As teams settle somewhere on the spectrum between buyer and seller ahead of the July 31 Trade Deadline, the National League Central serves as an intriguing case study as to how a collection of bunched-up clubs realistically view their chances. All five teams entered Thursday separated by 7 1/2 games,
As teams settle somewhere on the spectrum between buyer and seller ahead of the July 31 Trade Deadline, the National League Central serves as an intriguing case study as to how a collection of bunched-up clubs realistically view their chances. All five teams entered Thursday separated by 7 1/2 games, which means that each one is seeking ways to improve its club this month.
But to what extent? And how do their strategies differ? Let’s examine those unique dynamics in this week’s division notebook by classifying which type of buyer each is likely to be.
Brewers: Guarded buyer
A couple of weeks ago, the Brewers were much more clearly in the “buyer” corner, but that was before the club finished 9-17 during a 26-game stretch against sub-.500 teams. President of baseball operations David Stearns isn’t going to sell the farm to marginally improve a team he doesn't think can make the playoffs and advance. So, he plans to let the team help dictate his Trade Deadline strategy over the next two weeks, saying, “We would like to be in a position to add to this team. That is our preference.”
Pitching would be the priority for Stearns if he does add, and given the team’s tenuous place in the standings, he probably would lean toward acquiring players with control beyond this year.
Cardinals: Cautious buyer
If the Cardinals planned on defining their Deadline strategy based upon how the club came out of the All-Star break, well, they haven’t gained much clarity. The club is 4-2 to open the second half and continues to hover around the .500 mark. The longer they underachieve, the less likely it is that the front office will go all-in on 2019.
Instead, look for the Cardinals to buy for the long term. Adding a front-line starter would make sense, as would finding a way to boost a lagging offense. President of baseball operations John Mozeliak may also pull a page out of his 2014 playbook, when he sent a message that status quo wouldn’t suffice by shaking up the clubhouse and dealing away popular teammates Allen Craig and Joe Kelly.
Cubs: Intent buyer
The Cubs took care of their most obvious need in June with the signing of free-agent closer Craig Kimbrel, and they added some catching depth this week by acquiring Martin Maldonado from the Royals. But they’re likely not done. Now Chicago’s focus turns to adding an impact lefty who can absorb high-leverage matchups out of the ‘pen.
The club is also examining how to inject some life into its offense. The Cubs continue to evaluate how second baseman Robel Garcia might factor into this, while also considering the possibility of adding a corner outfielder and/or fleet-footed runner. The Cubs could be challenged by payroll limitations, and unless they are blown away by a blockbuster proposal, they’re unlikely to trade away one of their top-tier prospects.
Pirates: Reticent buyer
The Pirates are caught in the middle, and their Deadline strategy may reflect that. FanGraphs gave the Bucs just a 5.7 percent chance of making the playoffs as of Wednesday morning; however, inside the clubhouse, they believe they are just one more hot streak away from vaulting back into the race. It’s hard to see the Pirates rocking the boat either way, and their most prudent course of action may simply be standing pat and banking on healthy returns and second-half steps forward.
If they buy, expect general manager Neal Huntington to seek modest, reasonably priced upgrades for their rotation and bullpen – deals more along the lines of J.A. Happ and Joakim Soria in 2015, not Chris Archer and Keone Kela last year. If they sell, don’t look for Huntington to blow up the roster by moving controllable core players like Felipe Vazquez and Starling Marte.
Reds: Opportunistic buyer
Despite being at the bottom of the division, the Reds -- five games out of a Wild Card -- believe they can still make a run and would like to remain competitive. Furthermore, selling now would send a bad message to the clubhouse and a fanbase that hasn’t seen the team reach the playoffs since 2013. Chief executive officer Bob Castellini rarely waves the white flag.
What the Reds won’t do, however, is buy for the short-term. President of baseball operations Dick Williams and general manager Nick Krall are seeking to add players under club control beyond 2019 so the Reds can benefit beyond this season. The club’s primary needs are adding relief help and boosting the offense.
Jenifer Langosch is a senior content manager at MLB.com. She previously covered the Pirates (2007-11) and Cardinals (2012-19). Follow her on Twitter.