With the all-star break in the rearview mirror, it’s time for second half of the MLB season to get underway. Here are the story lines that will shape the rest of the season.
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The Cleveland Indians witnessed it first-hand over the weekend, and would love to stuff him in their overhead compartment Wednesday afternoon when they fly home from the Bay Area after a week-long stay.
The Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers can line up their playoff rotations now, with a chance to actually celebrate their division titles in August, but without him, their World Series droughts may continue.
The Milwaukee Brewers, who got a gut-punch when the Chicago Cubs spent their All-Star break landing Jose Quintana from the Chicago White Sox, now have a chance to deliver their own right cross to the jaw.
The name is Sonny Gray, property of the Oakland Athletics, who’s looming as the biggest difference-maker at this year’s Major League Baseball trade deadline.
A year ago, the Cubs and Indians made their big moves by acquiring relievers Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller, and riding them right through Game 7 of the World Series.
Gray could be that man this year.
Teams are ignoring Gray’s injury history, 10-15 record and 4.86 ERA the last 1½ years, and focusing on what he’s doing lately, yielding a 1.33 ERA the last four starts. When you can throw a 94-mph fastball, 90-mph slider, two curveballs for strikes, and are under club control through the 2019 season, you tend to get a lot of attention.
No wonder why Oakland A’s president Billy Beane and GM David Frost are being besieged with calls from contending clubs offering everyone from their top prospects to their groundskeeper.
Teams realize that Gray just may be the difference between an early vacation and your season being extended a month.
We don’t know where Gray and other impact players are headed just yet by the July 31 non-waiver deadline. And with all but the Chicago White Sox plausibly close to an AL wild-card slot, and three divisions up for grabs, the next two weeks will be fluid.
With that in mind, based on an informal survey of Major League Baseball executives and personnel by USA TODAY Sports, here are the potential deals we may see before August:
The Brewers may be the most aggressive team pursuing Gray, who pitched three years for Brewers pitching coach Derek Johnson at Vanderbilt. The Brewers, whose rebuild has suddenly been accelerated by their first-place status in the NL Central, not only have the prospects, but also a fiery owner wanting to land him.
“There’s an old saying, ‘Be careful what you wish for because you may get it,’ ’’ Brewers owner Mark Attanasio told reporters Sunday. “If you love your prospects too much, maybe that’s an issue, also.
“We have to make the right move, either way.’’
The Brewers still have to exercise caution, not thwarting their rebuild efforts because of their 4 ½-game lead over the Cubs. If they didn’t believe that the cost of Quintana was worth surrendering their elite prospects, would they give up three of their top 20 like Brett Phillips, Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes for Gray?
The Astros, 62-30, actually may be the team that most needs Gray. Sure, they’ll cruise to the AL West title with or without him, but with the way the Astros have dominated this year, anything short of a World Series berth will be a disappointment.
The Astros would prefer to land Detroit Tigers All-Star Michael Fulmer, and likely would include No. 1 prospect Francis Martes for him, but they inquired, just like the Cubs, and came up empty. If Fulmer is traded, the Tigers say, it won’t be until this winter when everyone can make a bid.
The Astros realize that Gray is the ideal front-line starter in this market to make a run for their first World Series title in franchise history, giving them a dynamic rotation with All-Stars Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr.
Prediction: Gray goes to the Astros for starter Joe Musgrove, prized pitching prospect Forrest Whitley and outfield prospect Teoscar Hernandez.
It’s no secret that the Boston Red Sox committed a huge blunder trading third baseman Travis Shaw to the Milwaukee Brewers during the winter, and even a bigger one when they shelled out $95 million to Pablo Sandoval less than three years ago, only to designate him for assignment last week. It wound up costing them $6.8 million for every home run and $1.6 million every RBI.
They’re now going with a third-base platoon of Brock Holt and Deven Marrero, and are waiting for elite third base prospect Rafael Devers to arrive, but they need to take care of this black hole quickly as possible.
They are trying to decide between Todd Frazier of the Chicago White Sox, who’s a free agent after the season, and Miami Marlin Martin Prado, who still is owed $28.5 million after this year.
Prediction: The Red Sox would love to acquire Frazier and closer David Robertson to be Craig Kimbrel’s setup man, but it would cost No. 2 prospect Jason Groome and No. 9 prospect Michael Chavis. If they instead take reliever Tommy Kahnle and Frazier, they would have to give up only Chavis and a fringe prospect.
The Miami Marlins, who not only are up for sale, but open for business, are hoping to dump money by moving Prado and second baseman Dee Gordon, who’s still owed $51 million through 2021.
Sure, Giancarlo Stanton and the $295 million left in his contract is available, too, but they haven’t received a single call of interest. Stanton would be willing to waive his no-trade clause to return home to California. Yet, for the Dodgers or San Francisco Giants to acquire him, he’d likely have to agree to opt out of his contract in 2020. Sorry, that’s not happening.
The Marlins are drawing the most attention with veteran reliever David Phelps, with the New York Yankees, Red Sox, Brewers, Cubs, Colorado Rockies and Texas Rangers showing the most interest.
And the Toronto Blue Jays and Philadelphia Phillies have engaged in preliminary trade talks for Gordon.
Prediction: Phelps goes to the Red Sox, Gordon goes to Philadelphia, and outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna are traded this winter.
Tigers: J.D. Martinez, Wilson on move
The trade blueprint teams had all along was to pick off all the Kansas City Royals’ potential free agents. The Royals went 7-16 in April, scoring just 63 runs, their fewest in a calendar month since April 1992.
Well, a funny thing has happened ever since. The Royals started winning and have climbed so far out of their hole that they actually have engaged in the bidding for Gray, too. They’re not expected to make a major move, but they’ve thwarted a whole lot of plans by hanging onto their players, making one last run.
The Tigers have begun winning since the break, but it’s too late. Tigers officials say they plan to move left-handed reliever Justin Wilson, outfielder J.D. Martinez and catcher Alex Avila. Wilson easily is drawing the most interest, with about 12 teams bidding for him, led by the Houston Astros and Los Angeles Dodgers.
Prediction: The Astros acquire Wilson, who’s under control through 2018 for outfield prospect Derek Fisher.
Martinez is the most valuable position player available. He’s hitting .308 with 16 homers and a 1.025 OPS (on-base-plus slugging percentage) in his first 229 plate appearances this season.
The Dodgers, Red Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks have shown the most interest in the rent-a-player who’ll be a free agent after the season.
Prediction: The Diamondbacks, who have dropped 11 of their last 14 games, grab Martinez, giving up outfield prospect Socrates Brito and pitching prospect Curtis Taylor.
Dodgers: The rich get richer
The Dodgers (64-29), a runaway train since April 27, going 54-17 and outscoring the opposition 388-227, are coasting to their fifth consecutive NL West title. It won’t be enough to satisfy their fans until they get to their first World Series since 1988.
They could use a starter like Gray, or even Justin Verlander, and a bat like Martinez’s, but it’s not imperative. Alex Wood will be their finest No. 2 starter behind Clayton Kershaw entering the playoffs since Zack Greinke. There’s no glaring hole in the lineup, particularly with Yasiel Puig’s improved play.
But, oh, how they could use a left-handed reliever to set up All-Star closer Kenley Jansen. They can grab Brad Hand of the San Diego Padres, Wilson of the Tigers or Jerry Blevins of the New York Mets with a phone call.
Sorry, this is Dodgers president Andrew Friedman running the show, and he’s always thinking big. Real big. And has his eye on a bigger prize.
Prediction: Friedman goes massive, and acquires Pittsburgh Pirates left-handed stud Felipe Rivero for, yes, top outfield prospect Alex Verdugo, and perhaps expands the package by including Willie Calhoun and Yadier Alvarez, too. Verdugo could be a star, but Rivero is absolutely filthy, yielding a .088 batting average with only five hits in 17? innings since his first save on June 10. He would provide the Dodgers with the nastiest right-left bullpen combination in baseball.
Brad Hand: Back to Florida?
So where does Hand wind up?
Ah, yes, the Tampa Bay Rays, who haven’t been to the playoffs since 2013, and could scare the living daylights out of anyone with their vaunted starting rotation.
Prediction: Hand goes to the Rays and the Padres’ overhaul continues by getting prospects Lucius Fox and Jesus Sanchez.
Cardinals: A ‘pen pal from Baltimore
The St. Louis Cardinals, just like the Pirates, don’t necessarily want to surrender their playoff hopes. But they’re realistic. They are caught in no-man’s land. They’re really not in the NL Central race, but not out of it, either, simply loitering.
The Cardinals don’t plan to sell off, but won’t go bold either and pursue J.D. Martinez. They instead will try to at least plug a void for their biggest albatross – the bullpen. The Cardinals have lost 10 games this season, blowing two over the weekend, when leading after eight innings.
Prediction: The Orioles trade them right-handed reliever Brad Brach, who is earning $3.05 million this year and is under control one more season. The Cardinals give up starter Tyler Lyons, who will step right into the Orioles’ rotation, which is yielding an MLB-worst 6.02 ERA.
Yankees: A Robertson reunion
The Yankees, one of the biggest surprises the first half, were planning to be aggressive at the trade deadline, right up until losing 18 of their last 25 games before the All-Star break.
The Yankees sought Quintana, are in the Gray talks, and would like to pry first baseman Eric Hosmer from the Royals, too, but the Yankees’ strategy is nothing like those of their ancestors. They actually value their prospects.
They’re not about to junk their entire rebuilding project to try to win the AL East. They instead will make moves for the present, and future, without costing top prospects.
Prediction: The Yankees acquire Robertson from the White Sox and Prado from the Marlins, getting salary relief from each team, and giving up nothing more valuable than 22-year-old third baseman Miguel Andujar. If the price is right, they could grab Athletics first baseman Yonder Alonso, too.
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