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July 18, 2011

Divide and Conquer, NL East

Trade Deadline Wishlists

by Michael Jong

Right after the All-Star Game and the unofficial first half of the baseball season, teams and fans alike turn their attentions to the next big landmark of the year: the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. Fans clamor for their favorite teams to acquire this player or that one. Teams haggle with other teams for the right price. Numerous mentions of clubs being “buyers” or “sellers” fill the media coverage of the deadline. People all around refresh MLB Trade Rumors hundreds of times a day.

In honor of this yearly ritual of rampant speculation and overanalysis, let us take a look at what each NL East team would like to see happen in terms of transactions by the July 31 trade deadline. Call it a wish list for the NL East, if you will.
 

Philadelphia Phillies: Right-handed hitting outfielder
It seems like the Phillies are interested in acquiring either Mike Adams or Heath Bell (or possibly both?) from the San Diego Padres, but this move seems counter-intuitive given the team's copious pitching strengths. The Phillies have survived the losses of Brad Lidge and Jose Contreras for long stretches and still have had success; Ryan Madson, Antonio Bastardo, Michael Stutes, and the rest of the pen have combined for a 3.33 ERA (ranking a respectable 10th best in baseball). In addition, when your rotation features workhorses like Roy Halladay (almost 7 2/3 IP per start), Cliff Lee (7 1/3 IP), and Cole Hamels (6 2/3 IP), the last thing that is necessary is to give up valuable prospects for more bullpen arms that may be underutilized by the time the playoffs begin.

Perhaps a more pressing need is that of a right-handed hitter who can roam the outfield. Shane Victorino is on his way back from a DL stint, but there are still question marks about the Phillies bats in the outfield. Raul Ibanez has climbed back from the massive hole he dug in April (hitting .278/.309/.502 since May 1), but questions about his defense and his presence as yet another lefty hitter in an already lefty-dominant lineup could spur the Phillies' interest in an outfielder to at least share time with the 39-year-old left fielder. On the bench, the Phillies have John Mayberry Jr. and Ben Francisco, neither of whom inspire confidence in a platoon or full-time role.

The Phillies could look at names like Michael Cuddyer, Ryan Ludwick, and Josh Willingham to help the team, but the question really comes down to whether any of those names is a significant upgrade over Ibanez. Of the three, Cuddyer seems the most interesting as he is having one of his classic “good Cuddyer” years and could, in a pinch, fill in at other positions should the Phillies struggle with injuries.
 

Atlanta Braves: A hitting outfielder of any kind
The Braves the same hole as the Phillies do, but whereas the Phillies' problem in the outfield is perhaps a minor gash, the Braves' issues are more of an openly bleeding perforation. As a team, Braves outfielders are hitting .244/.320/.380—a performance 12 percent worse than the average outfielder according to Baseball-Reference. It has not helped that injuries to Jason Heyward, Chipper Jones, and Nate McLouth have forced Atlanta to dig deeper into their shallow pool of outfielders in order to fill out a roster card. It is bad enough that starters Heyward and McLouth are batting just .224/.316/.397 and .229/.346/.332 respectively, but the problem is compounded by being forced to play guys like Joe Mather (.207 TAv), Jordan Schafer (.240), and Matt Young (.196) for 17 percent of your outfield plate appearances.

The Braves have Martin Prado manning third base until Jones returns, opening up a spot in left field. The names of Cuddyer, Ludwick, and Willingham would all be available, but if the New York Mets would be willing to absorb Carlos Beltran's remaining $6 million salary, Atlanta as well as Philadelphia would also be interested. The preference would be for a player who could handle center field, however, as McLouth has now spent his last 558 plate appearances hitting .209/.321/.327, playing substandard defense along the way. Among center fielders that may be available, B.J. Upton is a name of interest in case the Tampa Bay Rays decide to sell. Upton's supposed “struggles” at the plate (if one could call having a .282 TAv “struggling”) are a perception caused by the byproduct of his massive prospect hype and are laughable compared to the ineptitude the Braves have had to deal with.
 

New York Mets: A decent return for Carlos Beltran
Despite the Mets' modest 47-46 record, BP’s PECOTA and Playoff Odds Report give them just a 2.3 percent chance of making the postseason, meaning the team may begin selling off their impending free agents. One player who is not going anywhere, however, is Jose Reyes, who is currently on the DL with a strained left hamstring. It seems the Mets are still unlikely to trade the shortstop who carried the team on his back through the early part of 2011, instead opting to continue to attempt contract negotiations despite high salary expectations and Reyes's desire not to discuss an extension during the season (unless it is with his new team). The Mets will attempt to re-sign Reyes at a hefty cost or perhaps simply keep him around for a potentially miraculous playoff run, two decisions that would be highly inadvisable given their current predicament.

The one player being most discussed in trade talks is Beltran, who is in the final season of the seven-year, $119 million contract he signed in 2005. The Mets and Beltran have been good to each other since then, having just about matched each others' expectations in terms of money paid and wins produced, but with the Mets unlikely to re-sign Beltran after a resurgent season (.319 TAv, 2.2 WARP in 381 PA), the team could be at the forefront of the outfielder trade market with the best piece available. This is especially the case when you consider that the team may eat the remaining $6 million owed to him this season in order to get premium talent.

What could the Mets fetch in a trade? Beltran is expected to produce 1.2 WARP for the remainder of the season, and if the Mets are picking up the entire tab (and the MORP for the 2011 season remains similar to that of the 2008 to 2010 years), that may be worth $7.2 million in surplus value. In other words, a team would have to deal an asset worth $7.2 million less than his current deal in order to get value for their two-plus month rental of Beltran.
 

Washington Nationals: Reinforcements to develop faster
The Nationals have some needs, and they could use some quick returns for veteran overachievers like Jason Marquis and Laynce Nix, but neither player would pull much in the trade market (even with the dearth of pitching available). The team has been linked to B.J. Upton in the past, but as mentioned before, if the Nationals have to overpay to acquire Upton for one season and then have to overpay to keep him in Washington long-term, it would be best for them to simply hold off until he becomes a free agent and pursue him at that point.

Ultimately, however, the Nationals have no pressing needs to buy or sell at this trade deadline. Their most expensive pieces are not reaching free agency any time soon; Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman are locked up long-term. Their remaining intriguing pieces are mostly young, team-controlled players like Danny Espinosa and Jordan Zimmermann. What the Nationals most need is a healthy and effective dose of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg to hit the field alongside these four players to build what looks to be a future contender in Washington. The sooner the franchise commits to playing these players on their major league roster, the sooner the team will rise from its mediocre ways.
 

Florida Marlins: A third baseman. Failing that, a hope that they can contend in 2012
The Marlins' most precious wish in this season's trade deadline is to acquire someone capable of helping the team contend for the playoffs in 2012. Unlike the Nationals, who are certain to receive help in the form of Harper and Strasburg in the next year or two, few players are coming up the pipeline for the Marlins. Only Matt Dominguez seems close to making a debut any time soon with all other prospects either totally unready or not effective enough to make an impact in the majors.

Without the classic pipeline of players the Marlins usually rely upon to fill the spots vacated as major league talent gets too expensive and moves on, the team may have to depend on some of the exceptional talent they already have in the majors. There is already some indication that Anibal Sanchez—a hot trade commodity in a weak starting pitching class—may be up for an extension because of the team's distinct lack of starting pitcher depth. The Marlins may discuss trading Ricky Nolasco, who is under contract through 2013, but the only other players who appear to be available are relief arms like Randy Choate, Edward Mujica, and Leo Nunez—all of whom are under contract or team control for at least one more season but are not of a high enough caliber to draw major talent in return.

Sure, the Marlins could use a third baseman to fill in for Dominguez while he continues to develop his bat in Triple-A, but the team would likely have to trade major league talent to acquire a major-league ready third baseman. With one of the thinnest minor league organizations, the Marlins lack the prospects to add directly to their roster, and trading a player like Nolasco or Sanchez would likely be a sideways move for 2012, at best. It seems like the best bet for Florida would be to stand pat and hope for a healthy Josh Johnson and the return of the ballplayer formerly known as Hanley Ramirez.

Michael Jong is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Michael's other articles. You can contact Michael by clicking here

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