Halfway through June is approximately one-third of the way through the MLB season. It also happens to be about 60% of the way to the trade deadline. As we approach the trading season (which may have started already), we would like to know which teams may be selling and which may be buying. Specifically, which of the bubble teams, on the fringe of contending, will buy and which will sell?
I defined a bubble team, a fringe contender, as a team that was between 2 and 8 games back in the division or wild card. These teams are close enough to a playoff spot that, with the right 10-game stretch, they could be in line for the postseason. As the end of the season approaches, the upper bound on this range of contention will likely shrink. For now, with so much time left in the season, it allows us to analyze a large number of teams who could push for the playoffs.
The analysis will be broken up by league. I will also briefly mention non-bubble teams, though many of their plans should be obvious (I’m looking at you, Miami). The data used is through June 12th, collected on the morning of the 13th from Fangraphs (team statistics & rest-of-season schedules), Baseball Reference (team ages & division games back) and MLB.com (wild card games back).
Non-Bubble Teams – Buyers:
Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Braves, Brewers, Cubs, Nationals.
As you could imagine, division leaders and those in close proximity are considered buyers. Whether to overcome that small deficit or to grow their lead, these teams should be looking to fortify any holes in their rosters. The willingness to buy, however, varies team-by-team.
The Braves, being young, should feel less urgency in action on this season’s trade market. They are the fifth-youngest in the National League in average batter age and seventh-youngest in average pitcher age. Similarly, their weakest link should be improved upon internally over the next few years. Their pitching staff has a collective 4.02 FIP, 12th in the National League, but they also have eight pitchers in their top-11 prospects.
The Brewers and Diamondbacks, both older teams, should be expected to buy heavily. Neither has a firm grasp on their division, and neither should expect youth infusions over the next few years to lengthen this contention window. Their farm systems are weak (albeit the Brewers are more middle of the pack), and their MLB rosters are old.
The Cubs, Dodgers and Nationals all have youth in their systems. Similarly, all three were projected to win their divisions, and all three aren’t (yet). The Cubs need help with their pitching, ranking 10th in the NL in staff FIP. The majority of their youth is on their MLB roster, as opposed to in the minors. The Dodgers have plenty of young depth in the minors but may need some major league starters should their use of the 10-day DL continue. They have youth on their roster and in the farm. The Nationals’ offense is struggling a little, but much of that is tied to their DL issues and Harper’s lack of contact (that should rebound). The farm has begun to produce (Juan Soto) and has more pieces ready to contribute. Overall, this group is in a good position to contend now and in the near future.
Non-Bubble Teams – Sellers:
What else is there to say about these teams? Having a sub-.400 winning percentage at this point in the season all but guarantees a spot in this section. Both teams are young and pursuing youth (except for the Reds, who enjoy watching Hamilton and Votto lose trade value as they age). One day, should their youthful prospects (like Brinson) bloom into quality major leaguers, these teams may contend.
Bubble Teams – Buyers:
To be honest, I expected more bubble teams to be clear buyers. With how many teams are treading water in the National League, hanging on the fringes of contention, I though many teams would be in position to buy. Upon investigation, however, these are the only two clear buying teams. Even calling these two teams ‘clear’ buyers may be overselling their situations.
The Phillies have the youngest bats and second-youngest pitchers in the National League, with a strong farm system backing. They should look to improve their batting: the Phillies have the fourth-worst wRC+ in the NL at an 88 wRC+. Because of their recent, erm, “reconstruction” (let’s just call it what it is – tanking), the Phillies have plenty of money to spend. Once they got out from under the contracts of yesteryear’s World Series team, they kept salaries low as they tried to take advantage of their draft positioning. As a team that has the capacity to spend up to $198 million, they have plenty of room above their current $92 million payroll to add contracts at the trade deadline. By taking on money, they can reduce the prospect cost of trades, preserving their future talent. One reason the Phillies may not be an aggressive buyer at the trade deadline, though, is the free agent market. Some top, young players will be free agents this offseason and the next, such as Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, and the Phillies have been rumored as willing to splurge.
The Cardinals have a youthful pitching staff but an aging lineup. Their pitchers are the fourth-youngest staff in the NL, but their bats are the sixth-oldest. Not only are their bats old, but they’re struggling – the Cardinals have a 94 wRC+, about middle of the pack in the National League. A few things suggest the Cardinals may not be aggressive in buying at the deadline. Historically, the Cardinals haven’t made many major mid-season acquisitions, opting to develop strong careers out of under-the-radar prospects, which reduces the need for outside help. The Cardinals have a good farm system, but may not quite have enough talent they’re willing to move to acquire a top bat without increasing payroll. This year’s payroll may restrict the Cardinals’ ability to add players, though – this season, they are operating under their second-largest payroll in club history.
Both the Phillies and the Cardinals should be shopping for a bat or two this July. The trade market should be flush with bats. Due to payroll and minor league system strength, the Phillies are more likely to make a significant acquisition. I expect both teams to be active in the rumor mill, but the Phillies to make a move.
Bubble Teams – Sellers:
How are the San Diego Padres, a team in the midst of a rebuild and a handful of games below .500, a bubble team? The NL West. Four teams have winning percentages below .515 (approximately two games above .500 at this point in the season), and the division leading Diamondbacks only recently broke free from those four teams (8-2 in their last 10). Despite being only 6.5 games out of a playoff spot (both the division and wild card), the Padres likely will be sellers.
The Padres have built an attractive farm system. They sacrificed a few years of competitiveness to both save money and acquire prospects (and Dave Cameron). Despite this, though, they have increased their payroll over the last five or six years. This year, they’re operating on a payroll of $102 million. The Padres took on bad contracts to receive better prospects in trades they’ve made. Because they are operating at a salary level close their recent maximum of $143 million (2017), the Padres likely don’t have the money to take on contracts and, because they’re still in their rebuild, would rather not trade away some of their future talent.
The Padres are likely to sell mainly because they aren’t in a position to contend and are still forward-looking, planning on future contention. With eight teams between them and the wild card, buying almost seems like a necessity in any push towards a playoff spot. The pursuit of talent will drive the Padres’ July.
Bubble Teams – It Depends:
Giants, Rockies, Pirates, Mets.
Each of these four teams may buy or sell, depending how the next few weeks go. All four teams are in similar positions – lacking in farm system depth, operating at their highest payroll levels (Giants, Rockies, Pirates, Mets) and, besides the Pirates, all are older. These teams’ contention windows are closing, and, unless things change, won’t be open for a while. Should they buy and push for one last postseason, or should they begin their rebuilds with midseason selloffs?
The San Francisco Giants are a difficult team to read. They are operating dangerously close to the luxury tax line and have money on the books for the next few years, preventing high-money acquisitions. They also lack the depth in the minor leagues to supplement trades to encourage their trade partners to eat money. The Giants’ batters are the oldest group of batters in the NL, and their pitchers are the tenth-oldest. Despite this, though, the Giants have acted like a team trying for one last push – they pursued Giancarlo Stanton during the winter and acquired both Andrew McCutchen and Evan Longoria (who has three years remaining on his current contract). Their remaining regular-season schedule is one of the easiest in the National League – their opponents project to have .494 winning percentage. Giants executive Brian Sabean said that “to be competitive to start the year and hopefully have to also roll into making some moves at the deadline,” they may have to make difficult decisions. Nothing in his statement suggests they will sell and rebuild.
The Colorado Rockies chose to pursue contention after reaching the playoffs for the first time since 2009. They signed multiple relievers and increased their payroll to its highest level in club history, $134 million estimated. If they are in contention at the deadline, they may continue this trend of spending – or they may have reached their maximum payroll. Despite playing in Colorado, their bats are the worst in the National League (when factoring in ballparks) with a wRC+ of 80. The Rockies need offense to contend. They don’t have room to take on contracts, nor do they have a strong farm system to utilize in trades. The Rockies front office has shown a willingness to spend (see the above comment on their offseason), and may want to push for contention during their prime years – while Blackmon is younger and Arenado still under their control.
By all accounts, the Pittsburgh Pirates are rebuilding. They moved Gerrit Cole and Andrew McCutchen during the offseason to save money, despite having the pieces to, on paper, appear in contention. Implied by the moves is that the Pirates were operating close to their maximum payroll – despite those moves, they’re running their highest payroll ever – and prioritized savings over spending and contending in their final year with Andrew McCutchen. They don’t have the farm system to draw on in trades, nor payroll to take on contracts. Most signals point towards the Pirates selling. Moves like the Dickerson acquisition, however, remind us that the Pirates aren’t trying to lose games and, in shrewd ways, will seek to win. Should an opportunity arise in which the Pirates can improve without increasing payroll or mortgaging the future, they may buy.
If the Mets’ ownership were willing to spend, they’d be buyers. At least, according to their fans – the Mets are running their largest payroll ever ($175 million) and have shown no indication that they plan to sell. They have the second-oldest group of batters and a weak farm system, though. Like most of these contending teams, the Mets need batters and, like most of these teams, don’t appear to have payroll or prospects to acquire them. Injuries have bitten the Mets as well, with their arguable top bat and arguable top pitcher both landing on the DL (Cespedes and Syndergaard). Unless the ownership is willing to cross the luxury tax threshold, the Mets likely will sell or stay put at the deadline. Their performance in the next few weeks may dictate whether they buy, which would be difficult, or sell.
All four of these teams have payroll and farm system limitations on their abilities to buy. Similarly, all four teams may not see contention for a while. Whether or not they should buy or sell likely will be determined by one of two things: their performances over the next few weeks and their ownership. If any of these teams hit a slump, or go on a hot streak, the decision to buy or sell becomes easier. If ownership or the front office realize future contention will be far away and one last push is worth it, they may buy regardless of what happens over the next few weeks.
Overall, the trade market in the National League seems murky. There are clear buyers, clear sellers, and quite a few unsure teams. The next few weeks should dictate whether these bubble teams buy or sell. Regardless of what they do, one thing is certain – the trade market will be active.
Note: Given the amount of time and research required to write this piece, I do not plan on writing an American League version. The amount of detail required to determine how teams should act is beyond what my schedule allows me to research and discuss. I left out quite a bit in this NL version (such as divisional strength over the next few years, etc.).