Eleven American League teams were within three games of a post-season berth going into Wednesday's games, and nine National League teams were within five games of making the playoffs. Considering the Cardinals and Rays were much further back and were deeper into the season before making runs to the postseason last year, it is easy to see why so many teams are trying to make deals to bolster their clubs in advance of the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline.
However, of the 22 teams that can be called legitimate contenders, four stand out as needing to make deals for reasons that go beyond the diamond. A fifth that is seven games off the playoff pace in the AL should also be considering an upgrade. It would behoove these teams to help their standing with the fans, from a public relations standpoint. Let's take a look at the five and what players would make the most sense to acquire.
Dodgers: Attendance is up at Dodgers Stadium this season after the group fronted by basketball great Magic Johnson bought the team from Frank McCourt. However, the Dodgers know they still have more courting of both the fans and the corporate community to do, which is why new club president Stan Kasten plans to spend more time on the business side and is considering hiring current Braves president John Schuerholz to be a consultant on the baseball side.
The Dodgers now trail the Giants in the National League West after holding a seven-game lead at one point. A second-half collapse would be a huge disappointment and a setback in their attempt to win fans back. Thus, the Dodgers need to make a move to both bolster their playoff hopes and show fans they are serious about winning now.
The perfect player to acquire is Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels, who is unlikely to be persuaded to stay in Philadelphia now that he is this close to free agency. Hamels showed in 2008 that he can help carry a club to a World Series title, and it doesn't hurt that he also has movie-star looks, personality, and is a Southern California native who would be more likely to re-sign with LA.
Red Sox: It is highly unlikely the Red Sox will win the American League East, but they are still very much in the wild-card race despite a seemingly unending string of injuries. They got left fielder Carl Crawford and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury back from the disabled list in the last week, and second baseman Dustin Pedroia is sure to follow, though losing designated hitter David Ortiz to the DL is a blow.
The Red Sox have shown they can contend at less than full strength, which is a tribute to new manager Bobby Valentine, regardless of whether he is loved or hated by his players after replacing the laidback Terry Francona. If the Sox get most of their lineup together, they can be very dangerous. And it is difficult to tell a fan base that has sold out Fenway Park for more than 500 games that you're not going to make the best effort possible to reach the postseason.
However, the Red Sox really need another starting pitcher to give themselves to best chance to not only gain a post-season berth, but to last throughout in the playoffs. Cubs right-hander Matt Garza would be an ideal addition despite having his ups and downs this season. Garza has been a proven performer in the past; he shined in the 2008 postseason for the Rays (as the Red Sox can attest), and he would also be under club control through next season.
Cubs GM Jed Hoyer and Red Sox GM Ben Cherington know each other well from their days together in the Boston front office. They can find common ground to pull off a trade.
Pirates: The Pirates haven't been in a pennant race since 1997, and they haven't made the postseason or even had a winning season since 1992. Not surprisingly, 2012 has reenergized a fan base that looked at baseball season in Pittsburgh as nothing more than a time filler between the Penguins' latest playoff runs and the beginning of Steelers' training camp.
The Pirates are in prime position to either win the NL Central—especially with Reds first baseman Joey Votto recovering from knee surgery—or at least capture one of the two wild-card berths. Owner Bob Nutting has told GM Neal Huntington to do what it takes to try to get the Pirates to the postseason.
The Pirates could use a power hitter and a starting pitcher. The power hitter is the greater need, and the Pirates are in hot pursuit of Diamondbacks right fielder Justin Upton, who is signed through 2015 and could join center fielder Andrew McCutchen and third baseman Pedro Alvarez in the middle of the lineup to make the Buccos more than a one-year wonder.
The Diamondbacks reportedly won't make a deal without getting one of the top right-handed pitching prospects, Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon, in return. As tough as it would be for the Pirates to give up either pitcher, the opportunity to add an impact player who could help them well into the decade should seemingly be too good to pass up.
Marlins: Baseball's reality kings have been a major disappointment, and you can't help but wonder if owner Jeffrey Loria wishes he had just kept Jack McKeon around as manager instead of trading for the White Sox' Ozzie Guillen. Yet though the Marlins have some ground to make up, they are not yet buried in the wild-card standings. Right fielder Giancarlo Stanton healing quickly from knee surgery would help quite a bit. So would third baseman Hanley Ramirez deciding to play like the old Hanley Ramirez.
The Marlins already made a move to try to bolster their lineup when they traded for Astros first baseman Carlos Lee earlier this month. They need to keep making moves if for no other reason than to keep their long-disinterested fan base willing to buy tickets to see games at their new ballpark.
The next move should be to address their bullpen, especially since closer Heath Bell has been a big flop after being signed to a three-year, $27 mllion contract. Trading for Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt might not generate the headline that signing Bell did in December, but it would help solidify the relief corps.
Rays: The Rays' situation is the most confounding and disappointing in the major leagues. The one-time punch lines on the late-night television talk shows have become one of the most competitive teams in baseball over the last five years. Yet the only way the Rays can get crowds at Tropicana Field is if they have post-game concerts or innovative—and somewhat spooky—promotions like the Zim Bear. That is really too bad, because the Rays put an entertaining product on the field.
The Rays need a new stadium badly, because The Trop is not only the last completely enclosed facility left in the major leagues, but is sits in south St. Petersburg, far away from a large part of its fan base on the other side of the bay in Tampa. The only chance the Rays have of getting a new stadium is to keep making the playoffs and hoping that it generates enough interest.
Though VP of baseball operations Andrew Friedman has shied away from making deadline deals in the past, it is hard to see the Rays being a post-season contender with its current lineup. Thus, the Rays should take a gamble and trade for Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano, who doesn't do a lot of things well anymore but still hits home runs. If the Rays included just a decent prospect in a trade, the Cubs would be willing to eat almost all of contract.
A few minutes with ESPN analyst Barry Larkin, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame on Sunday
On his induction speech: "I have been reading through it, re-reading through it, and making sure that I acknowledge some of the people that I think have influenced mr and are important in my life. I have acknowledged the reason why I think I've been successful as a player. My success is definitely a product of what has happened in the foundation that was set up for me. My speech will be very reflective of that."
On spending his entire 19-year with the Reds, the team he grew up rooting for in Cincinnati: "Obviously, I was aware of the fact I was from Cincinnati, and that was certainly part of the reason I never had a desire to play anywhere else. My mom and dad came to just about every game. It was very comfortable in Cincinnati. I liked the people of Cincinnati, and I liked the life and opportunity, and my relationship with the fans was great. I just enjoyed everything about it. I remember being a young kid outside playing and doing a Pete Rose slide, throwing my bat around like Tony Perez or doing a Davey Concepcion bounce-throw on the concrete. I remember all of that stuff. It was absolutely a dream."
On nearly being traded to the Dodgers in 1999: "We're out playing in LA, and the clubhouse kid comes over to me and gives me a jersey with 'Larkin' on the back. And it's a Dodgers jersey. I asked 'What is that?' He said, 'It's for you. We're that close to the deal that they told us to make the jersey, because the press conference will take place in a couple of days and they wanted to make sure we were prepared for it.' I still have the jersey. I had no clue that the Reds were even thinking of trading me to the Dodgers."
On his 16-year-old daughter, Cymber, singing the national anthem at the ceremony: "I'll be nervous as heck for her. It might actually help me get through my speech. I'll be so nervous for her that I won't be focusing on being so nervous for myself. I'm really proud of her. She is very talented and has a chance to be very successful in the music business."
Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano: "He's reached the point in his career where you pretty much take him for granted now but, for me, he's the most valuable player in that Yankees' lineup. If something happens to him, they're in deep trouble. They can fill the holes everywhere else, but he's indispensible.
Rays left fielder Desmond Jennings: "He really holds the key to that offense. If they can get him back to being that catalyst who gets on base consistently and makes things happen at the top of the order, then they have a really good chance to make the playoffs."
White Sox left-hander Chris Sale: "I don't say this lightly, but this kid reminds me of Randy Johnson. He's tall with long legs, and it looks like he's releasing the ball right on top of the hitter. He doesn't throw quite as hard as the Big Unit, but he's close, and he's developing a wipeout slider like Johnson had."
Braves right-hander Ben Sheets: "What he did last Sunday against the Mets was remarkable. He had been away from the game for almost two years, and then he shuts them down for six innings. It was amazing. He looked as good as he ever did during his good years in Milwaukee. From everything I was told, his arm had basically turned to mush two years ago with Oakland and there was no way he would ever be able to pitch again. It's almost like a medical miracle."
Rangers designated hitter Mike Young: "I think we're finally seeing the decline phase of his career. His bat speed is starting to slow down, and he's having a hard time catching up with good fastballs."
- It has been absolutely electrifying to watch Angels outfielder Mike Trout and Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen tear their leagues apart over the last two months. The amazing part is McCutchen is just coming into his prime at 25 and Trout is a baby in major-league terms at 20. It will be fun to see how much higher they can go.
- I've never worked in the police field, but it seems pretty risky to me that more than 34,000 fans were allowed to stay inside Comerica Park during Tuesday night's Tigers-Angels game following a bomb threat. I realize bomb threats are false alarms 99.9 percent of the time, but still…
- Reds closer Aroldis Chapman got off pretty lightly with a $150 fine for being clocked at 93 mph while driving with a suspended license. If he would have exceeded his average fastball velocity of 97.7 mph, I wonder if his fine would have been doubled, much like in a construction zone?
- I poke fun at my wife for watching reality shows, but I must admit that I'll watch Pete Rose's reality show when it begins airing on TLC just to see how much of a train wreck it will be.
- The Toronto Sun's Bob Elliott will be receiving the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for excellence in baseball writing during this weekend's Hall of Fame induction weekend at Cooperstown. I couldn't be happier, because no one has covered the Canadian baseball scene or been more supportive of the sport in that nation than the man known to all his friends—a group that I proud to be part of—than the man known as "Boxer."
This week's Must Read is a neat—pun intended—piece by The Globe and Mail's John Allemang on the calligraphy skills of Blue Jays bench coach Don Wakamatsu and the beautiful lineup cards he produces for manager John Farrell.