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July 28, 2005

Prospectus Today

Stuck in the Middle

by Joe Sheehan

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"Clowns to the left of me/jokers to the right/here I am/stuck in the middle with you."

I'm far from a music maven, but I always did like that hook.

As of this morning, more than a third of MLB teams--11--are within a few percentage points of a .500 record. This is a level of parity that MLB has been moving towards since around 2000, and while we can debate whether it's good or bad for the game, it's clear that it makes late July--the time around the trade deadline--complicated. It's hard to define a market when so many teams can't define themselves.

Let's help them. Which of these 11 teams, all playing between .515 and .490 baseball, should be making a move for the 2005 season, and which ones should be focused on 2006 and beyond?

  • Blue Jays: This is one of the easier calls. The Jays are chasing two superior teams, their best pitcher is out for another week and their #2 is headed for the DL, and they have a lot of players who could provide short-term help for contenders. The Playoff Odds Report gives the Jays a 7.6% chance of making the postseason; that's not gospel, but go ahead and double that. Is a 15% chance of making the playoffs worth it when you can pick up talent in exchange for Shea Hillenbrand, Frank Catalanotto, Ted Lilly, Miguel Batista and just about anyone else aside from Vernon Wells and Roy Halladay? The Jays could add five wins to the 2006 roster with a good weekend. Sell.

  • Orioles: Like the Jays, the Orioles should be gunning for the future. That may seem strange given the age of their core talent, but they have a farm system that's going to start coughing up some pretty good baseball players. While the model of so-so rotation and great bullpen worked for a while in 2005, that pen is starting to leak oil all over Camden Yards, making it hard for the Orioles to stay in the race. The Os don't have as much to deal as the Jays do, so they can't help themselves for the future as much. Just avoiding the bad trade will be enough for Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie, who need to stay focused on their long-term goals. Sell.

  • Indians: They looked like a decent bet to contend for at least the wild card before averaging six runs a week in April. OK, seven. A June hot streak got them over .500 and into this dicussion, and they've held serve since then. Their relative youth and the core strengths of the team mean that they could actually improve over the next two months, and they have a couple of obvious weaknesses, such as third base, that could be improved with a minor deal or even an internal solution. There's not a single Indian who's having a season much better than you would have expected them to have, so regression isn't an issue. The Tribe should dip their toe in the market, looking to make minor buys, as much because they don't have big-ticket items to sell as for any other reason.

  • Rangers: They're about to lose their last remaining functioning starter for three weeks, a death knell for a team with major run-prevention issues. With two good teams ahead of them in the division, it's time to restock. Alfonso Soriano is someone with much higher perceived value than actual value. Leveraging that, preferably into the center fielder the team has needed for nearly a decade, should be John Hart's only mission over the next four days. Adding some high-upside arms wouldn't hurt. The Rangers' biggest problem is that there's no obvious window of opportunity; the Angels and A's are going to be pretty good teams for the next few seasons. Sell.

  • Tigers: A .500 team a year too early, the Tigers shouldn't get distracted by their proximity to a playoff spot. This division is wide open next year, and they'll have more of the pieces in place by then. Moving a Dmitri Young, a Placido Polanco or a Rondell White will do more for the organization than having those guys around to push for 81 wins will. The Tigers need to free up cash for Jeremy Bonderman and for a true top-tier hitter to put them over the top. Sell.

  • Mets: The lower threshold for contention in the NL is reflected in a greater number of Buy ratings. The Mets have the star talent in place to win the East or snag the wild card; they have to do a better job of filling their holes on the right side of the infield, spots that are usually among the easier ones for finding talent. Trading both Lastings Milledge and Yusmeiro Petit would be a bit much, given the caliber of players on the market, but swapping one of them may be necessary. Upgrading first base or second base by two wins over two months could well be the difference between October baseball and October golf. Buy.

  • Cubs: They've already helped themselves as much as any trade will by reconfiguring the top of their lineup. Getting Neifi Perez and Corey Patterson's wretched OBPs away from Derrek Lee's monster season fixed the offense and makes them a legitimate contender even with their pitching problems. They also could get Nomar Garciaparra back next month, a huge upgrade on Perez. Adding some pitching, perhaps a mid-rotation starter or a groundball-getting right-handed reliever, would help the cause. Buy.

  • Marlins: I made most of this case Monday, but the Marlins' front-line talent is certainly good enough to win the division. They absolutely need to improve their depth, primarily on the pitching staff. The Brian Moehler Miracle appears to be ending, and there are a precious lack of major-league relievers on the roster. Upgrading the pitching staff would be worth a handful of wins down the stretch, and a handful of wins in the NL East is huge. Buy.

  • Phillies: Ed Wade has never been able to make the big trade, usually adding a minor player or two at the deadline who didn't make much difference. He's actively made the Phillies worse in '05, swapping Polanco for a generic right-handed reliever in Ugueth Urbina. While you can't blame Wade for Jim Thome's bad back, you can point to a lot of other decisions that bear his stamp and which haven't pushed this team over the top in five years. Part of the problem here is that the Phillies don't have many obvious places to upgrade. They have a stable lineup signed largely through the next few seasons, and while they could use a front-end starting pitcher, there are none on the market. Buy, but given Wade's track record and the available talent, it's a weak recommendation.

  • Padres: There aren't many catchers on the market, which is a problem for the first-place team leaning towards a Robert Fick/Phil Nevin platoon behind the plate in the absence of Ramon Hernandez. That's the kind of thing you usually only see at Strat-O-Matic tournaments. The Padres have done a good job of letting the better players win playing time, and while they could use a lefty specialist or an innings guy, that's just nitpicking. Buy, even if it's mostly window-shopping.

  • Brewers: Like the Tigers, the Brewers are at least a year ahead of schedule, playing .500 ball with a mix of their mediocre 2002-04 rosters and the good young players who will be on 90-win teams later in the decade. If they can get anything at all for Geoff Jenkins, Brady Clark, Jeff Cirillo and any other thirtysomething white guys, they should do so posthaste. They're not going to win anything this year, but they will be contending for real as soon as next season. Sell.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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