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June 26, 2014

The Lineup Card

Eight Things Contenders Need

by Baseball Prospectus


1. American League East Contenders: Second Base
My original choice here was Orioles second basemen, but after some more careful thought, it’s hard to see which of the three teams who have separated themselves from the rest (but not from each other) need help at the keystone more. Unlike some of the other team/position combos showing up in red on this handy year-to-date position analysis tool, none of these comes as any surprise.

Whether it’s the mashup of Jonathan Schoop, Steve Lombardozzi, and Ryan Flaherty in Baltimore, the Robinson Cano vacuum starring Brian Roberts in the Bronx, or the usual muddled mess at the position in Toronto, each of these situations has been screaming for a resolution since the beginning. Maybe the first-place Blue Jays were the closest to a creative solution, having moved Brett Lawrie over to the position a majority of the time, but he’s now on the DL, and it’s back to the sad normal. Anyone who upgrades here will be filling a big void. —Zachary Levine

2. Cincinnati Reds: Frontline Starter (David Price)
There's an interesting dynamic around trade deadline time. When should a team push the "buy" button. I'd argue that there are two types of buyers. One is the team that believes that it has a playoff spot well in hand and is basically upgrading as a hedge from falling out of contention and as a way to bolster the team for the actual playoff games. The other buyer is that team that's on the edge of the playoff picture, but wants to declare that they are contenders. The Reds are the latter sort of team. Lately, the Reds' chances of making the playoffs, according to our Playoff Odds report have hovered in the 25 percent range. The Reds are looking up at Milwaukee and St. Louis in the NL Central, along with the Braves/Nationals and Dodgers/Giants in the other two divisions as potential wild cards. It's not that the Reds have a bad team, but they do need a little push, and my oh my what a push David Price would be for them (see also Jeff Zumar... Samard... the guy from the Cubs). Price is likely to be the one player (pitcher or position player) on the market who can play at a six-win pace over half a season, and thus deliver three extra wins to his team. Suddenly, the Reds don't need as much luck to go their way to make the playoffs, and if they do get there, they have a one-two punch of Cueto and Price to start against Kershaw and Greinke in Games One and Two. On top of that, Price is signed through 2015, as is most of the rest of the Reds roster. The Reds would get two shots at making this work.

Ah... but the Price for Price will start with young phenom Robert Stephenson (and Reds fans, don't kid yourself—if he's not in the package, some other team will simply out-bid the Reds). And the problem with being a buyer on the fringes is that even acquiring Price does not guarantee a playoff spot—not to mention that Price himself is not a guarantee. But mathematically, it seems that the Reds might just be the team with the most to gain in their playoff odds by making a big move for David Price. It's a big bet. It's the sort of bet that gets front offices extended for four years or excommunicated in four months. You could make that big trade and have it fall flat. Or have it be the master-stroke that people talk about lovingly in 20 years when the World Series winning team reunites. So if you like high stakes poker, cheer for the Reds to make a bid for the former AL Cy Young Winner at the deadline. —Russell A. Carleton

3. Detroit Tigers: Relief Pitcher
As of this writing the Detroit Tigers are clinging to a tenuous two-game lead in the AL Central over the surging Kansas City Royals. They field a very good offense and the Tiger starters are doing ok but the one glaring weakness Detroit has is in the bullpen. Joe Nathan was signed to stabilize the backend of the Tiger bullpen but he’s been a hot mess lately. Nathan has racked up a 1.59 WHIP and a 6.18 ERA to date. He’s had spectacular meltdowns. Joba Chamberlain is having a good year, but he similarly melted down when he got a shot at the closing duties. There aren’t many other attractive options in the Tiger bullpen, and with their window closing as the team ages and transitions into a post-competitive period, they’ll need to make a move for a reliever now if they want to win a ring. —Mauricio Rubio

4. Los Angeles Angels: Starting Pitcher
For the past two years, the bottom of the Angels' rotation has been so bad that the front office has spent the winter just trying to patch holes with something better than tissue paper. It didn't work in 2013 (Joe Blanton, Tommy Hanson), so there was no need to worry about October. It sort of worked this year, though, with bullpen conversion Garrett Richards pitching very well, and acquisitions Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago contributing just enough that the otherwise-excellent Angels roster should make the playoffs. So now the next problem: There's nothing remotely like a postseason rotation here. Weaver and Wilson are a tick above average, Richards slightly better than that, and then... well, then there's nobody you'd want pitching Game 4 under really any circumstances. That presumes, too, that Weaver (and Wilson, and Richards) all stay healthy, which is probably about a 50/50 proposition for any trio. So the Angels need to start thinking about October, and about adding the sort of starter who can pitch the first game of a series--or, at the very least, the third. This isn't that easy to do, but it's a relatively encouraging problem to be dealing with. It's much better than the Angels' problems last year, and in 2010 and 2011. The Angels' front office stopped the bleeding. Now it's time to... what, put in stitches? Administer antibiotics? Complete the metaphor? —Sam Miller

5. Detroit Tigers: Jimmy Rollins
This one is so obvious that the rumor mill has practically signed, sealed, and delivered the deal already. The Tigers have had a gaping hole at shortstop since Jose Iglesias was lost to injury. The Phillies haven’t openly said they’re in rebuilding mode, but it is likely that they are going to try to move some key pieces before the trade deadline in July. With all of the uncertainty surrounding Cliff Lee’s health, Jimmy Rollins might be the team’s most enticing trade chip. He seems to have found the fountain of youth this year, posting his best numbers since 2008. His contract option for 2015 is all but certain to vest, but that shouldn’t stop the Tigers—who are clearly in win-now mode—from taking the plunge. The Tigers need help in other areas, but adding a veteran upgrade like Rollins for the stretch run won’t hurt either. —Mike Gianella

6. Los Angeles Dodgers: Koji Uehara
The Dodgers were supposed to be the runaway winners in the National League, but instead they’re not even leading their own division. Why? Well tons of reasons, but one of them is the bullpen. Not that they’ve been awful. They haven’t been awful. But they haven’t been great either. The Dodgers have a ton of outfielders and no relievers, and since they’re not turning to Matt Kemp in the ninth inning (Should they? Maybe?), they’ll need someone competent to fill that role. So how about an infusion of greatness? Nothing gets a playoff run going like an infusion of greatness. But where to turn? Simple! The floundering Red Sox happen to have the best closer in the game on a one-year no-money deal. That smells like availability to me. Koji Uehara has a 1.30 ERA, and 44 strikeouts in 30 innings. Also he’s walked four people. Four. People. FOUR. What would the Dodgers give up for that level of certainty in the ninth inning? Zach Lee who is struggling at Triple-A? Joc Pederson who has a lower ceiling but is clubbing in Triple-A? Someone else? Corey Seager is probably too much to hope for, but who knows the true depths of Ned Colletti’s despair? —Matthew Kory

7. Oakland Athletics: Ben Zobrist
The A's have been Pythagorean darlings thus far in 2014, lapping the league in terms of run differential, yet even the strongest club in baseball is not without its weaknesses. For Oakland, that weakness is in the middle infield. Face of the Franchise Eric Sogard is stumbling to the tune of a .500 OPS in 160 plate appearances and Jed Lowrie has come crashing back to earth after his breakout of 2013. Lowrie's .650 OPS fails to support his sketchy glove-work and happens to be a near-match for utilityman Alberto Callaspo's rate of production this season. Nick Punto has been, well, Nick Punto.

Enter Ben Zobrist, the human Swiss Army knife, to be placed in the talented hands of lineup masseuse Bob Melvin. Zobrist would represent an upgrade over the middle-infield incumbents on both sides of the ball, and though his versatility would add to the myriad permutations that Melvin could work out of his lineup, Oakland might best be served by sticking Zobrist at shortstop and letting Lowrie move across the bag to his more-suited position of second base.

Oakland would be on the hook for about half of Zobrist's $7 million salary for the rest of the season, a sum that is reasonable even for the shallow pockets of the green-n-gold. He would also bring an option for 2015 at the same price, allowing the A's to part with free agent Lowrie and slide Zobrist over to second base next season to make room for top prospect Addison Russell.

The pre-season trade of Michael Choice indicated that the Athletics are willing to pay a future price in exchange for instant gratification, and they could potentially center a deal around shortstop Daniel Robertson and one the big arms that are down on the farm. Dan Straily might make an intriguing addition from the Rays end, as a cost-controlled pitcher who has MLB success on his resume. Straily also exemplifies the mechanical traits that could endear Tampa Bay to many pitchers in the Oakland system, as both organizations emphasize mechanical stability in the development of their pitchers, and the young arms could enjoy a smooth transition across orgs. —Doug Thorburn

8. New York Yankees: Infielder
There were two big problems with the Yankees’ infield plan heading into the season: its massive downside, and its lack of upside. The good news is that the team has been spared the downside so far. Mark Teixeira’s wrist has acted up on occasion, but the only DL time he’s logged was 15 days for a hamstring strain, and when healthy, he’s hit as well as he has since his first year in New York. The Opening Day alignment of brittle second baseman Brian Roberts, ancient shortstop Derek Jeter, and third baseman Kelly Johnson seemed unlikely to make it out of the first week without an injury, yet after missing most of last season, Jeter has lost only two games to a quad strain. Roberts has missed only six; he’s already played in more games than he did in 2010 or in 2011 and 2012 combined, and he’s approaching his 2013 total. Johnson hasn’t had so much as a brush with flu-like symptoms, though he wasn’t the injury risk his elders were. And on top of that, the Yankees have gotten close to a win out of Yangervis Solarte, an unknown 26-year-old rookie who made the roster on March 29.

And still the Yankees need infield help—not because anyone broke down, but because Teixeira aside, these guys aren’t good. If injuries were the only issue, the Yankees could wait and hope for a productive player to return to health. As it is, though, they’re suffering from that troublesome lack of upside, which isn’t as easy to fix. Jeter can’t catch up to heat, has little power, and can no longer be counted on to make the routine plays at short that used to camouflage his lack of range. Johnson and Roberts haven’t been much better. The big surprise, Solarte, has a .500 OPS in June and a 0.3 WARP rest-of-season projection. The Yankees have experimented with cast-offs from other organizations, but Dean Anna and Scott Sizemore are more of the same, and Brendan Ryan is a bench player. If the team could obtain a legitimate major-league infielder—Daniel Murphy, Alexei Ramirez, or Luis Valbuena, let’s say—it would go a long way toward correcting their run differential and keeping their playoff hopes alive, as well as easing Jeter’s transition into retirement. —Ben Lindbergh

Related Content:  Trade Deadline

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