “buy” unless you think you stand a legitimate chance of winning your division.

All a wild-card berth will get you is a one-game playoff, quite possibly against the opponent’s ace. Why sacrifice quality prospects for such a dubious reward?

Several GMs face that very question with the July 31 non-waiver deadline less than three weeks away, trying to figure out whether to buy, sell or do both.

The new collective-bargaining agreement changed the rules of engagement, adding not just another wild card, but removing draft-pick compensation for potential free agents traded in the middle of a season.

For these nine bubble clubs, in particular, the next 10 to 14 days will be critical.



Record: 37-50
Games behind in division: 14
Games behind in wild card: 10
Next four series: At Colorado (3), at Los Angeles Dodgers (3), San Francisco (3), Milwaukee (3)

The numbers don’t lie. The Phillies probably will be cooked unless they go on an 8-2 or 9-1 run to start the second half. And what are the odds, seeing as how they went 1-10 to close the first?

The only remaining question, really, is whether the Phillies will sign ace left-hander Cole Hamels to an extension before the deadline. If not, he figures to get moved along with several of the team’s other potential free agents — center fielder Shane Victorino, left fielder Juan Pierre and right-hander Joe Blanton.

If I were the Phillies, I’d listen on right fielder Hunter Pence, too — though Pence’s market might not be as robust as the team would like considering that his salary figures to rise to at least $13 million next season in his final year of arbitration.

Prediction: Sign Hamels, keep Pence, sell everyone else.


Record: 41-44
Games behind in division: 9
Games behind in wild card: 5
Next four series: Washington (4), at Chicago Cubs (3), at Pittsburgh (3), Atlanta (3)

Do the math, then factor in the loss of right fielder Giancarlo Stanton for at least a month, and the Marlins’ direction should be fairly obvious.

Of course, the Fish rarely swim with the current.

They’ve already traded for first baseman Carlos Lee. They’re about to activate their offensive catalyst, center fielder Emilio Bonifacio. They’re thrilled with the player whom they acquired to replace Bonifacio and now will replace Stanton, Justin Ruggiano. And reliever Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) is set to return from his MLB suspension for identity fraud on July 23.

The Marlins went all-in when they jumped their payroll from $57.7 million to $101.6 million. In theory, they could spin two potential free agents, Lee and right-hander Anibal Sanchez, and possibly second baseman Omar Infante, who is signed through next season.

Not happening. Not in the first year of Marlins Park.

Prediction: Strategic buyer, depending upon need. The lack of depth in the Marlins’ farm system limits the team’s options.


Record: 46-40
Games behind in division: 4 1/2
Games behind in wild card: 1/2
Next four series: at Atlanta (3), at Washington (3), Los Angeles Dodgers (3), Washington (3)

The picture will become considerably bleaker if the Mets must play the rest of the season without right-hander Dillon Gee, who will undergo surgery Friday to repair artery damage in his pitching shoulder, according to ESPN.

Starting pitching is the Mets’ strength — the team ranks third in the NL in rotation ERA. Depth, though, is an issue, particularly when the Mets are rightly unwilling to push their top prospects, right-handers Matt Harvey and Zack Wheeler.

The team’s needs are obvious: The Mets rank 13th in the NL in OPS from the catcher’s spot and last in the league in bullpen ERA. But the upcoming schedule is difficult, and club officials want to make sure the team can stay in contention before making any moves of significance.

Prediction: Modest buyer. The Mets are widely reported to be pursuing Rockies catcher Ramon Hernandez, and they figure to add at least one reliever as well.



Record: 40-45
Games behind in division: 8
Games behind in wild card: 6
Next four series: Pittsburgh (3), St. Louis (3), at Cincinnati (3), at Philadelphia (3)

GM Doug Melvin has said that the first nine games out of the break, all against NL Central opponents, likely will determine the Brewers’ course.

Fans shouldn’t get too excited: The Brew Crew has yet to have a winning streak this season of longer than four games, and rank 13th in the NL in bullpen ERA.

Frankly, an influx of young talent would do the Brewers good. Melvin traded prospects to help the team reach the NLCS last season. Now, it’s time to reverse the process.

Prediction: Sell, from right-hander Zack Greinke on down.


Record: 42-43
Games behind in division: 4
Games behind in wild card: 4
Next four series: At Chicago Cubs (3), at Cincinnati (4), Houston (3), Colorado (3)

Look at that schedule. Remember that the D-backs beat the division-leading Dodgers in their final three games before the break. Then ask yourself: Why is this team considering a trade of right fielder Justin Upton?

The answers, rival executives say, are fairly simple. Team officials are not convinced that Upton is a winning player, and the D-backs could benefit if they turn Upton into two or three future pieces.

As I wrote Monday, the Diamondbacks possess enough outfield depth to withstand the loss of Upton. The deal, though, would need to be right: Upton, who turns 25 on Aug. 25, is an affordable star, making $6.75 million this season and an average of $14.1 million from 2013 to ’15.

Prediction: Upton goes for a package that includes both a young left-side infielder and major league help.


Red Sox

Record: 43-43
Games behind in division: 9 1/2
Games behind in wild card: 2 1/2
Next four series: at Tampa Bay (3), Chicago White Sox (4), Toronto (3), at Texas (3)

The Red Sox are a classic case of a team that could delude itself into trying to get into the knockout round. A few weeks back, I still thought they could win the AL East. No more.

The loss of second baseman Dustin Pedroia to a jammed right thumb and the continued inconsistency of right-hander Josh Beckett and lefty Jon Lester will mitigate against the returns of Jacoby Ellsbury, Carl Crawford and Co.

Still, ownership is unlikely to concede, not when they’ve invested $175 million in payroll and pledged allegiance to manager Bobby Valentine — and not when the Sox can still win a wild card.

Peter Gammons, the media member with perhaps the best feel for the Red Sox, suggested on a radio show Wednesday that Lester would welcome a trade. Lester responded by tweeting that he loves Boston and hopes to spend his entire career there.

The Sox would be wise to explore moving Lester or any other expensive, high-profile part, but don’t count on it. Any major leaguers they trade are likely to be complementary parts.

Prediction: Buy — strategically, carefully. The Sox, according to a source, are about $10 million over the luxury-tax threshold.


Record: 45-41
Games behind in division: 7 1/2
Games behind in wild card: 2 1/2
Next four series: Boston (3), Cleveland (4), Seattle (3), at Baltimore (3)

The Rays still don’t know when third baseman Evan Longoria will return from a torn left hamstring, but they should have a better idea by July 31.

For now, they remain in limbo, too mediocre to justify buying, too close to a postseason berth to justify selling.

This is one team for which the second wild card actually would be a reasonable gamble; any of the Rays’ top four starters could win a one-game play-in. Still, GM Andrew Friedman is too pragmatic to rely on such a crapshoot.

If Friedman senses that the team is listing at the deadline, he could trade right-hander James Shields, center fielder B.J. Upton and All-Star closer Fernando Rodney — anyone and everyone, if it helps the Rays for the future.

Prediction: Sell. Unless Longoria starts making rapid progress soon.

Blue Jays

Record: 43-43
Games behind in division: 9 1/2
Games behind in wild card: 2 1/2
Next four series: Cleveland (3), at New York Yankees (3), at Boston (3), Oakland (3)

Right fielder Jose Bautista keeps saying the Jays should buy, echoing comments he first made to my colleague Jon Paul Morosi. But let’s be realistic.

The Jays aren’t going to win the division. They likely will fade in the wild-card race unless they add an accomplished starting pitcher. And even if they win a wild card, which of their pitchers could they trust in an elimination game?

Maybe right-hander Brandon Morrow, who is expected to return in August from a strained right oblique. Maybe a starting pitcher to be named, particularly if it’s Cubs right-hander Matt Garza. But it’s difficult to imagine GM Alex Anthopoulos getting too excited about the Jays’ chances.

Prediction: Prediction: Buy, if Anthopoulos can find the right player under control beyond this season; sell, if he sees an opportunity to exploit a player’s value.



Record: 43-43
Games behind in division: 9
Games behind in wild card: 2 1/2
Next four series: At Minnesota (3), Texas (2), New York Yankees (4), at Toronto (3)

Hardly anyone realizes it, but the Athletics entered the break with the same record as the Blue Jays and Red Sox. They also were about the same number of games behind in their division and in the wild-card race.

The difference: The A’s lead the AL with a 3.38 ERA.

Given his recent history, GM Billy Beane has created a perception that he wants only to sell, but Beane’s strategy reflects his market’s limitations, not his competitive desires.

Truth be told, Beane would love nothing better than to win, particularly after some questioned him for signing outfielder Yoenis Cespedes and trading left-hander Gio Gonzalez, righty Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey in the same offseason.

Those six straight games against the Rangers and Yankees later this month could prove sobering, but the Athletics could be the Pirates of the AL, pitching well enough to give themselves a chance.

Prediction: Not sure they’ll buy. But it seems doubtful they’ll sell.