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July 15, 2009
AL East-Steven Goldman
Boston Red Sox: The Sox have resources they've not yet availed themselves Clay Buchholz has excelled at Triple-A Pawtucket this year while the big-league club has seen Daisuke Matsuzaka struggle to get his ERA below 8.00 and rehabilitate 42-year-old John Smoltz. Buchholz is coming up on a temporary basis after the break, but if the Sox gave him more rope they might find they have less need to heal up those struggling veterans; alternatively, promoting Buchholz could give them the flexibility to deal Brad Penny, perhaps to the Brewers. Fine-tuning might include acquiring a catch-and-throw reserve backstop; both Jason Varitek and George Kottaras have thrown out fewer than 20% of attempting basestealers, a bad weakness to have when you're in the same division as Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Brett Gardner.
New York Yankees: The current AL Wild Card leaders have endured great disappointment from their starting rotation. Their quality start percentage of 43% ranks 12th in the league, just ahead of Cleveland's. Only robust hitting and an improving bullpen has allowed them to win with consistency, but not against good teams like the Red Sox (0-8), Rays (4-4), and Angels (2-4). One obvious solution, putting Phil Hughes into the rotation is complicated by the fact that Hughes has been the team's most effective late-inning option in front of Mariano Rivera (opposing hitters are batting .115/.182/.197 when he relieves). They would be best advised to move him to starting and trade for another bullpen arm, which would probably be less costly than getting into the Roy Halladay gold rush. As is, Yankees outfield production is light compared to that in Boston and Tampa. Johnny Damon is a home-field phenomenon, the Gardner/Melky Cabrera center-field tandem has been adequate but unspectacular, and Nick Swisher has hit .208/.333/.365 since April. Adding a bat might seem redundant, but if the Yankees can't pitch outpitch the competition, they just might batter them into submission.
Tampa Bay Rays: Much of what ails the Rays might be cured by waiting-for Dioner Navarro and Pat Burrell to rediscover how to hit; for B.J. Upton to continue what he started in June (.324/.395/.562 with 10 doubles, five home runs, and 14 stolen bases); for Scott Kazmir to find post-injury consistency, for Jeff Niemann to do better than a quality start once every three times out; for David Price to settle into the rotation. That said, Dr. BP never advises complacency, and surprisingly productive players as Jason Bartlett, Ben Zobrist, and Gabe Gross should cool off. Possible internal improvements include outfielder Matt Joyce (.281/.380/.502 at Durham) and recently-promoted backstop John Jaso, who should be able to post a .350 OBP (Navarro is almost 100 points below that). With their depth in starting pitching-including Durham's Wade Davis-the Rays' internal options for their starting rotation are likely better than anyone they could acquire short of Halladay. They could do themselves a favor by adding a reliever; the Rays have underplayed their projected won-lost record by seven wins, in part because of shaky pen.
Toronto Blue Jays: After sweeping the Phillies, the Jays went into a swoon, winning just seven of their last 22 games before the break, knocking them under .500 for the season. Pitching was reasonably solid during this stretch (4.4 runs allowed per game), but the offense quit, batting .247/.307/.394 and fulfilling predictions that Jays batters had overachieved early on. The outfield is a suppurating wound burdened by two lengthy and expensive contracts in Vernon Wells and Alex Rios. The Jays lack the firepower to get back into the AL East race, so dealing is the right course, and not just Halladay, but other Jays who won't be around to be part of the team's next contender, including Scott Rolen and imminent free agent Marco Scutaro.
Baltimore Orioles: This year's annual losing Orioles season has a slightly different flavor; although they don't hit much and they're the least-likely club in baseball to receive a quality start from its rotation, there is hope in Camden Yards. The outfield of Nolan Reimold, Adam Jones, and Nick Markakis is both young and productive, and super-prospect Matt Wieters has arrived. Even 23-year-old righty Brad Bergesen is a source of cheer, though low strikeout rates don't augur a glowing future. Pitching prospects Chris Tillman, Brian Matusz, and more are nearing their big-league debuts. The best thing for the Orioles is to try to make deals for almost everyone on the roster over 30, even if they won't bring much in return. Being too enamored of slugging platoon DH Luke Scott to make a deal would be particularly unfortunate, as he might have value to an offensively malnourished team like Detroit or Seattle.
AL Central-Jay Jaffe
Detroit Tigers: The Tigers have the right idea by benching right fielder Magglio Ordońez; he's 163 plate appearances from vesting an $18 million option for next year, and hitting an unacceptable .243/.319/.292 against righties. He can still hit lefties (.300/.356/.463), but in limiting him to a platoon role to turn the position into an offensive plus-something the Tigers sorely need-manager Jim Leyland needs a better lefty-swinging corner outfielder than Clete Thomas. The Royals' Mark Teahen and the Orioles' Luke Scott are among the available, affordable corner outfielders who would fit the bill.
Chicago White Sox: Sox center fielders Brian Anderson, DeWayne Wise, and Scott Podsednik have combined to "hit" .215/.280/.279, producing the majors' lowest OPS at the position by 58 points. Rather than continue to hemorrhage runs in an outfield lineup slot, they should pry Cody Ross loose from the Marlins; he's arbitration-eligible and thus soon to be out of favor in Florida. While he's no master of the strike zone (67/21 K/UIBB), he's got enough pop that moving to homer-friendly US Cellular Field could make him a star.
Minnesota Twins: The Twins are America's foremost experts at shooting themselves in the foot, as last year's extended dalliance with Livan Hernandez at the expense of Francisco Liriano proved. They lost patience with Alexi Casilla early in the year after a spate of mental mistakes, and have since yo-yo'd him between Rochester and Minneapolis. He's hit just .180/.242/.225 for the Twins but has torn up Triple-A (.340/.379/.449), while replacements Nick Punto and Matt Tolbert have failed to impress in his stead, as Twins second basemen have collectively hit .193/.273/.245. They need to restore Casilla to the lineup and give him a chance to recapture the form he showed before getting hurt last year. While a keystone combo of Casilla and Brendan Harris won't win any Gold Gloves, their additional offense should trump any defensive advantage gained by playing Punto.
Kansas City Royals: The past few weeks have made it painfully clear that the only prescription to help the Royals is firing general manager Dayton Moore. From their off-season acquisition of Mike Jacobs (hitting a crisp .222/.296/.412) to their recent acquisition of Yuniesky Betancourt to their mismanagement of injuries to Moore's refusal to attempt any grasp of the statistical side of the game, the franchise has become a laughingstock that's easily ridiculed by even its most ardent supporters. The proud legacy of George Brett deserves better, and it starts with regime change.
Cleveland Indians: One reason the Indians are last in the league in runs prevented is that their pitchers don't miss many bats; they're 12th in strikeout rate and 13th in Defensive Efficiency. As they play out the string, they should move Kerry Wood back into the rotation. He's been lousy enough as a closer (5.28 ERA, -0.2 WXRL, 12 saves in 16 opportunities) not to be missed, and while his fragility might necessitate a short leash, he'd provide the rotation with at least one pitcher with a strikeout rate above league-average. For $20.5 million over two years, is that too much to ask?
AL West-Christina Kahrl
Los Angels Angels of Anaheim: While the Angels have the AL's best offense outside of the three titans of the East, with Torii Hunter out until the end of the month and Vladimir Guerrero gone for even longer, that's going to be hard to sustain. Using Mike Napoli at DH only exacerbates the problem, since it puts Jeff Mathis' unacceptably weak stick in the lineup. To get the power they're missing, the Angels need to take their chances with Brandon Wood at third base right now-he's already 24, and his translated performance at Salt Lake this season is .266/.320/.522. Push Chone Figgins out to left field, leave Napoli behind the plate, and keep on bringing Angels baserunners home.
Texas Rangers: With depth in the outfield, the infield corners, and down on the farm, the Rangers can keep their bid for unseating the Angels going by using that depth to address a key need. With good work from Kevin Millwood and a surprisingly good performance from Scott Feldman, the rotation's solidly mid-pack, giving the team a modestly better-than-average shot at winning its games with a .507 Support-Neutral Winning Percentage, good for sixth in the league. However, past Millwood and Feldman and inning-muncher Vicente Padilla, it's a patchwork staff. Making a play for Halladay wouldn't just help them gun for the division title this year and next, it gives them a chance to take down one or both of the playoff teams from the East in post-season series. Keep coming flamethrower Neftali Feliz out of the package to help the pen down the stretch but see what else it takes to make this October opportunity matter; without Halladay, the Rangers won't do much better in the playoffs than they did in the '90s, winning one game in 10 from the Yankees across three different post-season series.
Seattle Mariners: With an offense that ranks 27th in the majors in Equivalent Average with the benefit of Adrian Beltre in the lineup, it's hard to expect the Mariners can keep up with the Rangers and Angels now that he'll be out of action for another month, not unless their pitching keeps on cruising. But part of that depends on the performance of mercenaries Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard, both free agents after the season. New GM Jack Zduriencik can see what sort of offers he gets for Bedard between now and the month's end, but if none are tasty enough, keep the vets, take the draft picks, and be one nasty spoiler. (Trading for a low-end outfielder due for free agency at the deadline to help the offense would help, but with so many teams in the AL Central and the entire NL in the running, there aren't a lot of those in play yet; if the Nats wanted to part with Josh Willingham for the right price, though, that's worth exploring.) With Jack Z's track record in the draft, those picks will help turn the franchise's fortunes, but so would the prospects Bedard will bring.
Oakland Athletics: Last year, Billy Beane's crew was busily trading away veteran pitching-including Dan Haren before the year, and then Rich Harden, Joe Blanton, and Chad Gaudin during it-to lay the foundations of the future, including making room for the talented youngsters currently manning the rotation. This year, it should be the offense's turn for mass turnover. Keep Jason Giambi for the viking funeral if you must, but what needs doing is dealing Matt Holliday to the highest bidder while getting Orlando Cabrera, Nomar Garciaparra, and Bobby Crosby out of the way by any means. The A's need to see whether Travis Buck, Aaron Cunningham, and/or Eric Patterson have any place in their plans for 2010 and beyond.
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .