By Matt Mirro – Lead American League Writer
Currently, baseball is at a hushed stall, an eerie and anxious pause here in the early days of July. In just a few weeks the entire sport will look like the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange as general managers and scouts will scramble to find deals best suited to help their team. Yes, the Trade Deadline. This year’s Deadline seems to hold more weight than ever, particularly in the tightest division in baseball.
That division would be the American League East. As of now the Yankees stand atop the East with a record of 44 wins and 38 losses. Just 1.5 games in front of the Orioles and two games in front of the Rays it would seem that the race to the playoffs is anyone’s to win. So now the Trade Deadline approaches, ever so slightly so that we barely see it coming, and every team in the AL East will be looking to bolster their roster for a run down the stretch.
With the division so close it’s safe to assume that the dog fight won’t be ending anytime soon. In fact, we are probably looking at the most entertaining race of the 2015 campaign. Every club in the East has needs they need to fill and it’s likely that whoever can patch the most holes in their roster will be the team to beat.
The Yankees and Blue Jays, who are just 2.5 games out of first place, are both in need of pitching. The Bronx Bombers could definitely benefit from an upgrade in the starting rotation while the Jays really need help in both the rotation and the bullpen. Tampa’s offense has fallen flat as of late and their bullpen has shown considerable weaknesses in the past week and a half. Baltimore might be the least flawed ball club in the division but an upgrade in the rotation and some help in the outfield would do them some good. They require a legitimate leadoff hitter with bonus power to throw in front of the middle of their order and add speed to their offensive attack. The Boston Red Sox are currently 39-45 and sit six games behind the Yankees. They desperately need a front of the line starter and, surprisingly, a few offensive reinforcements.
Boston has been linked to Cole Hamels for what seems like forever now but by so far refusing to part with top youngsters like Mookie Betts and Blake Swihart they might have taken themselves out of the running for the star ace. The Red Sox are still in desperate need of a front of the line starter with Wade Miley, Joe Kelly, Justin Masterson and Rick Porcello being tremendous disappointments so far this year. Holding on to these young players rather than sacrifice the future for the sake of this one season is the proper decision. Even if they can acquire a number one starter it might not be enough to carry a struggling pitching staff such as theirs. For the Red Sox their need may be to simply figure out what they are because fans certainly have no clue.
Most teams will be chasing starting pitching and effective starters are at a premium as contenders search for innings eaters before the calendar turns to August. The Yankees have been heavily connected to the White Sox’s Jeff Samardzija with the Blue Jays also rumored to be interested in the right-handed impending free agent. While Toronto has a better farm system than the Yankees (Baseball America ranks the Blue Jay’s system as number 11 overall while they list the Yankees at number 18) the Jays might be more inclined to hold on to their highly regarded prospects such as Daniel Norris, Aaron Sanchez and Dalton Pompey. They also lack the financial flexibility the Yankees are famous for.
Bigger targets such as Cole Hamels of the Philadelphia Phillies and Johnny Cueto of the Cincinnati Reds represent possible game changing targets for anyone in the division. But, Philly’s General Manager Ruben Amaro remains stubborn in demanding a king’s ransom in exchange for his star player. Cueto is a free agent at the end of the season and it is never a smart idea to trade blue chip prospects (It will take that much to net Cueto) for a rental.
So it seems more likely that AL East contenders would pursue more middle of the rotation options like Samardzija, Mike Leake, or Scott Kazmir. It is very possible that these three pitchers each end up playing on the East Coast.
While the Blue Jays will probably chase relief help the Yankees will probably seek middle infield help. Ben Zobrist of the Athletics comes to mind. Former Yankee Martin Prado could return as well. The Orioles could probably chase outfield help in the form of Brewers’ Carlos Gomez, the star center fielder who could find himself on the block as the Brew Crew falls to irrelevance. He’d have to shift to left field with superstar Adam Jones firmly entrenched at center fielder. With a farm system ranked near the bottom of the league I wonder what exactly they’d have to give up for the young Milwaukee star.
A trade for Gomez would be difficult for the Orioles but not impossible. After all, they have one of the most coveted young starting pitchers already on the roster in Kevin Gausman. The 24-year old right hander has mostly thrown out of the bullpen this year while also dealing with an injury that shelved him for some time. But still highly regarded by the Orioles’ brass and the league as a whole Gausman holds a lot of trade value, as all young starters do. Baltimore has shown a reluctance to trade him but for someone like Gomez, who would suite their needs nicely, they’d have to cough him up.
Perhaps packaging Gausman with someone like minor league outfielder Mike Yastrzemski (Ranked as Baltimore’s number 10 overall prospect by MLB.com and yes, he is the grandson of the great Carl Yastrzemski) along with a couple lower level prospects would entice the Brewers enough to cough over their beloved and superbly talented center fielder. Presumably Gomez would move to left field and play alongside Adam Jones in center.Gomez could be that top of the lineup threat the team needs to bat in front of Jones, Chris Davis and Matt Weiters. His speed adds an element so far absent from Baltimore’s game. Gomez will make just nine million dollars next season and will be a free agent after 2016. Would giving up Gausman be a tough move? Absolutely! But it would be worth it to bring in a game changing 29-year old Five-Tool Player and form perhaps the best left field/center field combination in baseball. Gomez is batting .267 with six home runs and 32 RBI but should benefit from a move to the hitter friendly Camden Yards. He was a 20/20 player in 2013 and 2014.
For the Yankees, I see someone like Ben Zobrist on their shortlist. The Yankees have really embraced players who can be versatile when writing out the lineup card and the former Ray fits that bill perfectly. Zobrist can provide depth at second base as well as both corner outfield spots. The 34-year old has struggled a bit this year. After battling some injuries he’s currently batting just .267 with five home runs and 31 RBI. But he get’s on base consistently, currently sporting a .354 OBP, aided by his excellent strikeout to walk ratio of 18 to 26.
But even his diminished numbers outplay those of Yankees second baseman Stephen Drew, currently batting an abysmal .178 with 11 home runs and 24 RBI. As usual, the “retooling” Oakland A’s will be looking for some young players to build for the future. Perhaps the Yankees could offer up someone like Triple-A starter Jaron Long along with reliever Diego Moreno or Joel De La Cruz. It’s not unlike the deal that netted the Yankees third baseman Chase Headley from the Padres last season (Yangervis Solarte and Rafael De Paula were sent to the San Diego Padres for the veteran gold glover). Zobrist is owed $7.5 million dollars this season and is a free agent once the regular season wraps up. Just like the acquisition of Headley last season a deal for Zobrist could be considered an audition for a possible extension in the off-season. Of course, we all know money is no obstacle when it comes to the Yankees and any performance that helps the first place team return to the postseason could very well be rewarded by a new contract.
I struggle to even imagine the Rays being buyers at the Trade Deadline. They don’t the resources needed to take on sizable contracts and, being a small market organization, they’ll more than likely wish to hold on to their young and talented farm hands. Tampa is not in the business of trading prospects and I doubt this year will see them move from that philosophy. They’ll either make smaller, more incremental moves or simply refrain from doing anything at all. For a team that has been a really pleasant surprise all season the Trade Deadline may prove to be the end of their fun.
It is already rather odd that no moves have been made with the deadline barreling down on us. I expected a few players to have already changed hands by the time Fourth of July festivities broke out. Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel were actually traded from the Cubs to the Athletics on America’s birthday one year ago. So right now it feels as though a powder keg is being filled to the very brim and the first spark could set the whole thing off. Once that keg blows baseball may very well see the contenders in the AL East make a mad dash for reinforcements. Whoever wins the Trade Deadline will likely win the division.