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Monday, June 09, 2008

A month ago, it was still appropriate to spout platitudes like "It's still early," "It's a long season," and "Let's not be hasty," but with more than a third of the season in the books, the draft completed, and the All-Star Break less than a month away, it is time for GMs to give serious consideration to the State of the Franchise.

The good news is, at the start of the second week of June, only four franchises have no option but to start looking toward next year: the Washington Nationals, the Kansas City Royals, the Colorado Rockies, and the Seattle Mariners. Of those four, only the Mariners and Rockies entered the season with any serious hope of contention, although, one could argue, the Royals are also underachieving.

It is also good news that two out of every three franchises in MLB are within two games of .500, meaning the vast majority of fans still have plenty of reasons for optimism. Even some of the significantly under .500 teams - Cincinnati, Detroit, Cleveland, and San Diego - have enough talent and have played well enough for prolonged stretches to keep hope alive. The Padres, for example, looked buried only a couple weeks ago, but a 10-4 stretch which included a four game sweep of the Mets has them 6 1/2 games back of the scuffling Diamondbacks, with Jake Peavy due back at the end of the week. Kevin Kouzmanoff and Khalil Greene, two Friar's biggest offensive disappointments thus far, both historically perform better in the second half. It remains to be seen whether San Diego will be buying or selling over the next two months.

On the other hand, some teams would be best served to start looking ahead sooner rather than later, even though they still appear to be within striking distance of contention. Texas (32-33, 7.5 GB), San Francisco (28-35, 5.5 GB), Houston (32-32, 8 GB), and Baltimore (32-32, 7 GB) have all given their fans reason to be more optimistic than they might have been a couple months ago, but each has holes so gaping there is no hope of fixing them with a mid-season makeover. The Rangers and Astros are both at least three quality pitchers short of a respectable starting rotation, while San Francisco and Baltimore are both near the bottom of their respective leagues in scoring because they both are stuck using minor-league quality players at multiple positions. I'm not recommending that any of these teams resort to wholesale house-cleaning, which may be necessary in Colorado and Seattle, but they could probably sell off spare parts like Randy Winn, Ty Wigginton, Marlon Byrd, and Kevin Millar for more than they are really worth.

Last year the eventual final four - Arizona, Boston, Cleveland, and Colorado - all stood pat at the deadline. Of the playoff teams, only the Cubs (Jason Kendall) and Yankees (Roger Clemens) made significant deadline acquisitions. This year promises to be quite different. A rash of Red Sox injuries and the annual Yankee pitching ineffectiveness makes both teams likely buyers. The Mets and the Tigers, both franchises scuffling badly, but designed to win now, are likely to be prone to rash decisions. Ozzie Guillen recently demanded some new faces for his first-place White Sox. Atlanta's got real pitching problems with Smoltz done for the season. The Cubs don't have any glaring holes, but Jim Hendry is known for making midseason trades and fans around Wrigley are finally smelling a legitimate championship contender.

The biggest question may be how this season's bevy of surprisingly strong clubs - the Marlins, Rays, Cardinals, and Athletics - will respond to the stretch drive. The Rays, especially, despite the strength of their division, seem to have enough pieces to stay in contention to the end. They have a deep farm system, which makes them one of the teams best suited to make a blockbuster. A front-of-the-rotation arm or middle-of-the-order bat could be enough to put them over the top. On the other hand, many predicted that Billy Beane would spend the whole season cutting ties with his most valuable assets. Being in second-place might not change that approach, as it likely only raises the value of Joe Blanton, Huston Street, Rich Harden, Bobby Crosby, Mark Ellis, and Eric Chavez. The Cardinals biggest question mark, starting pitching, may be buoyed by the return of Chris Carpenter, Mark Mulder, and Matt Clement in the coming month or so. If all come back strong, they Cards, currently positioned to be the NL Wild Card, might be buying.

Here are the most sought after commodities in the next six weeks and the teams which will be seeking them, broken into Suckers (franchises whose desperation will lead them to mortgage the farm), Sellers (teams likely to drop out of the race and start making deals), and Sleepers (teams whose performance in the next three weeks could lead them to make a surprise deal at the deadline).

1. Starting Pitching

Suckers: Yankees, Tigers, Mets, Phillies, Braves
Sellers: Athletics (Joe Blanton, Rich Harden), Padres (Greg Maddux, Randy Wolf), Mariners (Erik Bedard, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista), Rockies (Aaron Cook), Rangers (Kevin Millwood)
Sleepers: Cubs, Rays, Brewers, Cardinals, Indians (C. C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee), Twins (Scott Baker, Boof Bonser, Livan Hernandez)

Like every year, the most common weakness is all the greatest necessity for postseason success, starting pitching. This year, however, there is more quality on the market than normal, especially if the Indians elect to deal Sabathia and/or Lee. Sabthia, Bedard, and Hardne are all top-tier Aces who could set a rotation up nicely for playoff dominance, but the price will be very steep and one has to question whether the Yankees can afford to give up Melky Cabrera or Robinson Cano, whether the Mets would be willing to deal Fernando Martinez, and whether the Tigers have anything left to auction off for such a big-name player.

In the end, the best move might be made by a team that already has a frontline starter or two, but secures depth in the form of Joe Blanton, Greg Maddux, or Aaron Cook. Also, like the Athletics, look for the Twins to consider making moves even if they are still hovering close to contention. Nothing gets the big boys salivating like young high-potential starting pitching. Minnesota has lots of it in the majors and high minors: Francisco Liriano, Boof Bonser, Scott Baker, Glen Perkins, Kevin Slowey, Nick Blackburn, Phillip Humber, Kevin Mulvey, and Anthony Swarzak. There isn't enough room in their rotation for all of these guys. Liriano is probably the only one that is untouchable.

2. Center Fielder

Suckers: Cubs, Braves, White Sox, Padres
Sellers: Royals (David DeJesus), Rockies (Willy Taveras), Athletics (Ryan Sweeney, Rajai Daivs), Red Sox (Coco Crisp), Reds (Corey Patterson, Norris Hopper, Ryan Freel)
Sleepers: Dodgers (Juan Pierre), Yankees (Melky Cabrera)

At the beginning of the season it looked like Coco Crisp would be the hottest commodity on the market come June. A premier defensive outfielder with great speed, flashes of power, and switch-hitting ability would surely yield a pretty strong return from a team like Cubs or Padres with no true center-fielder. And, he still might. However, the injury to Big Papi, combined with a nagging injury to Jacoby Ellsbury, and the always tender J. D. Drew and Manny Ramirez, makes it very difficult for the Red Sox to justify dealing Crisp. What they need is bats and gloves (what with the depth of the pitching corps) and Crisp isn't likely to return anything much better than what he himself possesses. So, if appears that David DeJesus and Willy Taveras will the cream of the center-field crop. DeJesus matches best with the Cubs, who would prefer a left-handed hitter and a guy who could hit lower in the order. Taveras is a pure leadoff hitter, while DeJesus has a little bit of power (.444 SLG) to go along with his OBP skills (.362). What the Cubs really want is a guy who could bat fifth, allowing Fukudome to move up in the order, but such a player doesn't appear likely to become available, unless perhaps Hendry could engineer a Melky Cabrera for Rich Hill swap.

The White Sox would really like to move Swisher to a corner spot, first base, or DH, but they are filled up around the horn (Carlos Quentin, Jermaine Dye, Paul Konerko, or Jim Thome), which could mean that Swisher becomes available...

3. Corner Outfielders

Suckers: Mets, Tigers, Blue Jays, Indians, Padres
Sellers: Reds (Adam Dunn, Ken Griffy Jr.), Pirates (Jason Bay, Xavier Nady), White Sox (Nick Swisher), Mariners (Raul Ibanez)
Sleepers: Rays, Rockies (Matt Holliday), Dodgers (Andre Ethier), Cardinals (Ryan Ludwick, Skip Schumaker)

This is only position at which there might be some potent bats available. The Reds and Pirates seem likely to drop out of contention soon. Cincinnati has been shopping Dunn and Griffey for years, and Pittsburgh will need to make room for Andrew McCutcheon and Steven Pearce in the near future. The Cardinals will eventually hand center field to Colby Rasmus and move Rick Ankiel to right. One has to wonder whether the value for Ludwick or Schumaker will ever be higher. If the Rockies make Holliday available, many more big-market teams will get into the mix, but that seems unlikely. With that exception, if a team give up two quality prospects for any one of these guys, they're getting ripped off.

4. Relief Pitching

Suckers: Yankees, Tigers, Braves, Brewers, Indians
Sellers: Athletics (Huston Street, Keith Foulke, Alan Embree), Rockies (Brian Fuentes, Taylor Buchholz), Pirates (Damaso Marte, John Grabow), Giants (Tyler Walker, Jack Taschner, Brad Hennessey)
Sleepers: Mets (Aaron Heilman, Scott Schoenweis)

If the season were to end today, of the eight teams qualifying for the postseason, five would be in the top ten in MLB in bullpen ERA, and three in the top five. The other three - the Red Sox, Angels, and Cardinals - are likely to climb upward, especially the Red Sox and Angels which each feature a trio of reputable relievers at the back end of games. Papelbon, Okajim, and Delcarmen in Boston. K-Rod, Shield, and Speier in Anaheim. Cleveland and Detroit rank 28th and 29th in bullpen ERA, which is the biggest explanation for their disappointing seasons so far. The return of Borowski, Rodney, and Zumaya to those pens could spark a second-half resurgence.

Good teams are very unlikely to deal away any of their depth, but bad teams may sell off their entire relief corps. It's a good way to acquire value (i.e. Eric Gagne for Kason Gabbard and David Murphy last season).

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