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The Nine Biggest Questions Before the Trade Deadline

Getty Images/Ringer illustration
Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Welcome to The Lineup! This is a weekly column that will examine — you guessed it — nine topics from the world of baseball in numbered order.

1 What did the Drew Pomeranz trade do for the pitching market?

I’m not convinced it did that much. For starters, I don’t think for a second that Boston is ready to stand pat.

Not only could Boston still stand to make a move for a catcher, or even add another starting pitcher, but the Pomeranz trade also didn’t leave the prospect cupboard bare. ESPN’s Keith Law ranked the Red Sox farm system as the third-best in the league even after they traded away Anderson Espinoza, the no. 14 prospect in his midseason rankings. So Boston still has some ammo to go after a big name at the deadline if president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and GM Mike Hazen want to. Plus, Espinoza’s not exactly the kind of prospect who sets the market. Espinoza is 18 years old and pitching in low-A. Talented though he is, it’s not like every team will reach a consensus valuation of Espinoza the way they could with a more conventional prospect who’s closer to the majors, like Houston’s Alex Bregman.

As far as diluting the pitching market, the Pomeranz move takes one good starter off the market, but it’s anyone’s guess how many good starters are actually on the market right now. It’s expected that Oakland lefty Rich Hill, a free agent after the season, will be on the move, but he has struggled with an ill-timed blister on his pitching hand since the All-Star break, which could delay a trade. Tampa Bay is out of contention, and the Rays have as many as four quality young starters — Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Matt Moore, and Drew Smyly — to trade. Not only are all four having down years, which would make this a bad time for Tampa to sell on any of them, but they’re also all locked up for multiple years after the 2016 season, so Tampa could wait until the offseason to make a deal, or simply hold on and hope things get better next season.

Last year, David Price, Johnny Cueto, and Cole Hamels all moved at the deadline, and while a lot can happen in a week and a half, it’s very unlikely that anyone that good moves this year. Pomeranz going to Boston reduces the options of every other team in need of a pitcher, but we’ll need another trade or two to know for sure how that affects what other pitchers cost.

2 Does that Kyle Schwarber–for–Andrew Miller trade make sense?

The one trade rumor that won’t go away this year is the deal that sends left-handed reliever Andrew Miller to the Cubs and de facto DH Kyle Schwarber to the Yankees. As fake trades go, this one’s pretty good, because where you land on it depends on how you value not only the two players involved, but also pitching versus hitting, and the present versus the future.

First off, let’s assume that the Yankees, who are 47–46 with a 9.2 percent shot of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus, are out of it. That might not actually be true, but if the Yankees want to make the playoffs this year, they’re not going to trade for an injured Schwarber, and this exercise becomes pointless.

But if the Yankees are out of it, this is a near-perfect win-now move for the Cubs and a near-perfect rebuilding move for the Yankees. Schwarber, who’s out for the year after going full Willis McGahee on his left knee in April, provides zero value for Chicago in 2016, but as a polished 23-year-old slugger with five more years of team control before free agency, he’d offer a trade partner nearly as much potential value as any less proven prospect, with almost none of the uncertainty. With the Cubs set at first base and both outfield corners spoken for, a trade to the American League would likely do Schwarber good. The Cubs and Schwarber tried as hard as they could to make an Evan Gattis–type catcher-outfield hybrid role work, but that’s too much to ask going forward. Also, a trade to the Yankees would force Schwarber to shave off his unfortunate goatee. Imagine how good of a hitter Schwarber could be if he weren’t splitting his attention between baseball and his System of a Down cover band.

Under most circumstances, you wouldn’t trade a cost-controlled player like Schwarber for a relief pitcher, but Miller’s not your average relief pitcher.

Miller’s got a 1.31 ERA in 41.1 innings, but the big selling number on him is 45.2, his strikeout rate. That’s a preposterous number, the third highest in baseball history (minimum 40 appearances). He’s having the kind of season that makes me wish we hadn’t cheapened the word “unhittable” by using it on, like, Kenley Jansen. And it’s not just about the 30 or 40 innings Miller could provide the Cubs this year — it’s about the playoffs, when you could spend one inning on Miller in almost every close game over the course of a postseason, if you wanted to. Plus, he’s locked up through 2018, at $9 million a year, which is more than Schwarber’s near-league-minimum salary, but if the plutocratic owners of the Cubs and Yankees are haggling over money, we’ve gone horribly wrong.

From a sheer WAR perspective, there’s almost no way two years and change of Miller is worth five years of Schwarber, but raw WAR totals don’t do Miller justice. Not only can Miller contribute immediately, but he can contribute in targeted high-leverage situations, and if Miller’s a three-win player (Baseball-Reference has him at 2.0 WAR so far this year) even by context-neutral stats, that makes him an immensely valuable player over the length of his deal.

Of course, Schwarber’s not useless to the Cubs forever — even if Anthony Rizzo blocks him at his natural position, the Cubs could keep rolling him out in left — nor is Miller useless to the Yankees in the future, or even now. It would be foolish to trade several future years of Schwarber for a rental reliever, but because Miller isn’t a rental, and because Schwarber’s less valuable to the Cubs than perhaps any other team in the majors, I’d make this trade if I were Chicago’s (or New York’s) GM. No team knows better than the Cubs that flags fly forever.

3 Where’s Yasiel Puig going?

Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports reported that the Dodgers are listening to offers on their controversial right fielder, and sure, why not? I bet GM Farhan Zaidi and president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman have pretty big cellphone plans, so it doesn’t hurt to take calls from and send texts to the other 29 GMs who might want to acquire Puig, just to see if it lands a Godfather offer. Because let’s be clear: If it’s not literally 29 other GMs who are interested in Puig, it should be close to that number.

There are legitimate reasons, both on and off the field, for the Dodgers to dangle Puig, or to even legitimately want him gone. But here’s the counterargument: Even if Puig’s a genuinely disruptive force in the clubhouse, Friedman, while running the Tampa Bay Rays, continuously handed chances to the likes of Josh Sale and Josh Lueke.

One major flaw in baseball vernacular is that the same term, “makeup issues,” gets used as shorthand for a variety of personalities, ranging from being a person of color and having a personality to being a legitimately bad guy. Maybe Puig actually is a legitimately bad guy, but Friedman’s track record suggests that being a legitimately bad guy just makes you a target for arbitrage. And not that this would matter in a perfect world, but it does: Sale was a Single-A washout and Lueke was a replacement-level relief pitcher. Puig is a 25-year-old, middle-of-the-order bat with a pair of All-Star-caliber seasons on his Baseball-Reference page and two and a half years left on a team-friendly contract. For better or worse, better players get more rope.

The Dodgers are themselves trying to make the playoffs this year, and if Puig leaves, they’re going to need outfielders. Trayce Thompson and Enrique Hernández are hurt, and Joc Pederson was just activated from the DL on Tuesday. Howie Kendrick is an aging second baseman miscast as a left fielder, where he’s posted an 84 OPS+. Scott Van Slyke is hitting .239/.307/.358, and a 34-year-old Andre Ethier recovering from a broken leg isn’t an upgrade from Puig.

The only way Puig moves is in the kind of deal that sent Manny Ramírez from Boston to Los Angeles in 2008. The Red Sox rid themselves of a very good but annoying star and picked up Jason Bay, a similar player who wasn’t quite as good, but who was much less annoying.

Now, if the Dodgers wanted to make that kind of trade, that’d be a lot of fun. But unless they get a player of similar quality back, it makes no sense to trade Puig now.

4 Who would be interested in Jurickson Profar?

I very much enjoyed the following headline from MLB Trade Rumors: “Rangers Receiving Heavy Interest in Jurickson Profar.”

One would imagine: The 23-year-old Profar is hitting .316/.364/.451 in a part-time role while playing all four infield positions. Sure, he’s had only 143 big league plate appearances after missing two years with shoulder injuries, but those two years off are the only reason Profar’s potentially available at all. Profar was the consensus no. 1 prospect in baseball before the 2013 season, ahead of Gerrit Cole, José Fernandez, Xander Bogaerts, Byron Buxton, Chris Archer, and Carlos Correa. This isn’t 1997 Craig Counsell; this is Odysseus coming back after 20 years at sea to take back his home and avenge himself upon the assholes who are hanging around, hitting on his wife.

Therefore, it makes sense that a team would try to capitalize on any small-sample-size uncertainty over Profar’s gaudy stats and aim to pick up the next Bogaerts or Correa on the cheap. Rangers GM Jon Daniels could use Profar to get pitching — outside of Yu Darvish and Cole Hamels, the Rangers don’t have much in the way of trustworthy starters — or perhaps trade for Milwaukee’s Jonathan Lucroy.

Of course, perhaps Daniels’s best move as a GM — trading for Josh Hamilton — involved going after a preposterously talented player who’d performed well in a short stint after a long layoff, albeit for different reasons. So, Daniels likely won’t give away Profar cheaply, particularly considering that Adrián Beltré’s age and Elvis Andrus’s propensity to stop hitting for long stretches of time make Profar a worthwhile utilityman for the Rangers.

The Texas farm system isn’t what it was before the promotions of Nomar Mazara and Rougned Odor, along with the Hamels trade, but there’s still enough young talent for Daniels to make a big win-now trade without touching Profar.

5 What does Rich Hill’s blister mean?

It’s amazing that a pitcher with Hill’s history has found new injuries to suffer, but a blister on his throwing hand knocked the Oakland left-hander’s first start after the break back two days, then forced him out of that start after only five pitches. This isn’t Tommy John or anything, but it puts Oakland in a weird spot.

At this point, Hill’s value to the A’s rests entirely in his ability to get Oakland other players, most likely in a deadline deal. Oakland should really only hang onto Hill if no team offers a better return than the compensation pick the A’s would receive if he rejected a qualifying offer and went off as a free agent. Given that Hill’s probably the best pitcher on the market right now, someone ought to pay at least that price.

The problem is that if you trade for Hill right now, you’d get only about 12 regular-season starts out of him before the playoffs. If he gets scratched even once, that reduces his regular-season value by 8 percent. And if you wait to see if he can go six or seven innings without developing another blister in his next start, that’s also 8 percent off his regular-season value.

Now, the primary reason any team would trade for Hill is because of the upgrade he’d represent over an existing no. 4 starter in the playoffs, but these lost starts in the regular season are a nontrivial cost, particularly for a team that hasn’t locked up a playoff spot yet.

6 What dominoes could Alex Bregman push over?

Turns out the AL West wasn’t decided after all. Houston has cut the gap between it and Texas from 10 games to 4.5 in the past three weeks, and that puts the Astros within a good week of first place.

Houston could further turn up the heat on the Rangers without even making a trade. Minor league infielder Alex Bregman is the most impactful potential call-up left in this pennant race, an on-base machine who has speed and decent power at third base. The 22-year-old’s true home is the middle of the diamond, but with Carlos Correa and José Altuve in the fold, the Astros have second base and shortstop pretty well covered.

Questions about Bregman’s arrival are already a daily routine in the Houston media. He’s like Nikolai Gogol’s titular government inspector with a plus hit tool.

If and when Houston does promote Bregman, that means the Astros have to make room for him in the lineup. Right now, Luis Valbuena is doing just fine at third base, hitting .262/.361/.465. Valbuena could move over to first base, displacing A.J. Reed, who, like Valbuena, is a left-handed hitter. Reed could move into a platoon at DH with the right-handed Evan Gattis, who is himself now sharing time behind the plate with Jason Castro, but Gattis’s lack of a severe platoon split and his utility behind the plate really might just mean less playing time for the still-developing Reed, a 23-year-old rookie and 2014 second-round pick who’s posted a 44 OPS+ in 49 plate appearances. Benching Reed could stunt his growth, while sending him down would represent a step back for a young player that the Astros were counting on to contribute, but who still hasn’t gotten much of a chance to prove himself.

One alternative is to make a trade. Valbuena might be a candidate for a contender with a vacancy at an infield corner, but since he’s a free agent at the end of the year, he wouldn’t return much. The other option is a blockbuster move for a young top-of-the-rotation starter who was once thought untouchable. A prospect of Bregman’s quality could get the ball rolling on Archer or Oakland’s Sonny Gray, for instance. That might be a dream for a deadline with few stars on the move, but it’s an option if Astros GM Jeff Luhnow feels like trying to shoot the moon.

7 Can Jonathan Lucroy get to a contender?

The Brewers haven’t traded Jonathan Lucroy yet because, after he followed up an MVP-caliber 2014 with a mediocre 2015, it didn’t make sense to sell low on him. Better to give him a few months to rebuild his value and really cash in. Well, it worked: Through 85 games, Lucroy’s hit .305/.362/.494 and made the All-Star team. Milwaukee’s star catcher is due only the rest of his $4.35 million salary this year, plus a $5.25 million option for 2017, and he’d be a steal at even four times his salary.

With Lucroy himself angling for a trade to a contender, it’s time for Milwaukee to make a move. Among current contenders, the Cubs, Nationals, Cardinals, Orioles, Royals, Blue Jays, and Marlins have no need for a catcher. The Giants have so little need for a catcher they deserve their own sentence. The Mets, Pirates, and Tigers could probably stand an upgrade behind the plate — or in New York’s case, insurance for another potential Travis d’Arnaud injury — and the Dodgers already have Yasmani Grandal, whose 103 OPS+ hardly cries out for him to be replaced.

That leaves three of the American League’s top four teams in terms of both record and playoff probability — Cleveland, Boston, and Texas — as having the greatest need for a catcher. Cleveland just lost Yan Gomes for four to eight weeks to a separated shoulder probably brought on by a clumsy use of occult magic, but with Gomes hitting .165/.198/.313 this year, the Indians basically haven’t had a catcher all season — why start now?

Boston could dip into the well to upgrade on Sandy León, but Texas could match any Red Sox offer by putting together a package that starts with outfielder Lewis Brinson, a rangy 22-year-old center fielder who came in at no. 22 on the Baseball Prospectus midseason prospect rankings. If the Rangers felt like they could part with the big bat of corner man Joey Gallo, they could probably blow any other offer away. Replacing a Bobby Wilson–Robinson Chirinos pairing with Lucroy would make Texas’s lineup nearly as formidable as Boston’s, but if Boston gets Lucroy, that lineup could be unstoppable.

8 Which one player is most likely to move before the deadline?

A less successful version of the Rich Hill gambit involved the Philadelphia Phillies and right-hander Jeremy Hellickson. This offseason, Arizona traded Hellickson and his arbitration-eligible contract to Philadelphia for minor league pitcher Sam McWilliams, whose name you’ll probably never need to know. Philadelphia signed Hellickson to a one-year, $7 million deal in January to avoid arbitration, and the 29-year-old responded with his best season since 2012, posting a 102 ERA+ in 111.2 innings. That’s not a game-changing starter, but several teams with an eye on the playoffs — Baltimore, Miami, even Boston — could miss the postseason for want of an average starting pitcher.

Since Hellickson hasn’t been as dominant as Hill this season, there’s less of a chance that he’ll be worthy of a qualifying offer this offseason. And if he is, there’s a nontrivial possibility that he’ll sign it, leaving the Phillies on the hook for around $16 million next year. Meanwhile, the Phillies have a few starting pitching prospects in the high minors who could use Hellickson’s spot in the rotation as an audition — much as Jerad Eickhoff did with Cole Hamels’s rotation spot last year. Hellickson won’t net the Phillies a top-100 prospect, but there’s no reason for a trade not to happen.

9 What’s Baltimore’s big move?

The Orioles don’t have a flashy, aggressive front office like Boston, but they are in first place, and they do have several holes to fill if they want to stay there. Baltimore didn’t get any prospects into Baseball Prospectus’s midseason top 50, and Law listed only catcher Chance Sisco among his top 50, with pitcher Hunter Harvey — who just went to see Dr. James Andrews — among the honorable mentions.

Baltimore doesn’t have a no. 1 starter right now, and absent a Bregman or Gallo in the farm system, that’s not going to change, particularly in this market for starting pitching. That’s the bad news.

The good news is threefold: First, even if you count on surprises like Mark Trumbo to regress, Baltimore’s lineup is solid. So is the bullpen.

Second, Baltimore’s weak rotation is easy to fix. Right now, the Orioles would start Chris Tillman and Kevin Gausman in the first two games of a playoff series, then most likely attempt to burrow through subspace to an alternate timeline when Yovani Gallardo and Ubaldo Jiménez didn’t both go into the tank at age 30, then start Mirror Gallardo and Mirror Jiménez in Games 3 and 4. Even adding a relatively cheap rental — like Hellickson — could improve the rotation in a way that it couldn’t if the Orioles were like the Astros and just had a bunch of below-average pitchers. Hellickson’s a bigger upgrade over Ubaldo than he would be over, say, Mike Fiers.

Third, if Dylan Bundy, who made the first start of his career Sunday, is even decent, the rotation’s still bad, but it’s not as bad as it looks. The no. 4 pick in the 2011 draft, Bundy made his big league debut in 2012 at age 19, then got hurt, had Tommy John, and didn’t come back until this year, because the Orioles are worse at developing and protecting young pitchers than any other big league franchise is at any other task essential to building a winning baseball team.

But let’s say they make that one move and Bundy turns out to be OK: Tillman-Gausman-Bundy-Hellickson’s not going to scare anyone in October, but it’ll get you to that knockout bullpen just fine. A big offense and a shaky rotation has gotten teams to the playoffs before; the 2007 Rockies rode a team like that all the way to the World Series. The Orioles might not make the biggest move of the deadline phase, but, if they’re smart, they stand to benefit a great deal from one or two minor moves.