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The 30: Four Teams. Four Strategies.

Subtle trades, freewheeling spending, and international sneakiness are driving the Dodgers, Yankees, Cubs, and O's

Three teams dip into the trade market, while another gets the highly coveted Kevin endorsement. It’s Week 14 of The 30.

Many of the stats and facts below are courtesy of the indispensable ESPN Stats & Info.

10. BALTIMORE ORIOLES

Scott Feldman might not look all that exciting, given his career 4.65 ERA and consistently below-average strikeout rates. But by acquiring the 30-year-old right-hander last week, the O’s helped themselves more than you’d think. Consider the following:

1. Feldman’s a big upgrade over what they had. Because of injuries and ineffectiveness, Baltimore saw several lamentable pitchers make starts this year. Freddy Garcia (10 starts, 5.77 ERA, 6.75 FIP) was the primary villain, but Kevin Gausman, Josh Stinson, Jake Arrieta, and Zach Britton also combined to deliver sub-replacement-level results. If Feldman’s a tick above average for the rest of the season, the O’s have added at least one win over that stretch. Given how competitive the AL East wild-card races figure to be, that one win could prove to be a season-changer.

2. He’ll likely end up being one of the best pitchers dealt before the deadline. Though it’s possible the Dodgers could step up and absorb Cliff Lee’s $25 million-a-year contract,1 the more likely scenario has Lee staying put, leaving the likes of Matt Garza and Jake Peavy as the biggest pitching names out there between now and July 31. Feldman’s projected numbers over the second half of the season don’t look much worse than those two, especially once you factor in Peavy being at least a couple of weeks away from coming off the disabled list.

3. Feldman’s been a better pitcher in the past two and a half seasons. He has pumped up his swing-and-miss percentage, dropped his walk rate to career-low levels, and induced more ground balls than he has since serving exclusively as a relief pitcher in 2005-07. His first post-trade start with the Orioles was a typical 2013 Feldman performance: six innings, two runs, six hits, six strikeouts, no walks.

That outing gave Feldman nine quality starts on the year, including five in his past six starts. For a team that’s getting MVP-caliber performances from both planet eater Chris Davis and Brooks Robinson 2.0 Manny Machado — but with a rotation that has put up some of the worst numbers in the game — those kinds of results from Feldman would certainly help. Throw in Chris Tillman allowing three runs or fewer in 13 of 14 starts before stumbling against the Yankees on Saturday, and the underrated Wei-Yin Chen due back from the DL on Tuesday, and suddenly the O’s might have a respectable enough starting five to back their powerful lineup and guide them back to the playoffs.

Which is extremely good news, given that their closer has been battling the regression monster lately. Last year’s nearly untouchable pen has turned into a decidedly mediocre group in 2013, with Jim Johnson’s recent ninth-inning meltdowns being particularly frustrating.2 Roto fans should consider a spec play on Tommy Hunter, and O’s fans should pray for a trade for more help, particularly given the rotation’s inability to go deep into games and the toll it’s likely to take on the relief corps.

Derek Jeter

11. NEW YORK YANKEES

The Yankees are the only team we’re featuring this week that haven’t made an impact trade — and for good reason. They could add more than most other clubs by doing something simpler: getting several key players healthy and back in the lineup.

If your Twitter feed was blowing up over the weekend with national writers suddenly taking an interest in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders, blame Derek Jeter. On Saturday, the 13-time All-Star3 played his first rehab game in the hometown of Dunder Mifflin’s most prestigious regional office, going 0-for-2 with a walk and handling one chance at shortstop. Jeter’s replacements at short this year — Eduardo Nunez, Jayson Nix, Reid Brignac, and friends — have been collectively awful, giving The Captain a chance to add a win or two to New York’s record by season’s end, even if he returns late and is a diminished version of his peak self.

It’s perverse, but true: A horrific performance by more than half the lineup should have Yanks fans feeling optimistic about the rest of the season. Alex Rodriguez has started his rehab assignment, and while there’s no way we should expect anything close to top A-Rod given the severity of his hip injury and his advancing age, all he has to do is be better than Nix, David Adams, Chris Nelson, and a broken-down Kevin Youkilis. Curtis Granderson is still having trouble gripping a bat, but the Yankees are hopeful that he can also make it back by month’s end. The road back can be even tougher for rehabbing pitchers, particularly those who haven’t thrown a pitch in the big leagues in a year and a half. But Michael Pineda has looked excellent in his minor league stint, and if he continues to excel in AAA, the Yankees will have to figure out a way to squeeze him into their rotation.

Pineda’s return could improve what has already been one of the top pitching staffs in baseball. (Most notably, Ivan Nova has fared well since returning from the DL late last month, highlighted by an 11-strikeout masterpiece of a complete game against the Orioles on Friday.) A healthy Pineda would immediately make Phil Hughes expendable, or could enable the Yankees to trade one of the young, talented arms currently toiling in their bullpen for another bat. Add a six-game winning streak that kept them right in the thick of the wild-card race despite fierce competition, and things are looking positively, well, positive for the first time in a long time in the Bronx.

It’s just another reminder that the lineup 5 through 9 may go Zoilo Almonte, Lyle Overbay, Luis Cruz, Eduardo Nunez, and Chris Stewart, but nothing, not even bubonic plague, can kill the Yankees.

Hanley Ramirez

15. LOS ANGELES DODGERS

In December, we covered the Dodgers’ “Curse of Plenty” — the manner in which teams with nearly unlimited money to spend and few good ways in which to spend it tend to make egregious mistakes. Andre Ethier’s five-year, $85 million extension last year was about as sharp an example of this particular economic curse as you can find. Not only did the Dodgers overpay a deeply flawed player on the wrong side of 30, they also exacted a heavy opportunity cost by blocking themselves from dipping into a deep free-agent market for outfielders over the winter.

Ethier’s decline has been worse than even the deal’s biggest critics could have imagined, with the now-31-year-old outfielder on pace to set career lows in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging average, homers, Wins Above Replacement, and blerns. In fact, Ethier’s been nearly as bad as the player the idiot writer of that article identified as a good target for the Dodgers: Josh Hamilton.

But being rich isn’t all tragedy and heartbreak. Turns out having a bottomless well of cash can also help a floundering team claw its way back into a pennant race.

One of the first major moves the new ownership group made upon taking over was signing Yasiel Puig to a seven-year, $42 million contract. That deal looks like a steal of the highest order now that he’s electrifying the baseball world.4 But at the time, it wasn’t nearly as much of a sure thing, with scouts acknowledging Puig’s immense natural talent but wondering if he could refine his tools into usable skills against major league competition. Now we’ve got a player so dominant that it has become cliché to call his hitting obscene … so we’ll share a GIF of him scoring from second base on a grounder to first instead. Puig’s emergence, combined with Carl Crawford’s return to the lineup, theoretically leaves the Dodgers with too many starting outfielders. But it also means they can ease Matt Kemp back slowly after the center fielder aggravated a shoulder injury. If Kemp returns at 100 percent, the Dodgers could then shop Ethier, knowing they could cover a huge chunk of his remaining salary to ensure they get real talent in return.

Having gobs of money also means you can take a chance on a player whose sharply diminished performance — combined with some lollygagging and griping — got his manager fired and alienated teammates. But for all the hype swirling around Puig, Hanley Ramirez has been unconscious in his own right, hitting .410/.450/.750 in the last 32 games. Granted, a .420 BABIP isn’t likely to keep going for much longer. But Ramirez has been crushing the ball to all fields, roping line drives and generally looking like the Hanley of old. By absorbing the rest of Ramirez’s substantial contract in last summer’s deal with Miami, the Dodgers were able to try a buy-low play on a onetime superstar without giving up any top prospects or significant major league contributors. Again, the rewards of wealth.

Speaking of taking advantage of the Marlins’ burning desire to shove cash back into their pockets, there’s the trade the Dodgers just pulled off for Ricky Nolasco. Just like Baltimore’s Feldman deal and the Yankees’ potential lineup upgrades, Nolasco doesn’t need to be a world-beater to help L.A. His 5-8 record might not reflect it, but Nolasco has had a fine season, posting a 3.51 FIP and a 3.6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate while toiling for lowly Miami. The Fish desperately wanted him gone because he was the only player on the roster making more than $3 million this year and because getting nearly half a billion in taxpayer subsidies for a new ballpark wasn’t enough to satisfy the team’s extremely shrewd owner. So instead of getting a truly promising prospect or two, the Marlins ended up with three young pitchers, two of whom project as cheap and effective relievers at best, with the third wielding a slight chance to become something better. How did the Dodgers land a pitcher who figures to be a major upgrade over weak options like Chris Capuano, without giving up anything they’ll actually miss? By absorbing about $5.5 million in remaining Nolasco salary, of course. And what the heck, the Marlins happily threw in an international bonus slot worth nearly $200,000, too, because the Dodgers are likely to actually use that money.

The Dodgers have made big strides since finding themselves 9½ games out on June 22. Heading into this week’s series with the first-place Diamondbacks, they’re now only 4½ back. Look for them to throw more money at their problems over the next few weeks … and for that plan to quite possibly work.

Scott Feldman

22. CHICAGO CUBS

The Cubs made three trades on Tuesday — and if you focus only on the players exchanged, it looks like a mixed bag.

The biggest of the three deals saw Scott Feldman and Steve Clevenger go to Baltimore for Jake Arrieta and Pedro Strop. We covered Feldman’s potential impact in the Orioles section, but let’s add this: He gave Chicago 15 starts with a 3.46 ERA and solid peripherals, then was used to lure a younger pitcher with some upside, and all it cost the Cubs was half of the one-year, $6 million deal he signed last winter. For a rebuilding team, you can’t ask for much more than that. In Arrieta, the Cubs get a 27-year-old right-hander who once carried the label of top prospect and now looks like a decent little gamble. His 3-9 record and 6.20 ERA were ugly as hell last year, but Arrieta struck out three batters for every one he walked in 114⅔ innings, netting him a respectable 4.05 FIP and 3.65 xFIP. Those kinds of numbers as a back-of-the-rotation arm represent his likely upside; if all he does is end up providing useful, cheap relief innings, that’d be a disappointment. Strop is less interesting, a flame-throwing reliever with terrible command who was effective for a few months last season but hasn’t shown he can sustain success.

The other two deals offer even less to talk about when it comes to the actual players acquired. Sending Carlos Marmol far away will probably help Dale Sveum’s blood pressure, but in getting Matt Guerrier back from the Dodgers, the Cubs simply swapped one sub-replacement-level reliever for another. The only apparent benefit seems to be that they saved a bit of cash, even after sending $2 million to L.A. to cover a chunk of Marmol’s salary. Meanwhile, the Cubs shipped pint-size minor league infielder Ronald Torreyes to Houston in exchange for … no players of any kind.

So what’s the angle? Money. More specifically: precious bonus-pool money that the Cubs could use for international signings. I’d offer up a long, detailed breakdown of how each dollar of pool money was acquired, what the Cubs planned to do with it, and how Chicago’s spending spree could have a lasting impact when it comes to next year’s available cash cache, but the Cubs blog Bleacher Nation already did an excellent job of laying everything out. The CliffsNotes version? By adding to their available pool money, the Cubs were able to sign, among others, the top two international prospects on the market. Gleyber Torres gives them a 16-year-old Venezuelan shortstop with major potential. They also pulled down 16-year-old Dominican outfielder Eloy Jimenez, this year’s consensus top international prospect.

This is the highest-upside play a team trading merely decent to slightly above-average players can make, given they’d likely get little more than B-level prospects otherwise. The Cubs being a cash cow franchise in a way that, say, the Marlins are not allows them to fortify and hopefully expedite their rebuilding process, even with MLB’s stricter new spending rules in place. Matt Garza, Nate Schierholtz, Kevin Gregg, the red-hot Alfonso Soriano, and others could also go soon, as the Cubs wisely go all out in their efforts to beef up their farm system.

Filed Under: Baseball, Jonah Keri, People, Sports, Teams

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First, is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri