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The 30: Tipping Point

The MLB trade deadline is hours away, and for some teams the decision to become buyers or sellers isn't as easy as it looks

With just two days left before the trade deadline, many teams remain torn on how to proceed. Only a select few appear so at ease at the deadline that they can pull off deals with one hand tied behind their back. For everyone else, a leap of faith might be required. Some of the strongest playoff contenders have good reasons not to buy. Several pretenders might be reluctant to sell. We try to sort it all out, in Week 17 of The 30.

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


Any time a team loses its no. 1 starting pitcher with a season-ending injury with this many games left on the schedule, it hurts. For the first-place Braves, watching Tim Hudson fracture his ankle and having his year end in late July would seem especially painful. It would also figure to push Atlanta toward a blockbuster deal for another front-line starter.

Well … maybe.

In Hudson, the Braves lost one of the league’s steadiest arms, a pennant race– and playoff-tested starter who’d made all 21 of his starts this year, with a 3.45 FIP. Paul Maholm, the veteran lefty who is trying to make his way back from a wrist injury, remains on the shelf, unlikely to return when eligible on August 5. You would think the rotation would be paper-thin after two setbacks such as those.

Again, maybe. The Braves get Brandon Beachy back from the disabled list this week, and he’s expected to make his season debut against the Rockies on Monday. Though it’s tough to say exactly how he’ll pitch after being sidelined for more than a year, Beachy was starting to emerge as one the NL’s best young pitchers before going under the knife for Tommy John surgery, striking out more than a batter an inning with strong command over 38 starts covering 2011 and part of 2012. Rookie Alex Wood has struggled in his two starts this year, allowing five runs in just 7⅓ innings and raising questions about whether he can eat enough innings to avoid taxing the bullpen … but he would figure to be needed for only two more starts between now and mid-August, when even a cautious estimate on Maholm would suggest he could return. Assuming Maholm does return in two to three weeks, this is the rotation Atlanta would carry into the season’s stretch run:

Mike Minor: 4.6-to-1 K/BB rate, 2.89 ERA, 3.23 FIP. The staff’s actual ace, despite Hudson’s no. 1 title before his injury.

Julio Teheran: 4.1-to-1 K/BB rate, 3.07 ERA, 3.76 FIP. The 22-year-old top prospect, in the midst of a breakout season, tossed seven two-hit, shutout innings against the best offense in the league last time out.

Kris Medlen: 2.8-to-1 K/BB rate, 3.74 ERA, 3.77 FIP. Virtually unhittable last year, but not so much this year, with Medlen allowing 15 runs in his previous 14⅔ innings pitched before a respectable six-inning outing Sunday night.

Paul Maholm: 2.3-to-1 K/BB rate, 4.41 ERA, 4.20 FIP. In 140 innings leading into this Grantland Q&A, Maholm had struck out 116 batters, walked 36, and allowed just 10 homers and 111 hits, for a 2.25 ERA; since then, 92 innings pitched, 114 hits, 5.38 ERA … sorry about that, Paul.

… and Beachy.

That is, at the very least, a serviceable starting five. And really, that will probably be enough, given the 8½-game lead the Braves have built in the NL East. For context, consider this: Let’s assume the Braves fall well off their year-to-date pace and play a game under .500 the rest of the way. For the second-place Nationals to pass Atlanta, they’d have to go 37-19 the rest of the season, a .661 winning percentage. Plus, as ESPN’s Buster Olney noted, the Braves play just seven of their last 57 games this year against teams that currently have winning records, so Atlanta collapsing down the stretch looks highly unlikely.

So really, if the Braves plan to acquire a starter before the deadline, you have to figure it’s because they’re not quite satisfied with their playoff rotation. If Beachy can’t pitch like he did in 2011 and 2012, you’re essentially looking at two starters who’ve been reliably good (more or less) this season, and one of them has never thrown more than 164⅓ innings in a season at any level. That’s why they’ve been linked in trade rumors to the White Sox’s Jake Peavy,1 who would immediately become the team’s new no. 1, and to Astros righty Bud Norris, who would at the very least slot in as a superior choice to be the team’s no. 3 option in the postseason.

It won’t be an easy decision. The Phillies held a comfortable NL East lead two years ago and still traded four prospects for Hunter Pence. The Phils cruised to the division title as expected, winning 102 games thanks in part to big numbers from Pence. They also lost in the National League Division Series to the Cardinals, then traded Pence the next season for Nate Schierholtz and two prospects, and now probably wish they had Jarred Cosart confounding big league hitters for them instead of the Astros, not to mention the upside that 21-year-old first-base prospect Jonathan Singleton still possesses.

That’s not what this year’s Braves want. Historic collapses do happen, so an Atlanta playoff berth isn’t assured. And despite the trope about the playoffs being random, you’d still rather have better players on your side in October. But at what cost for peace of mind? Should the Braves dig deep into their cache of prospects for a pitcher who might not push them any further in the playoffs this year?2 Or should they roll with what they have, figuring they’re likely in no matter what? Again, there are no easy answers.


They’ve won six games in a row, the longest current winning streak in baseball. Their starting pitching is clicking, their bullpen has been masterful, and they’ve generated enough timely hits to keep the good times rolling. One of their best players is tweeting inspirational messages on a regular basis, even citing Nelson Mandela. Everything appears to be working for the Royals, the team that has chopped the eight-game AL Central deficit it faced at the All-Star break … all the way down to seven.

Therein lies the problem with KC’s playoff chances, and with a potential change of plans ahead of the trade deadline. The player who sparked the “second half is ours” mantra is Ervin Santana, who has turned out to be one of the best acquisitions from last winter. Snagged in a trade that cost basically nothing, Santana ranks among the AL’s top 12 in innings pitched and ERA. He has backed that up with strong peripherals, too, striking out 3½ batters for every one he walks, and issuing fewer than two free passes per nine innings. If the Royals started shopping Santana in earnest, they might find a good 10 suitors ready to make attractive offers.

But as multiple national writers have reported, KC has no intention of shopping Santana (or well-compensated reliever Luke Hochevar) unless it can get back players who will help it toward a playoff push this year. Which is to say, those players are probably going nowhere.

Yahoo’s Jeff Passan recently ran down some of the reasons management has cited for the team’s all-in approach. The Royals play 12 of their next 16 games against weak Twins, Marlins, and Mets teams. They then travel to Detroit to play a rare five-game series against the division-leading Tigers, giving them a chance to slice more games off their current deficit.

As we’ll see, these are not actually compelling reasons. If the Royals do stand pat (or even buy) at the deadline, it won’t be because they truly believe they’re going to make the postseason. Not unless they’re wildly delusional, anyway.

Aside from being seven games behind the Tigers, Kansas City also trails the streaking Indians by four games. They’re five behind Baltimore for the second wild-card slot, and trail four non-division leaders for that final berth. Though streaks can happen and more talented teams sometimes do falter, an objective look would suggest they don’t have the talent to hang with Detroit (and several other contenders), either. As for the soft upcoming schedule, the Tigers play six of their next 15 against the horror-show White Sox, two more against the sub-.500 Nats, and three against the slightly fortified but still talent-lacking Yankees — not exactly a murderers’ row.

Really, there are three more realistic reasons for a try-to-win-now approach.

First, the new free-agent compensation rules mean that if Santana is traded, the team that acquires him wouldn’t be eligible for a pick once he bolts for free agency. Thus the Royals might not get the kind of shiny offers you’d expect, given Big Erv offers just two more months of service time. KC could opt to keep Santana and collect a pick for itself at season’s end, while building a little optimism among the hometown faithful (and in Hochevar’s case, the Royals could always trade him in the coming offseason). Santana could theoretically find enough good vibes in Kansas City to prompt him into signing an extension, for that matter.

Second, the Royals have suffered through nine losing seasons in a row and 17 of the past 18. They haven’t made the playoffs since 1985, the longest current drought for any team. Any tiny sliver of good fortune could count as a win for this dreadful franchise. Winning something like 85 games would give them no chance at the playoffs. But it would constitute something like momentum. Attendance is up for the third year in a row; maybe it’d become four if they can finish above .500. Maybe the coming winter’s free agents give a little more thought to taking KC’s money than they might coming off another year of 70-some wins; for a team severely hamstrung by a revenue shortage, every little edge counts. Maybe winning begets more winning, creating the kind of culture GM Dayton Moore envisioned when he pursued and ultimately landed the consistently excellent James Shields.

Maybe all of this adds up to a 2014 season in which Shields the free-agent-to-be steamrolls the American League, struggling kids like Mike Moustakas and Alcides Escobar finally figure things out, and the Royals make good on Moore’s oft-cited eight-to-10-year plan. Optimism for next year (or overoptimism/blind faith, depending on your perspective) was one of the biggest reasons Shields was never going to be dealt before July 31, even though the Royals could get a lot in return, including talent that could help them well beyond next year. The other reason bigger guns like Shields were never going to get dealt ties into the third driving factor behind the overall no-time-like-the-present approach:

Dayton Moore wants to save his job. OK, that’s perhaps too blunt and cynical of a way to put it. Moore likely believes that his own success dovetails with that of his team, and that he’s acting in everyone’s best interests, from trading Wil Myers and three other prospects for Shields and Wade Davis in the first place, to doubling down now. But whatever everyone’s intentions might be, there’s no denying that the Royals’ sudden hot streak improves everyone’s job prospects, from Moore to manager Ned Yost and many others. If the Royals do somehow find their way to 85 wins, no way anyone’s getting canned this winter, even though that number would offer no shot at October baseball. Ownership would know how bad the optics would appear if a league doormat piles up more wins than it has in 24 years only for everyone to get sacked.

In short, it’s all well and good to say that a mediocre team would be best served by selling off anything not bolted to the floor. But there are multiple reasons — both justifiable and selfish — to doubt that’ll happen. Only one other likely also-ran has more incentive to stubbornly do nothing. That team is …


… the phightin’ Amaros, of course. No GM in the game has been more militant about swatting away any thought of selling than Ruben Jr. For all the well-reasoned arguments put forth by sharp local writers like David Murphy, Amaro has defended and redefended his approach. When he makes a stupefyingly, obviously bad move like signing Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million deal and it fails miserably, he calls out the player, without a moment of honest self-reflection on the man who caused the mess in the first place. He can’t trade Jonathan Papelbon to a relief-needy contender, because that, too, would imply admitting defeat over a move that was likely to fail before Papelbon ever pitched a single game.3

The Phillies have now lost eight in a row, and Amaro can’t even go through the motions of pretending his team has a chance in 2013 anymore. But they’re still not likely to sell anyone other, aside from maybe making a very minor deal or two. In some ways, you can actually justify this line of thinking.

Chase Utley is slated to hit the open market at the end of this season, and would provide a big boost to several teams at the deadline. But it’s easy to imagine Philly making a multiyear offer attractive enough to keep a potential Hall of Famer and career-long Phillie through the rest of his productive years; he’s certainly still productive now at age 34, hitting .274/.337/.498 with steady defense and savvy baserunning, even if his range and speed aren’t what they used to be.

Jimmy Rollins would hit free agency after next season and could help a few teams even now that he’s well past his prime. But the Phillies would be selling low (.259/.317/.352) on Rollins, missing a potential bounce-back season next year, and also leaving themselves shortstop-less at a time when they don’t have strong, major league–ready alternatives available on the farm, nor the luxury of choosing from multiple quality free agents come winter.

You could try to deal Cliff Lee, who would instantly become the best available player on the trade market. The problem here is one of valuation. Using the dollars–per–Wins Above Replacement model in which one win on the open market costs about $6 million these days, Lee’s actually a decent bet to earn most of what he has left on his contract.4 The problem is, real life doesn’t work quite that neatly. The vast majority of teams will simply decide that any pitcher making $25 million–plus a year just shy of his 35th birthday isn’t someone worth considering. You might be able to strike a deal with a revenue-stuffed team like the Dodgers, Red Sox, or maybe even the once-spurned Yankees. But even those financial juggernauts might demand that Philly eats a chunk of Lee’s salary. Finding the right offer in which the Phillies would be able to acquire enough talent to satisfy their present and future needs without paying too much for Lee to play elsewhere would figure to be tough.

But really, those are micro decisions that don’t matter as much as the macro factors that govern how this team is run and will be run, no matter who carries out ownership’s marching orders. What has really happening is this: The Phillies could be on the cusp of joining those three teams as a true revenue superpower of their own. But to cross the final barriers toward massive riches, they’ll need to play their cards perfectly. As Wendy Thurm of FanGraphs recently reported, the Phillies’ TV deal expires in 2015, which could set up a windfall deal. Unfortunately, ratings for Phillies games on CSN Philadelphia fell 36 percent in the first half of the season, compared to the same period last year. Moreover, as Thurm’s piece explains, there’s a debate going on in Washington that could eventually lead to increased customer choice for cable subscribers in the form of à la carte options. In a nutshell, we could see fewer people choose to pay for the regional sports networks that carry games. If that happens and RSNs notice that trend (which they surely would), the next step would be for them to lower the dollar amounts they’d bid in the future on the rights to major league games. And none of that even touches the Phillies’ attendance scare, in which 5,200 fewer fans a game are showing up compared to last year.

So from the point of view of Phillies ownership and management, you want to take every step to convince potential future carriers that you’re worth the big bucks. That could mean overpaying an aging Utley to stay put so that casual fans who’ve developed an attachment to the star second baseman don’t become disenchanted when he signs elsewhere (or gets traded elsewhere). It could mean chucking more promising prospects — especially those at lower levels of the minors — if they’ll fetch big league–ready talent in return.

And it certainly will mean spending big bucks whenever possible on any half-intriguing players on the open market. Last week, the Phillies announced they had signed 26-year-old Cuban right-hander Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez to a six-year deal worth up to $59 million. Gonzalez has been described by talent evaluators as having the upside of a mid-rotation starter, with the downside of a long man out of the bullpen. Though six years is a really long commitment for a no. 3 man, that average annual value isn’t far from Joe Blanton territory, so that could be a reasonable investment. But there is no WAR-per-anything scenario in which roughly $10 million a year would be worth it to sign a glorified Bill Sampen.

Still, with Joey Votto, Felix Hernandez, and so many other stars getting locked up years before they can test free agency, the traditional market has become exceptionally thin, leaving bidders free to make colossal mistakes on the likes of Josh Hamilton, since there’s so little out there. That’s how you get the Phillies making the biggest international signing ever on a player with a questionable future. That’s why the team with a group of position players that’s averaged more than 30 years old for six straight seasons (the second-oldest group of position players in the National League this year) might make it seven straight years in 2014. It’s why a farm system with few to zero potential impact guys above Class A might continue to neglect its talent pipeline.

So much is riding on the present, there isn’t any time to contemplate the future.

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

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 New York Times best seller. The paperback edition of his new book, Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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