If sports are a metaphor for war, this is how war used to work sometimes: One country would conquer another, and then the defeated nation’s citizens would have to fight for their conqueror in the next war.
Baseball doesn’t actually work like this, for many good reasons, but apart from the Cubs, every team that’s about to take part in the playoffs has at least one glaring weakness that could be alleviated by plucking a player from a team that’s out of the race. So let’s see how it’d work if teams could claim opposing players for the stretch run by right of conquest.
Here are the ground rules: The cutoff is a 20 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus, as of Monday morning. Every player on a team below that line is available to be picked for the last week of the season, as well as the playoffs, by a team above that line. Draft order is determined by playoff odds in ascending order, with ties broken by win-loss record and then projected World Series win percentage, both as of Monday morning. (So the draft order would be slightly different if I’d written this Tuesday.) Once a player’s picked, he’s off the board, and all players come as is — if you pick Gerrit Cole, you don’t get the healthy version.
Pick 1: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, to the Detroit Tigers
The Tigers are actually about as bad a fit as you’ll find for Trout. They’re a team heavy on right-handed power hitters as it is. Between Cameron Maybin, J.D. Martinez, and a resurgent Justin Upton, they’ve got three good outfielders. And with Miguel Cabrera at first base and Victor Martinez at DH, there’s no real place to move one of those outfielders to accommodate Trout.
The Tigers need starting pitching insofar as any team would like an extra top-of-the-rotation starter, but their biggest need is at third base, where — God save us all — Nick Castellanos’s broken hand has forced Andrew Romine (66 OPS+) and Erick Aybar (70 full-season OPS+) into action. With Nolan Arenado and Kyle Seager available for the taking, third base is actually a deep position in this draft.
But here’s why they should take Trout anyway: First, Trout’s so good that he’s about as big an upgrade over J.D. Martinez — who by virtue of execrable right-field defense has ground his 151 OPS+ into only 2.2 WAR — as Arenado is over the replacement-level Romine. Second, taking Trout keeps anyone else from taking him.
Pick 2: José Altuve, Houston Astros, to the San Francisco Giants
I know, I know, the bullpen! But with so many great players still on the board, I can’t bring myself to take Dellin Betances with the second pick. And assuming Johnny Cueto comes back, the Giants are in pretty good shape with their rotation, so it must be a position player.
The Giants aren’t terrible at any one position, but they’ve got four guys I might look to replace: Second baseman Joe Panik, third baseman Eduardo Núñez, and outfielders Denard Span and Ángel Pagán.
This would’ve been a great fit for Trout. I thought long and hard about dumping Houston’s George Springer here to add some much-needed power, but Altuve’s actually out-slugging Springer this year, and while Minnesota’s Brian Dozier has been the better player over the past month or so, Altuve’s the better player in the long run. Despite slumping for much of August and September, he’s still hitting .338/.395/.535 overall.
It’s not perfect, because Núñez’s ability to play multiple positions would make him a more valuable bench player than Panik, but Núñez is also out-hitting Panik, which is why I’d leave him in the lineup.
Pick 3: Brian Dozier, Minnesota Twins, to the St. Louis Cardinals
Here, need and fit align. The Cardinals also need help in the bullpen, and you could make a case for taking a starting pitcher, because Carlos Martinez aside, the Cardinals’ starters have been underwhelming this year. But again, there are too many good position players out there to spend a pick on a reliever, and even though Adam Wainwright and Mike Leake have gotten hit a little this season, I still trust them to get through a playoff start without embarrassing themselves.
So Dozier it is. The Cardinals have run out a revolving door of part-timers based on matchups this year, and adding the second baseman for the next month would give them stability up the middle. Kolten Wong’s had a rough year since signing a five-year contract extension, including an 81 OPS+, a demotion to Triple-A in June, and a part-time move to the outfield. I think Wong’s still going to be a good player in the long run, but Dozier would allow the Cardinals to just put him on the shelf and let him come back fresh next year, instead of trying to get him back in a groove and win the pennant at the same time.
Then there’s the added bonus that Dozier is a cleanup hitter in what is essentially Pete Kozma’s body. The Cardinals are America’s leading source of small, scruffy utility infielders, and Dozier will fit right in.
Pick 4: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox, to the Baltimore Orioles
This is the easiest pick in the draft. The non-playoff teams are short on healthy impact starting pitchers (if they were up to their necks in Cy Young candidates, they’d probably win more games), and Sale is the best of what remains. And unlike the three teams that came before, which could use another starter as a luxury, the Orioles are going to need some real magic to get through a seven-game series with their rotation constituted the way it is.
Also, the Orioles have great uniforms. No way would Sale cut those up.
Pick 5: Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds, to the New York Mets
Somehow, the Mets have clawed their way back into a potential playoff spot despite needing, well, pretty much everything. I have no idea how they’ve done it. That’d leave their options here wide open if Terry Collins didn’t insist on playing James Loney at first base pretty much every day. I might take a shot on José Quintana to shore up the rotation, or Arenado just to remove the moral ambivalence of relying so heavily on José Reyes. But having a hitter that bad at first base is really unforgivable.
Paul Goldschmidt would work here, but his power decline this season is a little troubling. So too would Atlanta’s Freddie Freeman, who’s been about equal to Votto as a hitter, but I like Votto’s potential as a high-OBP guy to get on base in front of Yoenis Céspedes and, for that matter, Jay Bruce. The only reason Bruce has a reputation as a “run producer” is because he hit behind Votto his entire career — might as well get the band back together.
Pick 6: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves, to the Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays don’t really have that scary no. 1 starter, but with Sale off the board, there’s nobody like that for them to take anymore. And they’ve got a really deep lineup — it has two holes, one of whom is Kevin Pillar, who more than makes up for it with his glove, and with Trout gone, the next-best full-time center fielder might be … I don’t know, Odubel Herrera?
So it’s Freeman, who does two things for Toronto. First, about six weeks ago manager John Gibbons got fed up with Justin Smoak’s lackluster performance at first base — not quite Loney-esque, but conspicuously bad for a first baseman in this lineup. When José Bautista came off the DL, Gibbons moved DH Edwin Encarnación to first. Instead of going to his usual right field, Bautista went to DH, and an Ezequiel Carrera–Melvin Upton tag team took over in whichever outfield corner Michael Saunders wasn’t playing. Carrera and Upton didn’t hit either, but they improved Toronto’s outfield defense over the aging Bautista.
Freeman allows Encarnación to put his glove away, and if Bautista’s right-field defense remains problematic, Gibbons still has Carrera and Upton to use as late-inning defensive replacements.
Second, Freeman’s a left-handed hitter, and for as great a lineup as Toronto has, the only lefty it’s got who’s worth a crap is Saunders. That kind of imbalance isn’t a fatal flaw, but Freeman can help fix it while also legitimately being a huge upgrade over what the Blue Jays have got now.
Pick 7: Robinson Canó, Seattle Mariners, to the Los Angeles Dodgers
It feels weird to say this after months of worrying about how the Dodgers were going to cobble together five starting pitchers, but the rotation looks pretty solid. If Clayton Kershaw and Rich Hill are healthy, that’s as good a 1–2 as exists in baseball. Then you’ve got Kenta Maeda at no. 3, and among Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, and José De Leon, you can figure out a no. 4 starter. Plus, Julio Urias going to the bullpen to cut down on his innings takes care of some of the middle-relief trouble the Dodgers have had.
Among position players, it comes down to second base or left field. Chase Utley’s been fine at second, and the various corner outfielders to pass through Dodger Stadium have been OK, if uninspiring. I’d look at Springer and Adam Eaton, but Robinson Canó is a better offensive player, so I’d take him at second base. If Yasiel Puig starts acting up again or the Andrew Toles magic wears off, I (as imaginary Dodgers GM) might regret passing over Adam Eaton or Springer, but Canó is a reliable impact bat for a team that could use one.
Pick 8: Gary Sánchez, New York Yankees, to the Cleveland Indians
The Indians may well regret not persuading Jonathan Lucroy to waive his no-trade clause, because with Yan Gomes back on the DL, catcher is even more of a black hole than they’d feared it would be. I don’t care how freaked out you are about the rotation — no playoff team has a bigger weakness in the lineup.
I’d say there are three veteran impact catchers in MLB right now — Buster Posey, Lucroy, and Wilson Ramos (unless his knee injury is severe enough to keep him out of the playoffs), who are all playoff-bound — and most of the catchers in the next tier — Yadier Molina, Yasmani Grandal, Willson Contreras — are on playoff teams themselves.
But the hottest catcher on the planet is the Yankees’ Gary Sánchez. A little more than 200 plate appearances into his big league career, Sánchez is already leading all catchers in offensive WAR, according to FanGraphs. (Baseball-Reference has him sixth, though everyone ahead of him has more than twice as many plate appearances.) Meanwhile, Cleveland’s catchers have hit .184/.241/.315 this year. Baseball-Reference’s sOPS+ adjusts not only for league and park effects, but measures that split against how the league performed in that specific split — and in this case, catchers against catchers. Indians catchers have an sOPS+ of 55. That sucks. Sánchez is a huge upgrade.
Pick 9: Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona Diamondbacks, to the Washington Nationals
Even without Stephen Strasburg, and with Joe Ross working his way back to full strength, the Nationals have Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, and Gio Gonzalez in the rotation. That’s fine. Offensively, they’ve got two holes: first base, where Ryan Zimmerman is entering the part of his decline phase where you really feel sorry for him, and whichever of shortstop and center field Trea Turner isn’t playing. The Nationals would probably also want a catcher if Ramos is out for the year after leaving Monday’s game with a knee injury, but with Sánchez off the board, there isn’t really a huge upgrade available behind the plate.
Zimmerman’s a bigger offensive problem than shortstop Danny Espinosa — not just relative to position, but without any reservations. I’m not even sure he’d make the postseason roster if the Nationals had another reasonable option at first base. That’s why, even though I tried like crazy to talk myself into Carlos Correa here, Goldschmidt, who’s still hitting .301/.414/.494 with 23 home runs and 29 stolen bases, is too obvious a choice to pass up.
Pick 10: Félix Hernández, Seattle Mariners, to the Texas Rangers
The bullpen’s good. The starting lineup is kind of weird, but the Rangers are like the Cardinals in that they can mix and match to cobble together something that works. As for the rotation, it’s Cole Hamels, Yu Darvish, and a bunch of guys I do not trust even a little.
Félix works on two levels. First, Globe Life Park is like a Turkish bathhouse — small, hot, and humid with balls flying all over the place. I want a guy who can keep the ball on the ground, which Félix does better than Quintana. Masahiro Tanaka would’ve been ideal, but I don’t want to risk his five-day furlough for a forearm strain turning into missed playoff starts. Second, Félix is getting into Adam Dunn territory for “how has that guy never played in a playoff game?” and it’d be absolutely hilarious for an iconic Mariner to get that chance on loan to a division rival.
Pick 11: Nolan Arenado, Colorado Rockies, to the Boston Red Sox
The Red Sox are young in places, but their only real hole is third base. Compared to the Mets at first or the Indians at catcher, it’s not that bad, but Travis Shaw’s 89 OPS+ could stand to be improved. I prefer the National League’s home run leader to Mariners third baseman Kyle Seager here for two reasons. First, Arenado’s the best defensive third baseman this side of Manny Machado. Second, Arenado’s got a little more power than Seager, and while they’re more or less equivalent players once you adjust for park factors, I like a righty up against the Green Monster more than a lefty up against the Pesky Pole. But you could go with either one and walk away satisfied.
Pick 12: George Springer, Houston Astros, to the Chicago Cubs
What do you get for the team that has everything?
It’s not that hard to get a team close to perfect; most of these teams really have only one hole. Except, the Cubs don’t have any. You can’t change the rotation, because Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, and Kyle Hendricks are all better than any healthy starter left for the taking, and while I might prefer Quintana to John Lackey, I’ve seen Lackey when he’s mad, and I’m sure as shit not going to tell him he’s going to the bullpen.
Offensively, the most obvious candidate for an upgrade is Jason Heyward. I love Heyward’s game, I love his glove, and I want him to live up to that huge contract, but he’s just not hitting this year. The positional versatility of Kris Bryant, Javier Báez, and Ben Zobrist would allow Joe Maddon to replace Heyward from Chicago’s bumper crop of infielders if he wanted to. That means you could replace Heyward, essentially, with an infielder. You could pick Correa, move Addison Russell back to second, and put Zobrist in right. You could pick Seager and move Bryant to right. But both of those moves would hurt defensively. Russell might be the best defensive shortstop in the game, and moving him to second just because he has experience there and Correa doesn’t would be risky, to say the least. And at third base, Báez is as much of a defensive asset as Heyward is in right, so burying him behind Seager and Bryant would keep his glove out of the lineup.
Therefore, the best bet is a like-for-like replacement, probably Eaton, Springer, or The Mighty Giancarlo Stanton. Eaton’s the best defender; Stanton’s the most talented (though he’s had a bad year); and Springer gives you more power than Eaton, more speed than Stanton, and the versatility to play center field in a pinch. I might drool over TMGS’s power in Wrigley, but Springer’s got plenty of his own, and no worries about his health.