We have five full days before Friday’s 4 p.m. non-waiver trade deadline, and the movement has already begun. Scott Kazmir is an Astro. Aramis Ramirez is a Pirate. Johnny Cueto is a Royal. So for Monday morning’s Starting Nine, let’s look at the teams and characters who are likely to be at the center of the final days of this shopping season.
The Royals have completely transformed themselves – and their reputation. A year ago Sunday, the Royals awoke facing a six-game deficit in the American League Central, and they had just pulled themselves over .500. At the trade deadline, they did nothing. They broke a 29-year playoff drought, yet trailed Oakland in the eighth inning of the wild-card game. They were borderline relevant, even in Kansas City. But Sunday, when General Manager Dayton Moore pulled off a trade for Cueto, the Reds’ ace, Kansas City went from somewhat surprising division leader to perhaps the favorite for the AL pennant (pending other moves). Yordano Ventura is struggling. Jason Vargas is out for the year. Now, the Royals have a front-of-the-rotation starter that’s better than last year’s version (James Shields) and cost them three lefty prospects – most notably Brandon Finnegan, a first-round pick a year ago who looked electric in the 2014 playoffs. But these are the Royals, playing from a position of strength – the best record in the AL making the biggest move so far. Twelve months ago, this wasn’t conceivable.
At the end of the week, are David Price and Yoenis Cespedes still Tigers? Perhaps no team has as much to determine in the final five days than the Tigers. Though they were throttled Sunday night by Boston to fall two games below .500, some rival executives and scouts still can’t picture Detroit in full-on sell mode. But can the Tigers, still without Miguel Cabrera for likely three more weeks, really make a run? At some point, trading Price, the all-star lefty and former Cy Young winner, and Cespedes, the power-hitting outfielder, might be the only course that makes sense given that both will be free agents following the season. But what if the Tigers sweep the Rays in their three-game series that begins Monday? Would that change the course? This is the most fascinating team to watch this week? Unless …
The Dodgers can’t possibly sit tight. Two facts are inescapable here: Los Angeles lost 40 percent of its opening day rotation in the form of injuries to Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu, and no team has spent more on payroll this season – by a wide margin. So with the streaking Giants, winners of five straight, closing to within one game in the NL West, it’s impossible to believe the Dodgers don’t deal for a starting pitcher. They missed on Cueto. But they’re one of the few franchises who wouldn’t blink at the $23 million Philadelphia’s Cole Hamels is owed in each of the next three years. If Price doesn’t become available, there’s still Texas’s Yovani Gallardo, Cincinnati’s Mike Leake, Philadelphia’s Aaron Harang, Miami’s Dan Haren, etc. For the Dodgers, it’s really just a matter of degrees. They will add someone. How impactful he is remains to be seen.
Doesn’t Cole Hamels have to move? The idea that president-to-be Andy MacPhail is sitting back and watching as GM Ruben Amaro Jr. does whatever it is he does is absurd, and as MacPhail begins his rebuild of the Phillies, there is no greater asset than Hamels. Yahoo! Sports reported Sunday that Texas appears to be the leading contender for the three-time all-star and former World Series MVP – an interesting notion that shows long-term thinking on the part of Rangers GM Jon Daniels, whose club is three games under .500 and 4-1/2 games out of a wild-card spot. But wherever the landing spot, this is about Philadelphia’s willingness to admit failure in constructing a roster over the past three seasons and starting the (painful) process of starting anew. This much is clear: If Hamels, who threw a no-hitter Saturday against the Cubs, is still a Phillie next weekend, both Amaro and MacPhail will have failed.
Will Justin Upton remain a Padre, and what does this say about A.J. Preller – either way? No team underwent as much overhaul in the offseason as San Diego, and it was first-year GM Preller pulling the levers and pushing the buttons. What has resulted is a team that has won three straight games just to get within five of .500. In other words, a major disappointment. Now, with a paucity of impact bats on the market, Upton has become a target – and a logical fit for, say, the Mets. His impending free agency makes him a logical piece to deal. But the Padres have other attractive pieces, too – starting pitchers Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy and Tyson Ross, reliever Joaquin Benoit and closer Craig Kimbrel. But what would it say of Preller’s master plan if, say, Kimbrel – who is signed through 2017 – and right-hander James Shields, who has $66 million remaining on his deal over the next four years, were dealt? The roster demolition looked bold in December. Would Preller seem trigger-happy – tearing it down as quickly as he built it up – if he dismantles the team this week?
Scott Kazmir is gone. So the Athletics must not be done. A year ago, Oakland GM Billy Beane went all-in in July, trading for starters Jon Lester, Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hamel. Friday, he dealt lefty Kazmir to Houston. With the A’s 12 games under .500 and last in the AL West, why would Beane stop there? The obvious targets are super-utility man Ben Zobrist, who interested the Nationals last offseason and is a fine fit for the Mets, and setup man Tyler Clippard, the ex-Nat who would address Washington’s most significant need. The Athletics routinely go through a build-win-retool cycle, and this very much feels like the retooling stage.
Could a first-place Yankees team really stand pat? Here’s a team that could use some pop from the middle infield and some depth in starting pitching, but with its lead bulging to 6-1/2 games over Toronto, is anything absolutely necessary? Some familiar with the club’s thinking aren’t sure a deal is absolutely coming, particularly because the Yankees don’t want to part with their top prospects, particularly power-hitting outfielder Aaron Judge. And as old as the Yankees seem, they have some elements necessary for playoff success: an ace in Masahiro Tanaka, a lockdown bullpen in Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller, and thump in the middle of the lineup with Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez. That’s probably good enough to win the lousy AL East. Maybe New York remains quiet.
Whither the Red Sox? More and more, the World Series title of 2013 looks like the aberration, and last-place finishes in ’12 and ’14 – not to mention their current last-place standing – appear to be something of a pattern. But what can Boston do? It is locked into potentially crippling contracts with Hanley Ramirez (four years, $88 million), who may not have a position, and Pablo Sandoval (five years, $95 million), whose .666 OPS is by far the lowest of his career. Those two can’t be moved. They have tons of young talent, both at the major league level (Xander Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, Blake Swihart, Eduardo Rodriguez, etc.) and in the minors (Rusney Castillo, Henry Owens, Yoan Moncada). But to deal some of that talent for major league pieces, the Red Sox would have to believe they have a core that is ready to contend for championships. With David Ortiz approaching 40, Dustin Pedroia on the disabled list, and the AL’s worst rotation ERA, is that at all apparent?
Expect the Blue Jays to do something. No team in the American League has a better run differential than Toronto, which has scored 95 more than its opponents. Yet after losing to Seattle on Sunday, the Blue Jays sit exactly at .500 – 50-50, following 100 games. So the mandate is clear: Get pitching. Some familiar with the Blue Jays’ thinking believe it’s possible Toronto will try to land both a starter and a reliever in the next five days. Only three AL teams have worse rotation ERAs, so one of the available starting pitchers makes particular sense. And the Blue Jays are exploring all options – not just the rentals, but pitchers that would cost them money for years to come. Milwaukee’s Mike Fiers has been reported of interest, but he’s a cheap part of a Brewers’ rebuild. But whoever the target, put the Blue Jays close behind the Dodgers as a team most likely to make a move.