Andrew Friedman's friends in the industry and executives who've dealt with the Los Angeles Dodgers' president of baseball operations through the years can attest that he is no fan of July transactions. Friedman prefers to shape his roster in the quiet of winter, when trade discussions have time to marinate and deals aren't driven by emotion or an externally generated "sense of urgency.'' This is the way he rolls.
Last summer, when the Dodgers were scrambling for a postseason berth, Friedman went outside his comfort zone and traded pitching prospects Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas and Grant Holmes to the Oakland Athletics for pitcher Rich Hill and outfielder Josh Reddick. The Dodgers went on to win the National League West, but it was the type of short-term deal that Friedman studiously tried to avoid over a decade with the budget-conscious Tampa Bay Rays.
This summer, Friedman is operating from a position of strength. The Dodgers are playing .760 ball since April 24, and they lead the West by 11 games over the Colorado Rockies. They can nap and drink lattes through the July 31 non-waiver deadline and still be assured home-field advantage throughout the NL playoffs -- and quite possibly the World Series.
"I think all the work Andrew did was to put himself in a position where he didn't need to be desperate in July,'' said an American League front-office man. "They have a really deep team, so they don't necessarily need more depth. They need impact.''
Jeff Luhnow, Friedman's counterpart with the Houston Astros, is similarly at liberty to do what he prefers rather than what others expect him to do. The Astros are 63-32 and 15½ games up on Seattle in the American League West. Even the loss of shortstop and MVP candidate Carlos Correa for six to eight weeks to a torn thumb ligament won't deter their joyride to a division title.
Luhnow, who keeps a tight circle of advisers and likes nothing more than beating Twitter with his trade announcements, hasn't shared many hints about his deadline intentions. But he's more of a swashbuckler than his stathead reputation suggests, and he's ready to pounce if the opportunity arises.
"Knowing what I know about Jeff, there are some serious aggressive machinations to find that starter or bullpen guy,'' said an AL talent evaluator.
Now that the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs, Arizona Diamondbacks and New York Yankees have made significant deadline acquisitions, the attention is about to shift to MLB's twin juggernauts and their trade-deadline activity. Will the Dodgers make a push for Oakland A's starter Sonny Gray, fortify the bullpen or add a right-handed outfield bat? And will the Astros add a pitcher to help complement MLB's most prolific offense?
Amid the deadline drama, the respective front offices have two things in common: (1) They're focusing on postseason impact, given that the playoffs are inevitable; and (2) they both have the flexibility to say no.
The Dodgers, in the midst of a 31-4 run, have to wonder if they're tempting fate by messing with a good thing. But this much is clear:
They have a legitimate interest in Baltimore reliever Zach Britton, and they think he's capable of teaming with closer Kenley Jansen to bring a 2014-15 Wade Davis-Greg Holland Kansas City Royals dynamic to Chavez Ravine. But the Dodgers are skeptical that Orioles owner Peter Angelos will sign off on a trade for Britton, and they're unsure if he's ready for the grind of high-leverage appearances after missing two months with a forearm strain. Britton has yet to pitch consecutive days since his return from the disabled list July 5.
The Dodgers have told potential trade partners they're extremely hesitant to part with minor league outfielder Alex Verdugo and pitchers Walker Buehler and Yadier Alvarez. It might be a reach to classify those three prospects as "untouchable,'' but they're the closest thing the Dodgers have to the hallowed ground occupied by Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger and Julio Urias in recent years.
The Dodgers regard themselves as "opportunistic buyers'' because the team has no glaring weakness. They're third in the National League in runs, lead the league in starter (3.09) and bullpen (2.92) ERA and rank second to Cincinnati in defensive runs saved, so they're the definition of a well-rounded club. Last year, manager Dave Roberts' lineup was vulnerable against left-handed pitching. This year, Justin Turner, Logan Forsythe and Chris Taylor have remedied that problem. The Dodgers rank first among NL clubs with 43 homers and an .818 OPS vs. lefties.
While Friedman and his group are constantly churning ideas and staying light on their feet, they've yet to encounter a proposal that has enticed them to take the plunge. An injury or sudden shift in the market could change that, but it won't come as a tremendous shock if they refrain from a big headline maker of a deal. Things are a little more complicated in Houston, where Luhnow has multiple pitching targets on his radar. But the combination of a thin market and Luhnow's high standards has clouded the picture.
The Astros lead the American League in starter ERA (3.87) and batting average against (.241), and they have a pair of All-Stars at the top of the rotation. Dallas Keuchel showed that overpowering velocity isn't a prerequisite for October success against the Yankees and Royals in the 2015 playoffs. Lance McCullers Jr. provides a nice contrast with his power stuff from the right side, and the Astros have the latitude to reduce his workload down the stretch so that he can be fresh going into October.
So who comes after that? "My guess is, if they get a starter, it will be someone who starts a playoff game for them,'' said an American League general manager. The Astros viewed former White Sox starter Jose Quintana in that light, but the Cubs snatched him away with a package of outfield prospect Eloy Jimenez and three other minor leaguers. Most of the other starters that Luhnow covets are either unattainable or cost-prohibitive in terms of the talent outlay required.
Chris Archer isn't going anywhere with Tampa Bay in the wild-card hunt. The Toronto Blue Jays would move Marco Estrada, Francisco Liriano and possibly J.A. Happ, but Marcus Stroman and Aaron Sanchez are off limits. The Detroit Tigers have made Justin Verlander available, but prefer to hang on to Michael Fulmer.
For all the Julio Teheran speculation making the rounds, the Atlanta Braves are inclined to keep him because they regard him as part of the team's long-term future. Teheran has been only so-so this year, regardless. Gerrit Cole would require a huge prospect haul for Houston to make a deal with the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are close enough to the wild card to dissuade them from becoming sellers. And baseball would officially freak out if the Texas Rangers traded Yu Darvish or Cole Hamels to Houston to help the Astros make a World Series run.
If Luhnow can't land a starter, manager A.J. Hinch has several internal options. Maybe he goes with Mike Fiers, who's 5-2 with a 2.50 ERA since May 30. Or Charlie Morton, who has struck out 78 batters in 68⅔ innings. Or Collin McHugh, who returns to the rotation Saturday after missing 3½ months with an elbow impingement.
The Cleveland Indians reached the World Series last year with a rotation so thin that Ryan Merritt came up from Triple-A to pitch against Toronto in the deciding game of the American League Championship Series. By that definition, Houston isn't in such dire straits.
The Astros ultimately have to decide if Gray is enough of an improvement over their other starters to take a dive into the prospect bin.
"Do you give up [outfielder] Kyle Tucker or [pitcher] Francis Martes for a small, marginal difference in that Game 3?'' said a scout. "I don't know. Do you give it up to get Britton? Maybe you do.''
Under a Plan B scenario, Luhnow has the option of strengthening the back end. If he can add Britton or San Diego lefty Brad Hand to a bullpen mix that includes Ken Giles, Chris Devenski, Will Harris and Luke Gregerson, five innings might be plenty. As the Royals and Indians have shown in recent years, all those off days in the schedule make it easier for teams to cobble together 12 outs a game in the postseason.
Houston's offense gives the pitching staff lots of margin for error. The Astros lead MLB with 557 runs and a .500 slugging percentage. They've struck out a majors-low 634 times and rank 10th among the 30 clubs in stolen bases, so they're a different team than the strikeout-laden group that lost to Kansas City in the playoffs two years ago. That combination of power, contact and speed makes it tough to envision them being shut down in October, regardless of the opposition.
"Run-scoring is definitely suppressed in the playoffs, but this team is going to score in the postseason,'' a scout said. "I don't think they need lockdown pitching with an under-2.00 ERA to win it.''
Like their fellow powerhouses in Los Angeles, the Astros have spent four months proving how good they are. Over the next 10 days, they'll have to decide the price they're willing to pay to get better.