Baltimore Orioles general manager Dan Duquette mentioned to reporters Saturday that the second wild card adds hope. That is true, but it also adds a whole lot of uncertainty in the trade market, as American League teams such as the Orioles, the Texas Rangers, the Seattle Mariners and the Los Angeles Angels weigh the question of buying or selling. In the National League, a lot of the trade intrigue is rooted in the NL Central race, in which four teams are separated by 4½ games.
This time of year, small samples can mean everything. The Pittsburgh Pirates, for example, have won 12 of their past 16 -- and they have upcoming West Coast series against two of baseball's worst teams, the San Francisco Giants and the San Diego Padres. Their context could completely change with a great week or a lousy week.
With time running down to the July 31 trade deadline, there are so many factors for club presidents and general managers to consider.
Some of the biggest questions entering the last week:
Will the Rangers move Yu Darvish?
Whether Darvish is traded or not, the Rangers would like to bring the All-Star pitcher back for 2018. Rival executives expect that with Texas barely hanging on the fringe of the wild-card race, Texas GM Jon Daniels will set a very high price on Darvish and challenge teams such as the New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs and Los Angeles Dodgers to step up. If nobody does, the Rangers could just carry Darvish through the season.
History shows us that Daniels is as deft at navigating through deals in the last minutes leading up to the trade deadline as any executive in baseball, playing chicken and executing proposals. Don’t be surprised if Darvish is still up for auction in the last hour.
How far will the Tigers' rebuild go?
They’ve already saved some money and added a good prospect by moving J.D. Martinez, and they’re taking offers on second baseman Ian Kinsler, catcher Alex Avila, reliever Justin Wilson, pitcher Justin Verlander and others. If Detroit makes a series of deals, a lot of the motivation will be to shed salary and get the team’s payroll more in line with the market. That's a perfectly reasonable position for new owner Chris Ilitch to take. But the transition will be painful.
What will happen with Sonny Gray?
There is some surprise among other teams that Oakland did not move Gray early this month, in the same time frame when the Chicago White Sox moved Jose Quintana because Gray is pitching well and he has demonstrated that he is healthy. Now that Darvish and other pitchers are available, the market for Gray might be somewhat muddied. But in the end, he’s one of the few young starters who can be under team control for at least this and the next two seasons, and that makes him something of an exclusive opportunity.
At the All-Star break, folks with other teams assumed that Oakland would trade Gray before the deadline because his value will never be higher, but now there is some doubt in rival camps. The Athletics could wait until the winter to market Gray against the backdrop of the free-agent market. But they also would assume the risk that something -- injury, perhaps -- could affect the pitcher’s value between now and the end of the season.
In the game of left-handed-reliever musical chairs, where will each player land?
A handful of contenders -- the Tampa Bay Rays, the Dodgers, the Houston Astros, the Boston Red Sox and perhaps the Cubs and the Colorado Rockies -- are considering the same group of lefties: Detroit’s Wilson, San Diego's Brad Hand, Pittsburgh's Tony Watson and Baltimore's Zach Britton. With each, there are complicating factors: The Padres are said to have set a huge price tag on Hand; Wilson has actually been much better against right-handed hitters than left-handed hitters; the Pirates will listen on Watson but will need to get exactly what they want because they’re in contention; and no one knows for sure if the Orioles will trade Britton or how his command will be after he missed two months because of elbow trouble.
This could play out much like when there are runs on particular positions in the NFL draft: Once one of these lefties gets traded, it could accelerate deals on the others.
Speaking of lefties: Will the Orioles trade Britton?
Duquette was talking more about buying than selling on Saturday, but then the Orioles lost Saturday evening. Their current chance to make the playoffs is a very thin 6.1 percent, according to Fangraphs. Baltimore hits the road Monday to play the Rays and Rangers, games that could add some clarity and -- if the Orioles continue to lose -- accelerate any Britton trade talks. But there is still some question about whether Duquette could get an offer that he considers suitable, given the lingering questions among scouts of whether Britton can regain his command to get back to being closer to what he was in 2016.
Will the Yankees and Red Sox add corner infielders?
The two AL East powers have very specific needs in what is an incredible buyers’ market. The Yankees want to add a left-handed-hitting first baseman, and the Red Sox have been monitoring the third-base options, while giving top prospect Rafael Devers a quick one-week audition before the deadline to see if he can handle the role. Because there is virtually no competition for players at those particular positions among the contenders, the Yankees and Red Sox are in position to wait for the market to move in their direction. The Yankees like Oakland’s Yonder Alonso, and Boston's third-base options are the New York Mets' Asdrubal Cabrera and San Francisco’s Eduardo Nunez.
How will the Rockies and Diamondbacks upgrade their pitching?
The expectation is that both of the NL wild-card leaders will add bullpen help this week, and the market could be saturated with options, from the Mets’ Addison Reed to the Angels’ David Hernandez and Bud Norris. Colorado spent heavily to try to win this year, so it figures that the Rockies will throw a few more chips into the pot, and the Arizona Diamondbacks' front office demonstrated its immediate commitment to winning by swapping for J.D. Martinez. This should be a busy week for both of these teams.
What will the Astros do?
It seems like we started counting down Houston’s magic number to clinching the AL West back in May, and the Astros continue to run away with their division. They’ve been evaluating pitching options for weeks, but sometime in the next week, we’ll learn how that huge lead impacts Jeff Luhnow’s decision-making. Will he add someone such as Britton, figuring that the lefty is the last piece the Astros need to put them over the top in October, the way the Cubs added Aroldis Chapman last year? Will he go for a less pricey option, such as the Tigers' Wilson? Or, because of the health issues of Dallas Keuchel and Lance McCullers Jr., will Luhnow focus on adding a controllable starting pitcher, such as Gray?
Will the Dodgers strike from a position of strength?
Even with Clayton Kershaw headed to the disabled list, no team is in a better place leading up to the deadline than the Dodgers, because they don’t really need anything. They have had a dominant rotation, a great bullpen, a deep lineup that has been piling up runs, and an enormous lead in the NL West.
The Dodgers can pick through bullpen options pressure-free, whether it be Britton, Wilson or Hand. Depending on what they hear from their doctors about Kershaw's back and right hip, they could engage in a chat about rotation help like Verlander, if the Tigers’ grow desperate to move the former MVP’s contract (and deliver the pitcher to a place for which he might waive his no-trade clause). They could delve into talks with the Athletics about Gray -- and keep in mind that Oakland executive Billy Beane and the Dodgers' Andrew Friedman have a history of deal-making over the last decade.
One way or the other, the Dodgers probably add a bullpen piece, like Reed. But with a great major-league team, a deep farm system, a big lead, they don’t have to do anything.