The next two weeks will be telling across much of MLB. Teams have a short window to finalize their plans and chart their course for the rest of the season. As the trade deadline looms, plenty of teams face questions of what to do and how to do it before playing out the last two months before the playoffs begin.
With that in mind, here are 10 of the biggest questions for baseball’s second half.
Can the Chicago Cubs turn it around?
This question has floated around baseball all season, but it will only intensify. First, the attention of people in the sport will focus on the following source of intrigue: What will Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Co. do in the next two weeks? Last year, it was Aroldis Chapman for top prospect Gleyber Torres, along with Mike Montgomery from the Mariners and Joe Smith from the Angels. Which starting pitcher will end up in Chicago, and who will the Cubs send back?
Epstein is right when he says there is no one person he can bring in who can turn this season around. However, if the offense plays to its capabilities, the Cubs are still dangerous, although not as dangerous as last season without improved starting pitching. At this point, what are the best versions of Jake Arrieta and John Lackey? The Cubs knew they were a piece away from sealing a championship roster. That piece was Chapman. Are they one piece away this year, and who is that piece? None of it will matter if the current Cubs don’t play better.
Do the Kansas City Royals have one more run?
A week ago, they were buyers. Then they went to Los Angeles and were swept by the Dodgers. They’re 1.5 games back of the Tampa Bay Rays for the second wild card spot and stuck with four other teams within four games of a playoff spot. It seems sentimental to give Lorenzo Cain, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas and the rest of the World Series-winning core one last chance to see what they can do together. If they make the playoffs, anything can happen in theory. Yet, a playoff rotation of Jason Vargas, Danny Duffy, Ian Kennedy and maybe a cheap starter acquired at the deadline isn’t scaring anyone.
The schedule out of the break is favorable with 10 of the first 13 games against the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox. Would that fool Kansas City into thinking it can contend? If the Royals were to sell, they should be able to get quite a bit for Cain and Moustakas, given the needs in the outfield and third base. Hosmer may get a little less because first base isn’t a huge need for most contenders. Still, that’s better than getting nothing back at all.
There has been Royals magic before. Will we see it again?
Do the Los Angeles Dodgers need to go all in?
The Dodgers are involved in every trade rumor because they have always had the pieces to get any deal they wanted done. There just haven’t been many deals they’ve liked, apparently. They have the best record in baseball, but winning another division crown isn’t the goal; winning a World Series is. Will this be the year the Dodgers make their big move?
They acquired Josh Reddick and Rich Hill at the trade deadline last year, but held on to Julio Urias, Jose De Leon, Cody Bellinger, Alex Verdugo, and the hoards of top prospects in their farm system. Not moving Bellinger for Ryan Braun worked out, and Urias can’t be judged because he’s now hurt, but De Leon was turned into Logan Forsythe, who has been better after a slow start. They could use a right-handed bat, but will it be J.D. Martinez or a smaller move? They could use a bullpen arm, but will they pay up for Brad Hand or Justin Wilson?
The biggest question: What happens to the rotation beyond Clayton Kershaw in the playoffs? The Dodgers can’t rely on him to be the only pitcher in the playoffs who can go six or seven innings as they have in the past. Is Alex Wood a reliable No. 2? These are questions the Dodgers face once again, because as good as they are, they have to win four games in a series to move on. Kershaw can’t start them all.
Who will start Game 3 for the Houston Astros in the ALDS?
Along the same lines of the Dodgers, the Astros aren’t making a move in July to make the playoffs. They need to focus on how to perfect their team for a five- and seven-game series. Like every contender, they could use a bullpen arm (specifically a left-hander), but it’s not a dire need. They’re set up well with Ken Giles, Will Harris, Luke Gregerson and bullpen ace Chris Devenski.
There are no holes in the lineup, and the rotation is good enough for 162 games. That doesn’t mean it’s good enough for a playoff series.
So, after Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr., who starts Game 3?
Is it Jose Quintana? Sonny Gray? Julio Teheran? Gerrit Cole? The Astros have held out until now, with the exception of trading a package of Vincent Velasquez, Mark Appel and others for Ken Giles. At some point they have to go for it. It seems like there’s no better time than now.
Will the Chicago White Sox trade Jose Quintana? [Yes, they will]
There is an awful lot of smoke coming out of Chicago this week, with multiple people suggesting a deal involving Quintana was coming soon. If it’s true, it’s good for the White Sox, because the team is treating Quintana like he’s Chris Sale, or at least not much worse, on the trade market. If it’s not true, the White Sox are trying to pick up steam because they aren’t getting what they want. They’ve made it clear he’s available, and keep reminding everyone he’s available, which gives one pause here when considering how close something actually is.
Quintana is a fine pitcher on a great contract, but what Rick Hahn was able to acquire for Sale and Adam Eaton has seemed to raise the expectations. Will someone get desperate enough to pay up before August? Quintana clearly makes a team better, but how much better seems to be the question. Will the White Sox get desperate to move him? With the exception of strikeouts, this is the worst season of Quintana’s career. If it continues, the value only drops, and the White Sox run the risk of turning a dollar into 50 cents, or nothing at all.
What will the Washington Nationals’ bullpen look like on August 1?
The Nats need a closer, but is that all they need in their bullpen? Probably not. Matt Albers is the only reliever with a sub-3.50 ERA. They need someone to pitch the ninth, yes, but they need someone to pitch the seventh and eighth, too. Maybe Blake Treinen, Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley will be better in lower-leverage roles, but it’s not something the Nationals can risk — not with the window they have right now.
The White Sox present an opportunity to acquire multiple relievers, with David Robertson, Tommy Kahnle, Anthony Swarzak and Nate Jones likely available. The Padres’ Hand and Tigers’ Wilson are two other possible options. Since everyone knows how desperate the Nationals are for a reliever, the price will only go up. The Nationals don’t have a choice but to pay it, otherwise they’ll pay for it.
How serious are the New York Yankees about 2017?
The Yankees were more surprising on June 12 when they were 15 games over .500 and on a six-game winning streak, but they’re still in a good position at 45-41 in the AL East. They’re 3.5 games back of the Red Sox and hold a spot in the wild card game, but this wasn’t supposed to be the year the Yankees competed for a division title or pennant anyway. They’re on a free roll right now because of how good they were early, but is that how they’ll view it?
They need help at first base and could use a starting pitcher. The bullpen has flaws. Their farm system is deep with talent at the top in Torres, Clint Frazier and Blake Rutherford. There are pitching options and other top-100 players outside of them. Will they make a big move involving someone like Frazier to go for it in 2017, or will they make smaller moves, understanding their best chance to win is still 2018 and beyond despite the fast start?
Which direction will the Atlanta Braves go?
This second half feels different for the Braves. They can’t punt everything and sacrifice falling apart in the second half — they’re building a culture and winning environment instead of the constant losing that has taken place the last two years. The players believe they can make a run at the playoffs in the second half with a healthy Freddie Freeman. Atlanta has to walk the fine line of doing what’s best for the future while not demoralizing the team after what it did in the first half of this season.
Brandon Phillips can help a contender on the field, and the Braves can move him because of Johan Camargo’s play. Matt Adams is expendable, but the Braves can wait to move him thanks to Freeman moving over to third base for the time being. Matt Kemp won’t be moved at a discount. The selling question surrounds Julio Teheran. He’s not as untouchable as he was, but it makes sense for the Braves to listen as teams search for cost-controlled starting pitchers. Teheran has been great on the road (2.53 ERA) and terrible at home (7.58 ERA). What message does it send to the clubhouse by trading one of your best pitchers whom you have for three more seasons? That probably depends on the return.
What about buying? Is now the time the Braves start selling gold out of their treasure chest of prospects for pieces that help in 2018 and beyond? They’re just as capable of swinging a big deal as the Astros, Yankees, and teams in a better spot for the playoffs, which adds more competition. They’d love a lot of players, but of course it depends on cost. Sonny Gray would be great, depending on how the A’s are selling him and what the Braves think they’re buying. Jose Quintana would be extremely unlikely, but because of the prospects and the coming championship/playoff window, the Braves will be involved in just about every rumor.
Whatever happens, the goal in Atlanta is a playoff spot in 2018. That should be at the front of the team’s decisions. That might mean not selling pieces that help the team finish the year strong. It might mean buying to do the same.
Can Dave Dombrowski resist the urge to part with Rafael Devers?
Dombrowski usually can’t resist the urge to trade any prospect, although it’s hard to argue with results. Yes, he traded Michael Kopech and Yoan Moncada, perhaps two top-10 prospects in baseball, but he received Chris Sale, perhaps the best pitcher in the American League. He sent Mauricio Dubon to the Brewers in a deal for Tyler Thornburg. Anderson Espinoza is a Padre after the Drew Pomeranz trade. So is Manny Margot, who was part of the Craig Kimbrel trade. That’s just a sample of his time in Boston.
Devers is next.
He is either next to be traded, or next to get a shot to play third base. With Eduardo Rodriguez coming back, they don’t need, or at least don’t have room for, a starter. The bullpen can be improved without moving Devers, but can Dombrowski resist moving the future third baseman for the “now” third baseman?
How aggressive will the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Milwaukee Brewers be?
The Brewers’ arrival is early, but it’s real. The Rockies spent money in the offseason like they were prepared to do something special this season, and the Diamondbacks didn’t do anything major with the idea that it was possible.
The D-backs and Rockies faded toward the end of the first half, but are still the second- and fourth-best teams in the National League by record. The D-backs are limited by a below-average farm system, although there aren’t any major needs either. They need a starter as insurance, a right-handed bat to help the struggles against lefties, and a bullpen arm never hurts.
The Rockies do have the farm system to get a deal done. Will they use it to improve the starting rotation or bullpen?
The Brewers are here in part because of how they’ve played and partly because of how the Cubs have played. Early in the season when it looked like it was just a good month, it was easy for the Brewers to say they wouldn’t change their plans based on this season. Now they are in first in the NL Central by 5.5 games and it’s a different story. How deep into their prospect pool will they go to win in 2017, if they go into it at all?