Unconventional Wisdom: Shopping season strategies
Earlier this week on BaseballProspectus.com I wrote a piece about the Indians, in which I concluded that their run differential and the possibility for improvement from disappointments such as Ryan Garko and Jhonny Peralta made them contenders in the AL Central, and a team that should be looking to buy talent in the market rather than sell off its ace, C.C. Sabathia. The Indians responded strongly, scoring three runs in two games against the Giants without ever seeing Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain, and slipping to last place in the division, still holding that positive run differential. That's going to be as comforting as it was in 2005, when a team that led the AL in differential finished six games out in the Central and two back of the wild card.
The lousy week aside, the Indians still have to think about this year, at least for the next four weeks. If they trail the pack as July 31 approaches, they can look at trading Sabathia, but for now their core talent is lined up to win in 2008, they have two of the best starters in the league, and can expect improvement from many of their players. (No, Rafael Betancourt's ERA will not hover over 6.00 all summer.) The Indians have to look to buy in the market -- and probably at second base and in the bullpen -- because they're good enough to win the division. Being 7 1/2 out with half a season to play is not a tragedy.
The Indians make for a relatively easy call. Not everyone else does, of course. We know that the Yankees won't be selling off parts to build for 2008, and we can similarly expect that the Orioles won't get too flush with their half-season of above-.500 baseball to start shopping Matt Wieters for offensive help. In between, in a season in which the NFL-ization of MLB has reached new heights -- entering Thursday's games 21 teams, from the Brewers at 43-35 to the Giants at 34-44, were clustered within nine games of each other -- identifying the right course of action for teams on the bubble is difficult. Here are some of the toughest decisions faced by front offices:
St. Louis Cardinals
The Cardinals were not expected to be this successful, but surprisingly good starting pitching, an offense that leads the league in walks (and is No. 2 in OBP) and improved defense have put them at 45-34, clinging to the wild-card slot over the Brewers. It's not a mirage -- they're at +27 in the runs column, and in addition to drawing walks they prevent them, second in the league at 242 free passes allowed.
Given their front-running status in a weak league, the Cards would seem like a "buy" candidate. However, there are mitigating factors. Other than Colby Rasmus, who they'd be nuts to trade, they don't have high-ceiling prospects to deal. Further, their run prevention is built on the control of the starters and good defense, but also to some extent on an out-of-whack home-run rate. Kyle Lohse had given up seven homers in 98 1/3 innings, Joel Piniero seven in 63, and the team 72 in 711 2/3. That is certain to go up; combined with an offense getting career years from a whole bunch of players, the Cardinals have a lot more room to fall than rise. They can call up Rasmus and keep integrating Chris Perez into the bullpen, but they shouldn't mortgage the future to support this team, which is likely to finish around .500.
Billy Beane probably didn't expect to have this decision after he traded away Dan Haren and Nick Swisher over the winter, but thanks to two of the guys who came over in the Haren deal and some excellent middle relief, the A's lead the AL in fewest runs allowed and are second in run differential, a full 50 better than the first-place Angels. Unfortunately for Oakland the wins haven't fallen the same way; the A's trail the Halos by five games and the wild card-leading Rays by four. Like the Cardinals, the A's pitching doesn't have anywhere to go but down -- Dana Eveland and Greg Smith will be blowing by their previous innings highs, putting their performance and availability at risk. Justin Duchscherer, your AL ERA leader, is also in line for some regression. Rich Harden has been healthy and effective for six weeks, and I held my breath while typing that sentence.
The combination of tougher competition, the likelihood of pitching falloff and a deficit in the standings make the A's a seller. This wasn't supposed to be a big year, and while Beane is to be commended for the pitching staff he assembled, the A's should keep the focus on the future, shopping Joe Blanton, Mark Ellis and other veterans in a continued effort to open their new ballpark with a dominant team.
Tampa Bay Rays
The feel-good story of the year, the Rays are 46-31 and would be the AL wild-card team if the season ended today. The one-season turnaround in their defensive performance, from the worst in our database to an above-average team, is amazing, and is driving what could end up as a record-breaking dip in runs allowed from one year to the next.
The Rays are a year early; they were expected to become challengers in the AL East, but with another season of development to go, another year for the deep farm system to produce. With the fourth-best record in baseball now, they have to at least think about what the right acquisition could mean to their chances, and for that matter, to the franchise. Trading for Ken Griffey Jr., who at this point is barely an upgrade on Cliff Floyd or Eric Hinske, is not the answer. Moreover, the impact on that fantastic defense would have to be a factor before any changes are made. Jason Bartlett, Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford are all underperforming at the plate, but all are key parts of that run prevention.
The Rays are deep enough that they can trade one of their lesser prospects and bring back a decent return, and there's an argument for them to bolster the bullpen with an arm or maybe shore up the bench with a righty bat or an extra infielder. But because of their team's structure there's little reason for them to make a superstar acquisition. They can buy, but from the right part of the store.
One of the beneficiaries of interleague play, the Twins have won eight in a row against NL squads to move to 42-36, one half-game behind the White Sox in the AL Central. Like the A's, the Twins were not expected to contend this season, having traded Johan Santana and watched Torii Hunter leave via free agency. Their organizational pitching depth has helped make up for Santana's loss, as homegrown starters Scott Baker, Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey and Glen Perkins have combined for 46 starts with a 3.82 ERA. The Twins once again lead the AL in fewest walks allowed, in large part because of command specialists Baker (10 in 57 IP), Slowey (nine in 63 IP) and Blackburn (15 in 93 IP).
The strange thing about the Twins' success comes on the other side of the ball, where a team that ranks ninth in OBP, eighth in slugging, 14th in homers and 11th in walks is third in the AL in runs scored. The Twins' performance with runners in scoring position has been outstanding: .314/.386/.465. That's not necessarily a skill, but it has an enormous amount of value and it is the single biggest reason why the Twins are in contention.
Like the Indians, the Twins can look up and see a White Sox team that isn't anything special, one that isn't likely to run away and hide from the rest of the division. Like the Rays, the Twins have substantial organizational depth, and could trade away a pitcher or three without damaging their future. Like the Cardinals' surprising season, a chunk of the Twins' success is illusory, the product of a performance, in this case the RISP numbers, that is not likely to continue. It's an interesting mix; what may tilt the balance is that the Twins have enough glaring lineup holes that they can make upgrades without acquiring superstars. The left side of the infield and the outfield corners cry out for improvement. The Twins can trade MLB-ready pitching without missing it, and for that reason can buy knowing that a good trade or two will have a substantial impact on their 2008 season without affecting their chance to compete in future years.
This is far from an exhaustive list. The Marlins are two games out of first place but don't have a lot of depth and need pitching, which they probably can't afford in this summer's market. The Rangers have been a pleasant surprise, largely on the backs of some surprising veteran performances, but GM Jon Daniels needs to focus less on the 40-39 record and more on leveraging peaks from Milton Bradley, Vicente Padilla and Ramon Vazquez to acquire more young talent. Daniels revamped the Rangers at last year's deadline -- he can set up a possible dynasty by doing it again this year.
The Braves are the NL's Indians: two games under .500 with the third-best run differential in the league. Can they find a starter and a reliever on the market? The Tigers are wired to play for 2008, but now lack the stable of prospects to move in any deals to help them win now. The Jays have some of the best run prevention in baseball but little to deal to acquire help for their offense. Calling up Adam Lind -- and giving him a real chance to play -- will help.
This will all sort itself out over the next month, but one thing is certain: Buyers will outnumber sellers again, which puts teams such as the Pirates and Rockies -- noncontenders with substantial talent to move -- in the driver's seat.
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