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The 30: Center of Attention

The red-hot Rays headline a group of four teams that could shape this year’s trade deadline

Trade-deadline week is finally here, and while we don’t know which players will move and which will stay, we do know that every team will be affected, directly or indirectly.

Today, I’ll take a closer look at four teams that could play particularly pivotal roles, either through action or inaction: the Phillies, who have numerous valuable trade chips but may not have the desire to move them; the Marlins, who remain borderline contenders and boast a surprisingly intriguing piece of bait; the Rays, who looked like sure sellers a month ago but now look capable of achieving something no team has before; and the Giants, who just made a big move to solidify their rotation and may not be finished dealing yet.

Click here for more 2014 MLB trade deadline coverage.

So, stretch out:

Focus up:

Keep calm as the storm builds:

And be sure to snack:

It’s Week 17 of The 30.

Bat Flip of the Week

This week’s honors go to Royals designated hitter Billy Butler, who entered Friday’s game with a .264/.319/.343 line and three homers. Combine those numbers with his glacial running and nonexistent defense and you get one of the five worst everyday players in the league by WAR this season.

So when Butler came up to pinch-hit Friday with a man on and two outs in the eighth inning, he did so with the weight of that terrible season on his shoulders, but also with a chance to help a Jekyll-and-Hyde Royals team that was starting to surge its way back into the middle of the AL wild-card race. Facing a 1-0 count against Indians reliever John Axford, Butler got a pitch he could handle … and hammered it. The blast gave K.C. the lead and gave Butler a chance to admire his work before finally delivering a prodigious flip that screamed, “It’s about damn time.”

billy-butler-bat-flip

Dirty Water

The defending champs fall to the bottom tier.

30. Texas Rangers (41-64, -119 run differential, no. 30 last week)
29. Houston Astros (42-63, -107, LW: 29)
28. Colorado Rockies (43-61, -50, LW: 28)
27. Chicago Cubs (42-61, -50, LW: 25)
26. Arizona Diamondbacks (45-60, -71, LW: 27)
25. Philadelphia Phillies (46-59, -59, LW: 24)
24. Minnesota Twins (47-57, -42, LW: 22)
23. San Diego Padres (46-58, -39, LW: 26)
22. Boston Red Sox (48-57, -35, LW: 19)

With the deadline looming, most of the talk in Philadelphia is centering on Ryan Howard. This is spectacularly weird, because barring a miracle, there’s no way the Phillies will find a team willing to take on the former MVP’s contract.

The five-year, $125 million extension the Phillies gave Howard in 2010 was all but guaranteed to fail,1 but has somehow turned out even worse than the biggest skeptics could have imagined, as a decline in power and a string of injuries have knocked Howard out of the lineup for extended stretches and sapped much of his value.

Since Howard ruptured his Achilles tendon while making the final out of the 2011 National League Division Series against St. Louis, the Phillies have lost 29 more games than they’ve won, and Howard’s numbers have fallen off so sharply that FanGraphs now rates him as a sub-replacement-level player. While you can and should debate the definition of replacement level and the corresponding notion that the Phillies could pick up any Triple-A slugger and have him outperform Howard, because real life isn’t usually that simple, the fact remains that this season Howard is a .227/.309/.385 hitter, with nothing to offer as a defender or runner. He turns 35 in November, so he’s more likely to trend down than up. Whether or not the Phillies can find any team willing to take on Howard’s albatross of a contract, they need to ask themselves if Howard is really part of a winning formula moving forward.

Ryne Sandberg doesn’t seem to think so. The Phillies manager benched his big-name first baseman for three consecutive games last week, leading Philadelphia Inquirer writer Matt Gelb to break down l’Affaire Howard in his Sunday column. In a nutshell: Sandberg wants to get a look at younger players with the potential to play a role whenever Philly next produces a winning season.

In addition to shedding light on Sandberg’s logic, Gelb’s article highlights a deeper divide between the manager and his bosses. Ownership has understandably grown accustomed to the team’s recent massive revenue streams,2 so anything that could jeopardize that influx is something they’re going to fear. As such, it’s a scary proposition to consider trading, failing to re-sign, or limiting playing time for guys like Howard, Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and other players who helped fuel that financial success with tangible production and intangible star power. GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is no stranger to shunting youth aside, paying for past performance, and ignoring the future.

If the Phillies’ leaders are willing to change their thinking to better align with their more progressive manager’s, though, they could speed up their return to winning baseball. While Howard is likely untradable, Philly still arguably has more players to shop than any other noncontender in lefty aces Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee, right-handed midrotation starter A.J. Burnett, closer Jonathan Papelbon, lefty setup man Antonio Bastardo, outfielders Marlon Byrd and Ben Revere, catcher Carlos Ruiz, and possibly Rollins and Utley. Of course, it’s fair to debate the value or probability of any of these players actually being dealt: Hamels is one of the top pitchers on the planet when he’s healthy, he’s young by Phillies standards at 30 years old, and the team can certainly afford to keep him; meanwhile, Rollins and Utley have both said they have no desire to play elsewhere, and they have veto rights as 10-year MLB veterans who’ve played for the same team for five years or longer. What’s more, cashing in established players for no-names risks eroding the brand the Phillies have spent a ton of time and money building, and the club need look no further than the Astros to see what can happen to attendance and TV ratings when a team chooses to begin a massive rebuild.

But the Phillies aren’t the Astros. The new TV deal is banked, and though Howard in particular is now a sunk cost, the team can be smarter moving forward, and can make up for losses in attendance and related revenue by spending less money on players who aren’t all that good anymore. The Phillies probably won’t initiate a full-scale rebuild, but if ownership and management can meet halfway between fire sales and inertia, it’ll be a productive start.

So You’re Saying There’s a Chance!

Purgatory isn’t pleasant, but it also isn’t hell.

21. Chicago White Sox (51-55, -17, LW: 21)
20. New York Mets (50-55, +5, LW: 20)
19. Miami Marlins (51-53, -21, LW: 23)
18. Cleveland Indians (52-53, +6, LW: 16)
17. Cincinnati Reds (52-52, +8, LW: 13)

The Marlins have gone 31-38 since finding themselves in first place on May 8, and they needed a weekend sweep of the lowly Astros to prevent that mark from being even worse. The emergence of young players like Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and Henderson Alvarez hasn’t been enough to overcome a thin roster that got considerably thinner when the great Jose Fernandez fell victim to the Tommy John epidemic. Still on the fringes of the wild-card race but not a great bet to actually play into October, the Marlins could be candidates to trade a couple of nonessential players (like Mike Dunn and maybe Steve Cishek) without touching any core guys (sorry, Giancarlo Stanton chasers).

One player who might make sense to move is Casey McGehee. The 31-year-old third baseman hasn’t hit for much power this year, managing just two home runs. But he’s been a valuable offensive player nonetheless, batting .3103 with a .376 on-base percentage, and earning a memorable nickname in the process. Few would have predicted this kind of success for McGehee given how his previous three years went: In 2011 and 2012, he hit a combined .221 with a .282 OBP while playing for the Brewers, Pirates, and Yankees. When no MLB team promised him playing time for 2013, McGehee signed a one-year deal to play for the Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan. There, he hit .292, belted 28 homers, and reestablished both his bona fides and his confidence, leading to a contract with bargain-hunting Miami and a terrific first half that earned him a spot on the All-Star Game’s NL Final Vote ballot.

Recently, I spoke with McGehee about his year overseas, his successful return to the big leagues, and the possibility of a trade. 

What prompted you to go to Japan?

I wanted to be in a situation where I was going to be able to play. I enjoy playing. I wasn’t at the point of my career where I could just accept sitting on the bench and being a pinch hitter. Japan gave me an opportunity to play every day. There was no guarantee that I was ever going to get back [to the majors]. I had to be OK knowing that might be where it ended for me.

Did you make a major mechanical change or do something else to alter your approach?

It was more of a mental thing. Not feeling like I had to hit the ball out of the park was a goal. For me, it was more like, try to take something away from the pitcher. Be willing to take my singles the other way. Take what they’re giving you. Instead of trying to get the head out and drive everything, try to use the other side of the field. I needed to do that to get back here, because [MLB pitchers] are too good to just make mistake after mistake. You’re going to have to hit some good pitches.

[The right-handed McGehee’s career spray chart shows that he has gone the other way quite often during his career, including hitting home runs that way.]

casey-mcgehee-spray-chart

Was there a memorable moment last year that helped turn things around?

It was just getting back the feeling where you go to the plate and you’re not chasing results. Not hoping, but knowing I was going to have a good at-bat. I got back to expecting myself to do it.

What was your reaction when the Marlins signed you and gave you a chance to play every day in the majors again?

Coming back, and even now, I just took it as a chance to get back to the big leagues. I have to listen to the advice I give other people. I got off to a good start in the big leagues, had a couple of pretty good years. The downfall was quick. Being a little older and wiser, I kind of understand why it happened. It was nobody else’s fault. I just didn’t put my best foot forward. If I hadn’t had this opportunity to come back, I would have kicked myself for trying to do things that were not really part of my game.

So for me it was just getting another chance. Not a lot of people get that. Then it’s not only appreciating it, but realizing that it can go away as quickly as the first chance did. It’s about staying disciplined, doing the things that can make and keep you successful. And also not getting too excited over a little more than half a season. I didn’t have a good taste in my mouth to leave when I did.

The Marlins have fallen back a bit after a hot start, and this is the time of year for trade rumors. I know players say they don’t hear them or ignore them, but where do you stand on that? As someone who’s moved around a lot, is that something you’re trying not to hear?

Oh, I’ve been traded before, I know that’s a possibility. But at the same time I don’t think we’re out of it. I truly believe we have a chance to get back in it. We have a lot of games left against the teams ahead of us. Just a few weeks ago we were tied for first place. One nice little run and we’re right back in it. The year we went to the playoffs with the Brewers, the Cardinals looked like they were out of it. Then they got as hot as any team I’ve ever seen, got to the playoffs, got to the World Series, and won it all. It’s baseball. You never know.

Do You Believe? 

The red-hot Rays join this deep group of playoff aspirants.

16. Kansas City Royals (53-51, -1, LW: 17)
15. Tampa Bay Rays (51-54, -4, LW: 18)
14. New York Yankees (54-50, -28, LW: 15)
13. Pittsburgh Pirates (55-49, -2, LW: 12)
12. Toronto Blue Jays (56-50, +23, LW: 14)
11. Seattle Mariners (54-51, +51, LW: 11)
10. St. Louis Cardinals (56-48, +11, LW: 9)

Based on wins and losses, the Rays shouldn’t be this high: They’re three games under .500, with a worse record than the Miami team I just called a fringe contender. Based on the standings, the Rays shouldn’t be this high: They trail three teams in the AL East and six teams in the wild-card chase with just 57 games to play. Based on the playoff odds, the Rays shouldn’t be this high: They’ve got a 10.9 percent chance to make the postseason, according to both ESPN and Baseball Prospectus. And based on history, the Rays shouldn’t be this high: They sat 18 games under .500 on June 10, and no team has ever gone on to make the playoffs after falling into that big of a hole.

Forget all of that. Before losing to Boston on Sunday, Tampa Bay had won nine straight, pulling itself off the mat and earning my endorsement as a legitimate contender. The reasons go far beyond this hot streak or looking good while winning games.

Let’s start with some numbers. I’ve written about cluster luck a couple of times this year, but here’s a quick refresher: The concept has roots in the work that Pete Palmer did on linear weights more than three decades ago, and various refinements have been made since, including by Power Rank proprietor and Grantland contributor Ed Feng. Cluster luck stems from the idea that teams have little to no control over when hits occur, either the ones batters try to collect or the ones pitchers try to prevent. If a starting pitcher allows nine singles, but scatters them to avoid allowing a run, he’s lucky; and if a team manages eight hits in a game, but gets seven in one inning, it’s also lucky. Being lucky isn’t always a good thing, however, because luck can’t last: If a team sustains that good fortune for a few weeks or even months, it means that regression toward the mean is likely, that the best bet is league-average luck going forward, and that the team’s wins pace will likely decrease as a result. The same applies for teams experiencing bad luck, only in reverse: If those clubs enjoy an average number of bounces after their period of poor luck concludes, they stand to win more games.

One of the many things that make the Rays so interesting is that they’ve defied those trends, starting to win more games despite continuing to experience abysmal luck. When I examined Feng’s cluster luck standings in late May, Tampa Bay had cost itself about 15 runs due to the offense failing to bunch hits together and the pitchers giving up too many hits in bunches. When Feng ran the numbers five weeks later, he found that the team had plummeted all the way to minus-54 runs. Even as the Rays were starting to turn around their season, they were still suffering from bad breaks. According to Feng’s data, the Rays have improved their cluster luck a bit since, but remain dead last in that department:

1. Oakland: 49.42 (38.48, 10.94)4
2. Baltimore: 27.79 (-14.68, 42.47)
3. Kansas City: 25.44 (5.55, 19.89)
4. Seattle: 23.71 (13.23, 10.48)
5. New York Mets: 22.65 (-4.96, 27.61)
6. Washington: 20.10 (2.85, 17.26)
7. Atlanta: 19.29 (-5.81, 25.09)
8. Cincinnati: 15.36 (-1.47, 16.84)
9. Milwaukee: 12.48 (9.76, 2.72)
10. San Francisco: 10.49 (1.30, 9.19)
11. Minnesota: 8.08 (5.43, 2.65)
12. San Diego: 7.16 (-4.53, 11.69)
13. Texas: 4.31 (1.28, 3.03)
14. Cleveland: 2.08 (-0.66, 2.73)
15. Toronto: 1.70 (-20.84, 22.55)
16. Detroit: 0.36 (-10.60, 10.96)
17. Miami: -1.26 (-7.70, 6.44)
18. Philadelphia: -2.29 (1.88, -4.17)
19. New York Yankees: -4.40 (-10.93, 6.53)
20. Boston: -6.38 (-28.38, 22.00)
21. Arizona: -8.38 (-8.42, 0.04)
22. Los Angeles Dodgers: -9.04 (-24.40, 15.36)
23. Chicago White Sox: -13.02 (-2.55, -10.47)
24. St. Louis: -16.28 (-18.45, 2.17)
25. Los Angeles Angels: -20.02 (14.20, -34.21)
26. Pittsburgh: -22.97 (-26.08, 3.11)
27. Colorado: -23.06 (-22.70, -0.36)
28. Houston: -35.54 (-17.74, -17.80)
29. Chicago Cubs: -35.72 (-3.87, -31.84)
30. Tampa Bay: -41.10 (-33.38, -7.73)

tb_cluster

With cluster luck this poor, the Rays shouldn’t be winning as many games as they are; imagine how effective they could be if they got a little luck down the stretch.

Moving on from cluster luck, we can get a better sense of where the Rays should rank in MLB’s hierarchy by examining Base Runs, a concept developed by baseball analyst David Smyth that estimates the number of runs a team should have scored, and allowed, based on a hitter’s or pitcher’s component statistics independent of factors such as hit clustering. Many analysts have derided the Rays’ offense as subpar and pointed to it as a big reason for Tampa Bay’s failure to live up to preseason expectations, but that’s not really true, or fair: On a park-adjusted basis, Tampa Bay ranks a healthy eighth in team offense by wRC+, and using run scoring and run prevention as metrics, it ranks sixth by Base Runs, trailing only four first-place teams and the powerful Angels.

mlb2014_baseruns_rank

Using advanced stats isn’t the only way to explain how the Rays have been baseball’s hottest team since June 11, or to justify calling Tampa Bay a possible playoff team even though it’s 7.5 games out in the East and 4.5 out of the second wild-card spot. We can also point to two surprising rookies who’ve improved in a hurry.

Jake Odorizzi posted a 6.83 ERA through his first six starts this season, looking overmatched as he attempted to help a starting rotation crushed by injuries to Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb. Since then, Odorizzi has gone from being an afterthought in the Wil Myers trade to being one of the American League’s most dominant pitchers. Over his last 14 starts, Odorizzi has pitched 79 innings, struck out 98 batters, and posted a 2.96 ERA; he even outdueled Adam Wainwright last Tuesday while beating the team he grew up supporting.

Odorizzi and his fellow pitchers have benefited from another rookie: Kevin Kiermaier was forced into regular playing time following injuries to Myers and David DeJesus, and he has responded with dazzling defense and ample offense. The defense was expected; batting .311/.363/.548 while outslugging Andrew McCutchen, Nelson Cruz, Giancarlo Stanton, Yasiel Puig, Ryan Braun, and Miguel Cabrera was obviously not.

The Rays still have a big hill to climb, needing to make their way back above .500 and then past all of those other teams. And they’ll have to do it against a fierce schedule, with 37 of their final 57 games coming against teams above .500, and with a brutal stretch against the Brewers, Angels, and A’s starting today. But they’ve achieved something remarkable by even getting to this point. And barring a series of extremely unlikely and immediate events, the Rays probably won’t trade David Price, Ben Zobrist, or any other major contributor before Thursday’s non-waiver deadline.

Chalk some of that up to stubborn optimism and competitiveness. As with virtually everything the Rays achieve, however, chalk most of it up to smarts and math. All year long, the numbers said the Rays were much better than their record indicated. Now, finally, the wins are starting to follow.

Top of the Heap

Five of baseball’s best teams were also-rans a year ago.

9. San Francisco Giants (57-48, +26, LW: 7)
8. Atlanta Braves (57-48, +24, LW: 6)
7. Baltimore Orioles (58-46, +29, LW: 8)
6. Milwaukee Brewers (59-47, +29, LW: 10)
5. Detroit Tigers (57-45, +43, LW: 3)
4. Washington Nationals (57-45, +75, LW: 5)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (59-47, +54, LW: 4)
2. Los Angeles Angels (63-41, +91, LW: 2)
1. Oakland A’s (65-39, +170, LW: 1)

Even by the standards of a former Cy Young winner making his debut for a playoff contender following a trade, Jake Peavy’s first outing for the Giants was heavily scrutinized. Matt Cain had recently hit the disabled list with an elbow injury that made everyone nervous and heightened the team’s need for starting pitching; Peavy had pitched poorly for the Red Sox this season, posting a 4.72 ERA and 4.80 FIP, with 20 homers and 131 hits allowed in 124 innings; and the Giants had given up two intriguing prospects5 for a two-month rental who rated among the worst starting pitchers this year.

By game’s end, the verdict was in: The Giants should be more concerned about their defense than their pitching. And they need a new second baseman and possibly a new left fielder more desperately than they need anything else.

When GM Brian Sabean picked up Dan Uggla, he did so for added insurance, with veteran Marco Scutaro battling injuries and 23-year-old Joe Panik an untested commodity. But with Scutaro back on the disabled list and Panik failing to hit, Uggla made his third start as a Giant on Sunday night and looks like the everyday option for the time being. Uggla played so poorly in Atlanta that the Braves chose to eat nearly $20 million and cut him loose rather than continue to shoehorn him into the lineup, and so far it’s been more of the same in San Francisco, with Uggla making two ugly errors in Sunday’s 4-3 loss to the Dodgers to go with a botched double-play pivot and an 0-for-3 night at the plate. In his three games with the Giants, Uggla is 0-for-8 with three errors and at least as many boos.

By comparison, Mike Morse’s continued presence in the lineup might not seem like a problem. Morse is hitting .275/.327/.476, netting a 131 wRC+, which means he’s been 31 percent more productive offensively than the average player, trailing only Hunter Pence among Giants regulars. However, those numbers are deceptive. Morse started the season as one of the hottest hitters in the game, cranking 13 homers and slugging .577 as of June 5. Since then, he’s hit like a shortstop in the mid-’60s, batting .261/.311/.346 with just one home run in 43 games. When Morse slumps this badly, he becomes unplayable, because he’s always a liability on the basepaths and a disaster in left field.

Sometimes his defensive weakness is glaring. Other times it’s subtle, like during the fourth inning of Sunday’s loss, when with one out and Carl Crawford on second, Juan Uribe ripped a liner to left for a base hit. While Crawford remains one of the fastest players in the league, Morse’s attempt to cut him down at the plate was weak at best. Morse halfheartedly charged the ball, coming up with it slower than most outfielders would have, then delivered a dying quail of a two-hopper, which meandered into Buster Posey’s glove after Crawford had scored the tying run. The Giants have multiple lineup problems, with Scutaro, Brandon Belt, and Angel Pagan all out and the likes of Uggla and Adam Duvall trying in vain to fill the void, so there’s pretty much no way they’re going to sit Morse, especially given how shiny his season-long batting line looks. Still, until he starts hitting balls over the wall again, Morse will remain one of the weakest everyday players on a contending team.

So, yes, Peavy struggled at times in his Giants debut, allowing four runs on six hits with two walks and two wild pitches in six innings, but he and his fellow Giants hurlers would have better results this year if the team’s defense hadn’t gone from being the league’s best during the past decade to middle of the pack or worse this year, depending on your metric of choice.6 If the Giants want Peavy & Co. to succeed and for the team to have a shot at knocking off the Dodgers in the NL West, they’ll need to delete at least one of their defensive liabilities from the lineup. And they’ll need to do so as quickly as possible. 

Filed Under: MLB, The 30, MLB Power Rankings, 2014 MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trade Deadline, MLB Trades, MLB Stats, Baseball, Philadelphia Phillies, Miami Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, San Francisco Giants, Ryan Howard, David Price, Jake Peavy, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

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

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